It is an honour to be asked to write about aboriginal Canadians. It is also hard to know where to start. There remain in our country many uninformed, misinformed and not-wanting-to-be informed people. Responses such as, “just get over it” or “immigrants come here and make a living” are typical. In time, I run out of energy to try to reason with those who simply don’t want to know. It’s easier to assume that the people who make these kinds of responses possess unmalleable minds: people who have bought into the mainstream concept that all aboriginal Canadians are drunks, hookers, street people—the no-goods and the dregs of society. Dr Craig Proulx, of Alberta Métis descent and professor at St Thomas University in New Brunswick, recorded the following interview response from an aboriginal person from Toronto: “The drunken Indian is 10 feet tall, but the sober one is invisible.”
Why is it we never notice the professional aboriginal Canadian? Why is it that we never acknowledge the aboriginal doctor, lawyer, nurse or teacher? Why is it that we live in a country that can stay rutted in racist rhetoric and thought and consider that to be OK? It’s always about education and the lack of it expressed by the mainstream population. It’s about our own sense of awareness and how we choose to inform ourselves. It’s about being responsible towards one another and ridding our minds of discriminatory processes. It’s mostly, and in the end, about being open to hearing aboriginal Canadian truth. Aboriginal truth is the one historic component that is lacking in our present-day Canadian lives.
Justice (and now Senator) Murray Sinclair made it very clear when he said less than a year ago that, “Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem. It is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.” In other words, no one gets off the hook. We each carry a responsibility in the partnership of knowing about and understanding one another. We each carry the responsibility of taking into consideration the truth of one another. I believe that we are finally at a place where we have this enormous opportunity to look at one another and get to know each other in a way that is good. I believe that as Canadians, we owe this to one another.
So that is where this column will begin: at the point of reconciliation and what that means. We all have to understand how it is that we arrived here, today in 2016, some with hope, some with anger and many with trepidation. This column will examine the persistent colonial present and past, and how it is we can begin to think about tomorrow—together.
Teaching Indian Residential School
One of the best things about being a doctoral student is the privilege of teaching undergraduates. This past semester I was asked by the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta to deliver the first-time offering of a 300-level course titled Indian Residential School (IRS). For myself, it was a course that required a great deal of preparation and prayer—moreso prayer, to the ancestors to come into the room with us and for this course to honour them. That may sound nuts to some, or even most, but before each class I prayed to the ancestors and the Creator. I prayed especially for my students, most of whom are aboriginal and, like me, had residential school as a member of their family.
On our first day together I asked the students to tell me their names and what their relationship is to residential school. I didn’t know I was going to ask the second part—it just popped out of my mouth. It’s not an easy question to answer on the first day, because the first day centres on reading the course syllabus together, reminding students that a syllabus is a contractual obligation to one another, reviewing the Code of Student Conduct, and especially speaking about plagiarism and how that works. At the end of all the self-introductions made by students and all the information review, an entire class is usually finished—but not on the first day of the inaugural class of Indian Residential School.
This class contained the highest amount of aboriginal undergraduates with which I have ever been in a room. Because of that demographic, their relationship to residential school was very different than most non-aboriginal Canadians. The province of Alberta contained the highest number of residential schools in Canada, totalling 25. Each student spoke about parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles who were attendees of residential schools in and around Edmonton. This group of students represented the intergenerational survivors: the next generation who had not attended residential school themselves, but had the remnants of residential school as present-day kinfolks. It’s like having the rotten cousin who shows up on your doorstep and keeps promising to leave but never does.
For the non-aboriginal students, who I believe are brave for walking into a room in which their ancestors are historically the bad guy, they spoke of wanting to fulfil a curiosity; a few expressed how they already knew about residential school but wanted to learn more. I realize that the topic of residential school is only recently being integrated into the Alberta school curriculum, an initiative put forward as one of the 94 Calls to Action produced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This quest to understand the residential school system better was a brave act made by all the students in that room.
For the next 13 weeks we explored and talked about how the residential school system started, stayed and didn’t stop until 1996. There were some hard days in that room: days with tears, days with anger—the dog days of residential school that show up in the next generation, and into what is expected to be the next seven generations before all that trauma is eliminated from aboriginal bodies, souls and spirits.
Indian Residential School is a course that needs to be taught in a much broader context, with a much broader audience, not solely within a university classroom. It is information that should be taught to and revisited by every educator in Alberta.
I believe the students in our room did, at the end of the day, honour the ancestors: all the ancestors both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, because each and every Canadian has a relationship with Indian Residential School. V
Norma Dunning is an urban Inuk writer and scholar and a third-year doctoral student with Indigenous Peoples Education. Her collection of prose Annie Muktuk and Other Stories is scheduled to release via University of Alberta Press in the fall of 2017.