Dylan Robinson is a Stö:lō scholar and artist based in the First Nations studies program at the University of British Columbia, on unceded Coast Salish territories. His research focuses on Indigenous public arts and performance interventions in Canada, the US, and Australia.
Witnessing Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Attending Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Indian Residential Schools over the past three years there have been many times I have felt moved by the strength and resilience of residential school survivors, experienced a heightened sense of community, and felt empathy for survivors and their families. As a Stó:lõ person, I have often witnessed testimony and listened to the “contributions” by government and church officials presented at the TRC events with the sedimented weight of knowing intergenerational loss. Because of this, I have sometimes witnessed, and listened, with resentment. I have experienced resentment at hearing such remarkably consistent experiences of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. I have resented the TRC forum itself, where survivors are expected to limit their comments to a contained aspect of colonialism: residential school history. I have resented the “contributions” where institutional officials from the Government of Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Catholic Church have abdicated their responsibility. I have resented offers of Settler-ally friendship, that we are all “part of the same great embrace,” and that Canada would be a better place if every Settler had “a First Nations friend.” (Victoria TRC event, “It Matters to Me” session). As Dene scholar Glen Coulthard notes “…resentment is often cast as the inability to come to grips with history. Resentment indicates an inability to let go….” And yet, “Embracing one’s resentment,” as Coulthard contests,
…is not only an entirely defendable position, but actually a sign of our critical consciousness, of our sense of justice and injustice, and of our awareness of, and unwillingness to reconcile ourselves with the structural and symbolic violence that is still very much a part of our lives. Of course we should resent colonialism, as well as those people and institutions who are willfully complicit in its ongoing reproduction.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk5XNjI2Yao, 33:45)
As part of the TRC proceedings, there is a program of artistic presentations by local performers and musicians, both Aboriginal and Settler Canadian. While the majority of artistic and musical contributions taking place at the TRC have not induced such resentment in me as an audience member, one in particular seared me with its offer of friendship and reconciliation.
The first day of the TRC Victoria regional event in April 2012 concluded with a series of performances reflecting diverse cultural traditions of First Nations across Vancouver Island. A local Victoria choir consisting of Settler Canadian singers also performed – the Gettin’ Higher Choir. They concluded their portion of the evening with a performance of Inuit singer Susan Aglukark’s O Siem, the chorus of which is familiar to many Canadians from its regular presence on easy listening stations across Canada since it rose to #1 in the Canadian adult contemporary charts in 1995:
The lyrics of the chorus, just in case you did not catch them are:
“O Siem, we are all family
O Siem, we’re all the same”
After eight hours of listening to testimony from survivors and intergenerational survivors, I listened to the Gettin’ Higher Choir’s contribution toward reconciliation. The concert was intended to lift peoples’ spirits after hours of intense testimony from residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors, and it may have done so for some. Yet to sing this song after a full day of telling and witnessing residential schools’ overwhelming history of inhumanity felt more than inappropriate. The irony in the choir’s offering, sung with the best of intentions is that the history of abuse and cultural oppression in residential schools was anything but “the same” history as that of Settler Canadians. Canadians were not taken from their parents and beaten when they spoke English, were not forced to do manual labor in order to keep their schools running, were not called “dirty Canadian.” Nor is the present reality of Aboriginal communities – the lack of adequate housing, clean drinking water, and educational opportunities – “the same” as for Settler Canadians based in rural, urban areas elsewhere in Canada. Canadians, for the most part, do not feel shame at being Canadian, or learn to hide their cultural history from their children.
One might argue that hearing the choir’s expression of these lyrics as anything other than an expression of our common humanity is to elide their best intentions. But to look at the faces of the Gettin’ Higher Choir, moreover, was also to see belief in their message. A belief in reconciliation’s friendship, in reconciliation’s great embrace. The choir’s performance, both in message and in its non-representational atmosphere of warmth and enthusiasm, demonstrated a belief that to sing such a message was perhaps enough to make it better, a belief as performance studies scholar Jill Dolan puts it “…that beyond this ‘now’ of material oppression and unequal power relations lives a future that might be different, one whose potential we can feel as we’re seared by the promise of a present that gestures toward a better later.” (Dolan, 7) But best intentions are nowhere near enough. What is needed from Settler Canadians now is dialogue, commitment to future actions, or just simply showing up at TRC gatherings to learn about their country’s less than glorious history and role in cultural genocide – to “kill the Indian in the child.”
Speaking to this lack of public engagement during a TRC community hearing in Nova Scotia, Miqmac survivor Isabelle Knockwood has noted the inequity of what is asked of from survivors and what has been asked of from the non-Aboriginal public. As Knockwood sees it, although those who give expressions of reconciliation often offer apology for their institutions’ roles in the residential schools, such statements do not necessarily evidence the complex emotions of the past in a similar way to those survivors re-telling their experiences. Importantly, in her community hearing testimony Knockwood confronted the difference in emotional labour of witnesses and survivors:
“The church members haven’t told us about their experiences. The pedophiles, the clergy of pedophiles haven’t told us their experiences. The abusers, the ones that punished us so severely, they didn’t tell us how they feel when they were punishing us. The government is not telling us how they felt when they put us on Indian reservations and how happy they were to build Indian residential schools in order to kill the Indian in the child. When are they going to tell us how that felt like?”
(http://www.livestream.com/trc_cvr/video?clipId=pla_eadc323b-6d17-4086-8b20-633cd72f8bb0 , Thu Oct 27 2011 10:03:47 AM, 30:01 – 31:15)
Years after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to residential school survivors, a significant proportion of the non-Native Canadian public remains ignorant that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is ongoing and is meant to include them as witnesses. Through such ignorance Settler Canadians continue to abrogate their responsibility to understand this history as their own. After all, as the fallacious argument would have it, since non-Aboriginal Canadians aren’t themselves the perpetrators of past injustices of the state, why should they make any effort to engage in learning about this history, or to support social change in communities affected by intergenerational trauma. Many of Canada’s non-Native Settler public, like those named by Isabelle Knockwood, remain indifferent toward acknowledging the history of colonization upon which their contemporary privilege rests.
Many First Nations participants who attend the TRC are from my own generation – a generation who did not themselves attend residential schools, but whose parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did. Many from this generation have adopted the term “intergenerational survivor” to acknowledge continuing abuse its impact within our families and communities, and as a way to describe the effects the schools had on the loss of cultural traditions and languages. Although I do not use this term for myself, I feel the intergenerational impacts of residential schools keenly. The time has come, however, to re-direct the term “intergenerational” toward Settler publics. There is a large degree to which Settler attendees at TRC events see their participation in the process as limited to a witnessing of survivors’ testimony alone, to making symbolic gestures, or to offering their friendship. Yet these first steps, however important they may be, limit the extent of Settler responsibility necessary in redress. Moreover, such contributions avoid the crucial step of claiming what I call Settler Canadians’ intergenerational responsibility to lend resources (both individual and institutional) to future change.