Earlier this year I had an epiphany. One that others had had long before me, and one for which I wish deeply I had had earlier as well. It took literally my entire life, and it took an international news story, emanating from a town of which I was quite familiar, to rise up and punch me in the gut, to bring my stubborn ignorance and utter denial to their knees. While I’ll forever feel a sense of shame for the time it took to penetrate, I felt a sense of relief that I had finally become part of a growing alliance wishing and willing for a way to undo the wrong that had been done in this country to its First People.
To what do people of privilege, like myself, attribute their ignorance about the plight of victims of racism? I got tired of hearing, “I just didn’t know”, or “how could we know?” over and over through the spring and into the summer of this year. So shaken was I, at the news of the discovery of 215 bodies buried in that field near the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and my complete blindness to the rampant immoral behaviour of my country over the past 150 years, that I immersed myself in literature to begin to catch up. I felt it the very least I could do, and should do.
Upon suggestions from a few people on the subject, I began my journey with “Seven Fallen Feathers” by Tanya Talaga. I tend to consume books more efficiently at this stage of my life, through my ears rather than my eyes, so I had downloaded the book into my Audible player, set off on a rainy morning run in June 2021, and pressed play. The book opens by dramatically presenting the diametrically opposing forces of good and evil between this nation’s very first people, and those who came later.
The author begins her sweeping tragic epic by listing the 7 principles of the Anishinaabe in both their native language and then in their English translation. There is then a recitation of the definition of cultural genocide (Talaga, 2017). I played this sequence over and over, at once marvelling at the sheer innocent beauty and wisdom of those principles, and then recoiling at the ugly brutality defining of the latter. She acknowledges her sources of the 7 principles to the Bakaan nake’ii ngii-izhi-gakinoo’amaagoomin (We Were Taught Differently: The Indian Residential School Experience), an exhibit in the Welland Museum; and then, of the definition of cultural genocide, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
In the prologue that follows, Talaga shares a fable of Indigenous ancestry, in which the giant, Nanabijou, warns the Ojibwe to protect a sacred pact from the white man, or risk losing the natural splendour and beauty of their existence. Eventually the pact is broken, and well,… She stops the story there, before lunging into the intertwined and tragic tales of seven first nations teens who either die, or are lost forever, between 2000 and 2011 in the town of Thunder Bay.
An award winning journalist and reporter, Talaga surgically weaves the stories together against the vast and ugly history of Canada’s residential school program. It was in her book that I first heard of Chanie Wenjack’s story, which years earlier had resonated so deeply with the late Gord Downie, that he began the Downie-Wenjack fund with the latter’s family, to draw attention to the savage legacy of Canada’s racism towards its own First Nations people. The book is riveting and sad, and an appropriate entry point if you’re like me, and feel a need to catch up with what went down in this country in this long, dark period.
My summer of education continued with the following titles:
“They Called Me Number One” by Bev Sellers
“From the Ashes” by Jesse Thistle
“Highway of Tears” by Jessica McDiarmid
“21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act” by Bob Joseph
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is September 30, and for the first time it has been declared a federal statutory holiday. If you’re like me and feel aware of the need to truly acknowledge the past and a genuine desire to properly and purposefully shape a better future, you might be asking, “what should I be doing on this day?” For what it’s worth, my take, and again this comes from someone who has been admittedly late to this conversation, is to start by educating yourself.
There are numerous books on the subject; countless articles and blogs; and artistic works, such as the sad and lovely ode that Downie made for Chanie Wenjack, “The Secret Path”. This, Gord’s legacy project which became his late life calling before his all-to-early death in 2017, is available at www.secretpath.ca (Downie, 2021) or you can hit up www.downiewenjack.ca to begin the education journey as well. I bought one of my orange shirts from the foundation this year.
There will be lots of orange shirts worn this week. Wearing these, and being somewhat educated on the subject is fairly important. While, like the poppies in November, it is noble to display symbols of respect, what’s needed even more than “showing” respect, is “doing” the work. Begin with the education. Become more familiar with what this is really all about. Any of the above resources would be a reasonable jump-off point. Then, your actual “doing” can begin with sifting through the 94 calls to action in the National Truth and Reconciliation document, attached here, and see where YOU can begin to advocate for change.
Let's remind ourselves that the reason September 30 has become a statutory holiday just in 2021 is because of what was exposed earlier in the year, beginning in Kamloops. But after a series of similar heart-breaking discoveries through the summer, there is still so much to do just on the front of locating potentially thousands of children's bodies still unaccounted for. Global News recently ran a story on what appears to be a slowing of the process despite a recent $321 million pledge from the federal government to fund further searches (Gilmore, 2021). You can visually see the work still to be done in Global's real-time map of residential schools here.
There is no greater act of citizenship, than to put one’s fellow human being in front of one’s self. While our indigenous people have finally had their plight thrust in front of our faces these past several months, we cannot rest on the recognition alone. There is still much work to be done. It begins with education, for only when we are informed are we truly able to act with purpose and strategy.
Wishing you a reflective and truth seeking National Truth and Reconciliation Day.
Downie, G. (2021, 09 26). The Secret Path. Retrieved from The Secret Path: www.seccretpath.ca
Gilmore, R. (2021, 09 15). Mapping the missing: Former residential school sites in Canada and the search for unmarked graves. Global News
Talaga, T. (2017). Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City. House of Anansi.