It is a crucial time in Canada’s history. The fractured relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples needs to be repaired. Status quo is not an option. After six years of gathering testimonies from residential school survivors, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada has delivered 94 recommendations for reconciliation.
Where do we start? What will reconciliation look like? And what is the University of Manitoba’s role? We asked five Indigenous alumni, leaders and community members— Phil Fontaine, Murray Sinclair, Marion Meadmore, Deborah Young and Ry Moran—about their relationship to residential schools, reconciliation, and the way forward.
Phil Fontaine: As a young person, I served as band manager for Sagkeeng First Nation. I was elected chief in 1973 when I was 28. The residential school experience was a frequent topic of conversation among friends, family, and those who I dealt with while doing government business on the reserve. So it was clear to me that it was a significant issue. That it was a problem. And that it was clearly the cause of a lot of dysfunction in families.
Deborah Young: My dad was, I wouldn’t say standoffish, but he seemed incapable of showing affection and love. I was 16 when he first told me that he loved me and hugged me for the first time. I love my parents. I know they tried really hard. And I know it wasn’t easy on them. I think the combination of my parents and what they carried, the shame I carried, and the racism I experienced growing up—it all had an impact on how I viewed myself as a young woman. And I was full of hate. I hated everyone, including myself.
Fontaine: I decided that I would challenge the chiefs of Canada at a general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations. And I spoke about the residential school experience as probably the most pressing issue. I was actually chastised for raising the issue. It was deemed inappropriate to talk about it in a public forum. But I knew I had struck a chord, and I knew very clearly that I had to do something about it. I went public to a much larger audience not long after that.
Marion Meadmore: The residential school issue came to light and it’s done good things to explain why our people are the way they are, and that residential school was not something we did, but something we had to survive.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in 2007 out of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement— the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. In 2010, the TRC held its first national event at The Forks in Winnipeg, which began a very large public dialogue about the residential school system and its legacy.
Murray Sinclair: Many people came to the conversation without really thinking about what reconciliation was. They kept focusing on what reconciliation wasn’t. It wasn’t about forgiveness. It wasn’t about sovereignty. It wasn’t about title to the land. It wasn’t about government control. So they came with a bunch of negative perspectives.
Once we came to terms with understanding that reconciliation is establishing a balanced and respectful relationship between two or more sovereign and existing entities, and in a way that allows them to function in a partnership going forward, I think that idea gelled very quickly for us.
But before we could establish that balanced relationship, we had to ensure that Aboriginal people were allowed to develop their own sense of self-respect. Because you can’t have mutual respect without both sides having a state of self-respect, and because the Canadian government side had spent so much time damaging the pride and self-respect of Aboriginal people, we said that’s the initial step to reconciliation.
Young: It’s not about pointing the finger. It’s not about blaming. It’s not about shaming. It’s about having a dialogue. That’s how I think reconciliation happens. We sometimes make things very complicated for ourselves and it doesn’t need to be. And it doesn’t have to be a hard conversation either.
Sinclair: I think the most important thing that people need to come to this conversation with is a sense of patience. We can’t allow ourselves to quit just because we don’t get where we want to be in a short period of time. I don’t think reconciliation will take us as long as 150 years, which is how long the schools were around and causing problems. But I think that reconciliation is going to take us a long time.
Fontaine: We will never be able to achieve true reconciliation until we are able to eradicate poverty in First Nations communities. It affects the entire country—not just those that have lived the experience, but the country.
We’re making a real difference in so many aspects of Canadian life, but we ought to be doing significantly better and we’re not because of poverty, missing and murdered Indigenous women, children in care, over 80,000 new houses needed just to fix the desperate housing situation on reserves. So we need to address those issues so that we can actually be in a position to achieve the kind of success that we deserve. So, there’s much to do.
Ry Moran: Reconciliation means making changes in organizations and governments, but also critically inside each and every single one of us. Because the opposite of reconciliation is racism, prejudice, lack of understanding, lack of empathy, lack of compassion. So as people read those recommendations, they need to ask themselves, what is it that I can do individually?
So if I’m a police officer, if I’m a teacher, if I’m a street sweeper, if I’m an administrator, if I’m a fireman—what is it that I can be doing in my own particular station in life, and what is it that needs to happen in my organization with how we relate to or interact with Indigenous peoples?
Meadmore: Our biggest barrier is lack of imagination. No innovation. Not taking ourselves seriously. How do we spark imagination to get to a place of equality? Our Elders talk about it, you can’t do anything until you have money. That’s why we have created the Creation of Wealth Forum. We are looking at the resources we have to create wealth for ourselves. We just have to do the work. Then we can do things our way instead of depending on the funding of governments, which they control and set the terms and conditions for.
Universities have to teach this to our young people, so they can carry this work forward.
On October 27, 2011, University of Manitoba President and Vice-Chancellor David Barnard made a statement of apology and reconciliation to residential school survivors. In 2013, it was announced that the U of M would be home to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The university renewed its commitment to Indigenous achievement by making it a priority in its five-year strategic plan in 2014, and in the Front and Centre campaign this fall.
Young: I have a deep sense of responsibility to ensure the University of Manitoba looks at the TRC’s recommendations and continues forward with our plan to address them. That involves engagement with faculty, staff, students and alumni. We all have a role to develop curriculum to ensure that our students are graduating with a full understanding of what’s happened in our country. Many of the graduates coming out of our university will at some point be working with either an Indigenous person or working in one of our communities.
Fontaine: Every student who graduates with an undergraduate degree ought to have taken a course, a mandatory course, on Indigenous history—every student. It would make a real difference in the lives of all of us. You have to take a science course to graduate with a bachelor of arts degree, right? Well, it should be mandatory before one graduates from high school, or at an undergraduate level, to have taken a course in Indigenous history.
Sinclair: Universities are bastions of academic and intellectual growth. And so we need to ask those thinkers and those philosophers, those people who study, those people who research, to widen their horizons, so that they’re doing research and increasing the knowledge base of Canadian society about Aboriginal issues. And doing it in a way that is not culturally biased and that is not culturally inappropriate and where culture is not appropriated. So Aboriginal people can still have an intact culture after the exercise is all over, and most Canadians will have a better understanding of what it means when the Aboriginal community talks about things from their perspective.
Moran: Universities have a responsibility to reflect on their own bureaucratic practices and ensure that they are implementing, or at least aware of, any possible barriers that they have to student enrolment, hiring, anything that may be in place by virtue of the fact that they are big western bureaucracies—they’re configured from a very particular model.
Young: It excites me when I see Indigenous students graduating. It doesn’t matter if they’re graduating from kindergarten to grade one, or from post-secondary education. It gives me great joy and hope.
Fontaine: What makes me hopeful is that we’ve become more politically aware. We’re more politically involved. We’re better educated. We’re creating wealth in our communities. Canadians are generally more aware of us—they know that we’re out there and many have accepted the notion that we’re integral to Canada’s future.
Meadmore: I think our people are getting educated. They are starting to become innovative and understand these concepts. We are on our way, there’s no doubt about it. So I’m hopeful there will be reconciliation soon. Maybe 20 years. We’ll start to be able to negotiate what our future will look like. We’ll be contributing.
Moran: I’m made most hopeful by our capacity to learn and to change. That most people believe in fundamental notions of rightness, of justice, of basic human dignity and human rights. Most people don’t want to see other people suffering. Most people don’t want to see injustice perpetuated.
I think a big barrier to that in the past has been the tendency to blame Indigenous people for their state of existence—that there was something the matter with Indigenous people themselves. As people have their eyes opened wide to the horrors of the residential school system and the trauma it has created and the ongoing effect and legacy of those schools, it will appeal to their sense of humanity.
Sinclair: The reaction since the summary report has been released has been enormous. I’ve never seen public reaction to an inquiry report like I’ve seen to our report.
Moran: I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of people engaged in this conversation. People who weren’t engaged before. And thousands upon thousands of people who were engaged brought together in a really meaningful way. The scale and the scope of the conversations that we’re having now aren’t the same as what they were 10 years ago, or before the TRC. The TRC gave people a reason to come together.
Sinclair: The Canadian public is asking itself: how do we change things? How do we make things better? We want to have a good country. We want to have a good society, so how do we do it?
They’re looking for answers and we’ve given them some.