etched in steel(e) Dr. Suzanne M. Steele — editor analyst writer researcher

MonthNovember 2019

don’t panic (on Truth & Reconciliation)

Sometime ago, while I was living overseas for the majority of the past nine years, Canada embarked upon a consultation and conversation with the Indigenous nations. It was/is a huge and mightily ambitious project—to examine the impact of the past four centuries (or so) on the Indigenous peoples during the commencement of this nation of nations, Canada; the residential schools and how they harmed the Indigenous peoples in particular was the focus. A commission was established, thousands and thousands (millions?) of people participated, reports, summaries, and findings were made public.

Here is the commission’s stated goal: “There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.”

Besides the findings of the commission an accessible and beautifully written report was made available. One I highly recommend people read. In particular Vol. 3 on the Métis experience is of interest to us of Michif heritage as it describes the breadth of experiences of Michif peoples, many being quite different experiences than perhaps that of First Nations peoples or Inuit.

Another outcome of this laudable project was its Calls to Action (if you read this you’ll see that these calls are manageable). When I returned from the UK in 2016 I was intrigued and a bit overwhelmed by the ubiquitousness of these ‘calls to action.’ I saw them or heard of them almost everywhere I turned—from schools to churches to colleges and universities, media, sports orgs, and individuals. Almost all had drafted or articulated well-meaning sincere responses and programs to the calls for action. Meetings, visits and new partnerships with the local First Nations, self-examination became a modus vivendi. And that’s great. I began to notice, too, that there was a lot of wearing of hairshirts by some of the more well-meaning individuals. And so too, as the years rolled on and goals set out in 2015/16 failed to be attained, a lot of anger. (And it just occurred to me as I write this, that fuel for some of this might also be attributed to the rise of governance by tweet, the rise of the troll and the echo chamber etc. etc.)

Last night I spoke at a gathering at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre, an event hosted by Métis Night (a modest weekly gathering of Michifs far from home in the centre of the continent) and as part of the Heart of the City Festival. I was there with my co-collaborator, Neil Weisensel, soprano Leah Alfred of the Namgis, Kwagiulth Nation, the maestra of Michif dance Yvonne Chartrand, and Ella & the Other Fella (fiddler E. Speckeen and guitarist J. Hilberry) and the organisers of the festival, hosted by the stalwart Pat, who keeps the Michif peoples gathering. I spoke of the new major work I’m writing, a musical drama on Louis Riel that premieres in 2020 and introduced Leah and Neil who performed the ‘Mending of Violence’ aria, one I wrote the lyrics to and which we had translated into Saulteaux. Later we danced to Michif fiddle tunes and a fine time was had by all. But I also spoke of our project as a Truth & Reconciliation piece, one that has brought much joy and many challenges, and how my goal is to see our languages and narratives back where they belong, central to the cultures of the central continent.

Later in the evening, a well-known personage of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation took me aside and told me that my words had had an effect on him, and we arranged to meet to talk later about what I had to say. Last week too, I had the chance to speak to a primarily non-Indigenous university faculty on the TRC Calls to Action. They wanted to know what concrete things I could envision for their department. I do not doubt their sincerity, not one little bit, they are thinking, sensitive people who genuinely want to see change. Just as I do not doubt the sincerity of all the churches, arts org., educational institutes etc. who want to do the right thing. But I made some observations to them, as well as to the person from the Nlaka’pamux First Nation when he told me that ‘our youth are angry that nothing is happening’ that seemed to make sense.

We live in a reactive age. One engendered by spontaneous and somewhat anonymous communication. We live in a culture where we can cancel each other or ghost each other with no social penalty. We live in a culture that seems to have developed a Pavlovian response to likes and a whole host of icons that symbolise emotional responses. And these are responses we do not really have to be responsible for despite the harm they can bring others, and even ourselves. Given our digital responsive-ability we have also turned to wanting to solve problems immediately and this is what I see in all the ambitions and disappointments of the promises made in response to the TRC.

So my thoughts on the subject that I communicated to the Nlaka’pamux person and the university faculty are as follows:

We didn’t get here overnight folks, it took 400 years (at least) of cultural exposure/clash to get us to this place and we can’t resolve much, if anything, in four years, never mind 40. This is a generations-long project. But we’ve begun it and that counts for a lot. The starting place, I sincerely believe, is startlingly simple: to still ourselves, really still ourselves, and to develop our listening skills in preparation for speaking or responding.

To still ourselves. To listen. Prepares us to hear. This is the stuff of calm maturity, of peaceableness. Because we cannot hear anyone’s truths if we’re in high-response mode, nor can we make relationship (other than an enemy binary of them/us). Nor can others hear us if we are in response mode as we won’t be able to speak with eloquence or heart.

Yep, basic stuff. Don’t panic. And I sincerely hope, don’t give up. We can do this.