Dylan Robinson – embracing resentment and reconciliation

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zZHlA4hPGQ

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.

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NOT LOST

By Ali Murphy-Oates.

A few years ago, I drove with my Dad to Dubbo in central-western New South Wales for a corroboree and to visit the graveyard where we thought my grandmother, his mother, had been buried. My grandmother had passed away when my dad was two years old, and he and his brother were sent to be raised by their whitefella paternal grandparents in Cronulla, South Sydney. It wasn’t until recently that I even thought or realised that we might not know where my grandmother was buried, because everyone gets a grave, right? My maternal grandmother and grandfather are right next to each each other, I almost tripped over them when we said goodbye to our great-uncle last year. But hers is unmarked, possibly shared with others, and relegated to the section of Dubbo cemetery where the poor, the unwanted, and the Aboriginal people were buried. A bare grassed strip of land with a plaque on a wall standing guard in the centre – all the names that could be remembered or found again. I don’t think she’s there.

I’ve been in London 6 days, and have 3 days until I fly home again. In this time our group has seen and done some incredible, heartbreaking, confronting, humbling and uplifting things. On our first day we found street art on Brick Lane that addressed both the colonisation of Australia and the current hysteria over our (lack of) refugee intake. We wept over a shield at the British Museum, a moment of first contact, first conflict, frozen behind glass and forgotten. Placed in a hall with thousands upon thousands of collected memories from other colonised countries and presided over by a bust of Joseph Banks. Thousands more from that time, that place, stored away from public eye. We poured over the notebooks of William Dawes at the University of London, recordings of words written in Sydney language, conversations half written that we can almost hear. Missionary reports on the devastation and extinction of the Aboriginal people, printed proper with an addendum of desperation scrawled over the top. Lake Macquarie people, so close to my home. We performed a smoking ritual for the guests of the opening night of the Origins Festival, and I sung my guts out in Darkinjung language. They are some of the only words I know from the country I was born on. And finally realising, through conversations in the museum, at the university and with people on the tube, how distant and disconnected the history and the current state of our people is to the life of the everyday person in the UK. They literally hold our history, and they don’t even know it.

My relationship to my culture has sometimes felt like my relationship to these objects. Locked away, but on display. Other people tell me what it is. Sometimes there’s a fire in my belly, but more often it’s a gentle stirring. A yearning for more. It’s right there, I know, but somehow just out of reach.

Yesterday in the In The Balance: Indigeneity, Performance, Globalisation conference we found ourselves in a debate over the ‘loss’ of language and culture. The implication (accidentally made) of loss upset some of my colleagues, quite rightly. Others proposed the term should be an ‘erasure’ of language and culture, which I agreed with. But the words that have stuck with me since then came from Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham, someone whom I was absolutely star struck by and could not believe I was in the same room as. She asserted (and I paraphrase) that our culture is not lost, not erased. It is still there. It’s with our old people. It’s in the land. In our songs and our rock carvings. We just have to listen and look. We just need to reconnect.

Back at the cemetery, after wandering around for while and indulging in a morbid fascination of the ageing tombstones, I eventually found my dad under the largest tree in the row that borders the strip of grass. He’s lying down and looking up through the leaves.
He’s peaceful.
He’s found her.
He’s talking to her.
I lay down next to him and looked up myself. And I knew. She wasn’t lost. She was always here. We just needed to listen and look. To reconnect.