Last week I had the fortune of attending a workshop at the Banff Center to work with members of my community on the Truth and Reconciliation 94 Calls to Action. The workshop was held at the Banff Center, so of course it was a day filled with beautiful and inspiring views, mountain fresh air, and feelings of possibility. I was there to learn specifically how the Arts, Culture, and Heritage sector can undertake action towards reconciliation.
The premise for the Summit is that Truth and Reconciliation is a process that demands the attention and efforts of all Canada’s citizens. Regardless of our heritage, we are all Treaty people; some of us got land, others got promises. What the TRC uncovered (like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People years before it) is that many of those promises went unfulfilled. The Residential Schools in Canada were a compulsory education program for Indigenous children, and the TRC has found that despite arguments that it was an effort done in the best interests of Indigenous people, the Schools have had a profound and enduring traumatic impact on Indigenous families.
If you haven’t had an opportunity to learn about the Schools, there are many resources that can inform, many of which are authored by Indigenous folks themselves (I’ll include some links at the end of this post). Learning about the Schools is a much more complex process than this blog could hope to present, but in case you haven’t heard much about them I’ll just offer this short crash course:
Children were forcibly removed (under threat or jail, starvation, or damnation for their families), and taken far away (in some cases hundreds of kilometres), to schools where they were separated from their siblings, barred from communicating in the only language they knew, and taught that everything they had learned about the world from their families was wrong, bad, and illegitimate.
The teachers and administrators denied the children everything we now know is essential for healthy human development.
This process was more than enough to destroy these children.
But on top of this, there was often physical & sexual abuse.
Generations of families were forced through this grinding system, and as a result, the traditional knowledge of how to love, teach, feed, provide, and nurture was all but lost. Instead, children were taught malnutrition, abuse, and hatred for their families. It was a poor replacement to the lessons that they would have learned at home, and the results of this process continue to devastate Indigenous communities today.
But… according to the Canadian Government, we are in a new era. This era is called reconciliation. It is characterized by the forging of new relationships between the Government and different nations, and the acknowledgment of and restitution for past wrongs. This is a process that will impact Canada at its very core, it asks who we are as a nation of people, and who we want to be.
The Summit was in some ways very productive. The morning was spent listening to some history of the TRC and learning about the people who have been driving it and working towards the Action Items in their lives. In the afternoon we broke into groups and started working towards industry specific ideas to achieve the TRC goals. It was wonderful to be in a room filled with people eager and committed to change. It was inspiring to listen to the leaders who worked so hard to bring about change so far. And it was fantastic to spend the afternoon actually working with people in my sector.
On the other hand, it was also taxing. After the sessions I spoke with some Indigenous folks who were feeling frustrated that more progress had not been made. Some participants were learning about Residential Schools for the first time. Others hadn’t really thought about the systemic impacts the schools had, and were only beginning to see the challenges ahead. Those who had been living with the consequences of the schools or working to alleviate them were disappointed, in some ways, at how far we all have yet to come.
Personally I felt conflicted. As a scholar of indigenous representation, I’ve thought a lot about the subversive aspects of these types of events. In the museum and heritage world the word we use for that is coloniality. Basically this refers to the idea that colonial systems, regardless of if they are still formally in place, have longstanding impacts on the ways that people can know, and the ways that truth and value are produced in society. Museums are producers and authenticators of knowledge, so we have an important stake in thinking about these processes. Paul Nadasty explored this subject in his research on the Yukon and knowledge production, and his books illustrate the complex reality of the Canadian endeavors in the reconciliation era. He asks us to question our actions in light of assimilation…
So although we were all gathered at the Banff Center for a conference on Indigenous Reconciliation and meeting the Calls to Action in the TRC, there are problematic implications in the Banff Center as a meeting space, the mechanism of conferences, an “era” defined by a federal government, and the process of the TRC itself. Understanding coloniality means that we think about the product as well as the process, and about the underlying mechanisms that are culturally determined in everything that we do. To what degree do these actions we take contribute to modern assimilation? Are there other ways of doing, knowing, and acting in this technological world? If Indigenous people drove the process what would it look like? How have Indigenous worldviews been altered by western thought and action, and to what extent (if any) does this impact value? How can we make other ways possible?
These are questions that I grapple with often, especially in the museum… when I work with your youth I think about the narratives that I am strengthening, how these are culturally biased, and how to help them to think in other ways. That’s a big part of the value of the Museum School. We encourage different ways of seeing and knowing. A single object can be understood in terms of its color, its value, its surface, its materials, its intent, its impact on the personal experience… each way of seeing and knowing art can lead to different yet equally relevant understandings of the overall piece…
Our cultural differences give us perspective, and through sharing perspective we gain a more rich and full understanding of the world.
Sources for understanding Residential Schools:
A website designed to accompany Iroquois curator Jeff Thomas’ exhibition, Where Are The Children?
Hi-Ho Mistahey! A documentary film about current issues in Indigenous Education by noted Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin
Rhymes for Young Ghouls, a debut fictional film by Jeff Barnaby who was born in Listuguj, Québec.
A short film by Gord & Mike Downie, and Jeff Lemire called A Secret Path
A review of an exhibition (that will lead you to some incredible work) entitled Witnesses: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools that was at Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver
The TRC website
The Canadian Government’s website on Residential Schools