By Miriam Sainnawap
“Residential schools for Aboriginal people in Canada date back to the 1870s. Over 130 residential schools were located across the country, and the last school closed in 1996. These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children.
“During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents’ wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools. The Commission will document the truth of what happened by relying on records held by those who operated and funded the schools, testimony from officials of the institutions that operated the schools, and experiences reported by survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience and its subsequent impacts.
“The Commission hopes to guide and inspire First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples and Canadians in a process of truth and healing leading toward reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect.
“The Commission views reconciliation as an ongoing individual and collective process that will require participation from all those affected by the residential school experience. This includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis former students, their families, communities, religious groups, former Indian Residential School employees, government, and the people of Canada.” Courtesy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
Honestly, when I was a participant at SOP in 2012, the word of reconciliation wasn’t in my vocabulary. I lived my life to this day, thinking how I can show kindness, respect and love to others.
In my experience at SOP, I learned the value of acceptance of the other person’s values, beliefs and worship, thinking how easy for me to have judged and reject people, because they are different from me. It gave me a gift of understanding with an open heart and and open mind.
In early March I was invited to an event called National Reconciliation Gathering in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada hosted by Reconciliation Canada. The organization is travelling across Canada, and bringing reconciliation to the forefront of Canadian consciousness. I wasn’t sure what to expect and how the day would unfold, when I arrived were friendly smiles greeting me, they assured me and handed me package of information. I needed to follow directions where to sat, at table #15 as shown on my name tag. I looked around the room saw familiar faces.
The gathering started with an local elder blessing the day and giving thanks to offer words of encouragement. Many people were present from different sectors of society, ranging from politicians, educators, pastors, students and business people. Speakers from a multicultural survivors panel shared their experiences and perspectives of history on genocide, oppression and how survival turned into hope and freedom.
The emcees for the day were Waneek Horn-Miller, a Mohawk, a former Olympian and a motivational speaker and Jessica Bolduc, an Anishinaabe, who is the founder of 4Rs Youth Movement.
Indigenous peoples and all Canadians are experiencing an awakening in Canadian history. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) completed and documented their historic work to create an account of government-funded, church-led Indian Residential Schools (IRS). These schools date back to the 1870s driven by a policy of forced assimilation “to kill the Indian in the child.” Many call the residential school system a ‘cultural genocide’ of Indigenous peoples. The commission released 94 calls to action urging Indigenous peoples and all Canadians to recognize the importance of building relationships based on respect, recognition and reciprocity. Their message is clear in the words of Justice Murray Sinclair, one of the commissioners on the TRC: “Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem, it is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.”
The topic of reconciliation in Canada is a national wide call to action. Reconciliation Canada is an Indigenous led movement based the following three concepts as foundational to reconciliation: Optimum potential, shared prosperity, and social and systematic change.
These concepts are essential to promoting reconciliation and strengthening relationships and creating healthy communities among Indigenous peoples and all Canadians. They are important in building on a foundation of openness, respect, understanding and hope.
During our gathering, participants were seated at small tables — an important component of the gathering. We were given specific instructions to first introduce each other, process and answer the following questions: what is my name/traditional name, where is my ancestral homeland and what is my cultural identity? One person would share from their heart and the rest of us would listen to understand our diverse histories and experiences. Next, we were paired up with a partner and we took turns asking specific questions on reconciliation: What does reconciliation mean to me? Why is reconciliation meaningful to me? Lastly, as a group, we shared our thoughts, perceptions and challenges on reconciliation, where one person in the group wrote them down on a sheet of paper. This exercise was to motivate us and encourage us, to develop a plan of action in reconciliation and make a commitment to reconciliation. There were no right or wrong answers to these questions.
The day ended in a closing prayer and I was gifted a medicine pouch to remind me of my journey of reconciliation. My words are: reconciliation is a process. Reconciliation is a journey. Reconciliation is recognition, respect and reciprocity. Reconciliation is messy. Reconciliation should become part of you and your life.
Miriam Sainnawap is a Cree-Ojibway woman from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and is a School of Peace 2012 alumna.