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The spark to light a fire: U of M entrusted to house TRC National Research Centre

July 18, 2013 — 

The historic document-signing ceremonies which took place on June 21 sealed the university’s position as the new research centre of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). The event was the culmination in long process of preparation that can be traced back to the U of M’s statement of apology to the TRC by President Barnard on behalf of the university. The spark represented by that apology had already been fanned by much of what came earlier at U of M—years of building and investing in Aboriginal scholarship, capacity and access to education and training, and a renewed commitment to Aboriginal scholarship and education through the U of M’s Strategic Planning Framework.

The U of M Statement of Apology and Reconciliation, given in October 2011, was in fact one step in the university’s commitment to Aboriginal scholarship and education, as outlined in its Strategic Planning Framework. Pillar three of four states that the university’s goal is “Advancing Aboriginal education by providing students with the tools they need to be successful and reinforcing the University of Manitoba’s role as a national centre for Aboriginal scholarship.”

From spark to flame: It takes everyone to build a fire

It didn’t come easy. The fire that burned throughout the document-signing ceremonies didn’t want to light at first, said Niigon Sinclair in an address at the morning pipe and water ceremonies that started the day.

Sinclair, who is a lecturer in the Native studies department at the U of M, was there as one of the younger representatives of the Aboriginal community. The fire was meant to invoke the grandfather spirit to oversee and bless the proceedings, he said. “We started the song to accompany the lighting of the fire, but the spark could not come.

“The brother that was lighting the fire was joined first by me and then by another brother,” he continued, “and still it could not come. The song was almost over. At the very last moment, the tiny spark took, as the three of us fanned the grass and tinder.”

For Sinclair, the difficulty of the task was a sign from the spirit not only of how much work the TRC and reconciliation will take, but also that it will take everyone working together. “It will take all of us. We cannot give up, and we cannot give up on each other,” he said.

Much work has already taken place in preparation as U of M becomes the permanent host of a National Research Centre (NRC) which will house the statements, documents and other materials gathered by the commission during its five-year mandate.

Those historic documents, which U of M representatives, TRC officials, residential school survivors, media and staff, faculty and students of the university had gathered to see signed, were referred to several times throughout the day as “trust documents.”

“Before, when we shared information about ourselves,” said Carl Stone, who works at the Aboriginal Student Centre housed in Migizii Agamik, or Bald Eagle Lodge, where the sacred pipe and water ceremonies took place, “it was used against us. Now it will give life for all people.”

Elder Wally Swain, who also spoke at the ceremonies that preceded the document signing, told the gathered crowd that the ceremony signified the living nature of the TRC/NRC process. “This is a continuation of the ceremony that began this process,” he said. “It is a alive and follow-through must happen, in order for this these lives—the sacred beings who went to residential schools, some never to return—to be honoured, to be held sacred. For these documents to have their own sacred place.”

-Mariianne Mays Wiebe


‘A sacred trust’: The signing of the documents

The materials to be collected and housed in the NRC are a “sacred trust,” said Justice Murray Sinclair in his address during the event. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has chosen the University of Manitoba to become the permanent host of a National Research Centre to house the statements, documents and other materials gathered by the Commission during its five-year mandate.

“Knowing that the TRC’s mandate ends one year from now, we knew we needed something ongoing,” TRC Chair Justice Murray Sinclair told the roughly 300 people gathered to witness the historic moment.

“Part of that obligation is being assumed here at the U of M. It began with the President’s apology in October 2011, an academic institution taking responsibility for their part in the education [and assimilation process],” he said. “That was a factor that showed us that there was a very strong commitment here to truth and reconciliation, and the proposal by the U of M stood head and shoulders above the other proposals because it was also national in its scope.”

The announcement was just made at a Signing Ceremony at the University of Manitoba, Manitoba’s only research-intensive post-secondary institute. The U of M is committed to Indigenous Achievement and to making Manitoba a Centre of Excellence for Indigenous education and research.

Justice Sinclair told Survivors, dignitaries and community representatives that the National Research Centre “has the potential to carry on the work and spirit of Truth and Reconciliation long after the Commission closes its doors in June of 2014.”

Speaking on behalf of his fellow Commissioners, Chief Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson, he added that the proposal of the University of Manitoba and its partners to host the research centre “demonstrated a strong commitment to Aboriginal peoples and governance, the highest standard of digital preservation, long-term public access and the protection of privacy. Its current and pending partnerships for this project ensure that the records of the Commission will be accessible across Canada.”

David Barnard, President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Manitoba, said: “The heartbreaking impact of the Indian Residential School system on First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples and cultures represents one of the most tragic human rights failures in Canadian history. The University of Manitoba is deeply committed to human rights research and promotion. It takes seriously its responsibility to ensure that the oral and written history collected by the TRC is respectfully preserved, helps contribute to the healing of our society, and is accessible for use in teaching and research so the grave mistakes of the past are not repeated.”

-Sean Moore

Conversation about the National Research Centre to be housed at U of M

Deborah Young, co-chair of the second phase of the NRC initiative, and executive lead, Indigenous achievement and Laara Fitznor, co-chair of the proposal committee, and a professor in the Faculty of Education, spoke with The Bulletin’s editor, Mariianne Mays Wiebe, about the U of M housing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) National Research Centre (NRC).

They were asked about the proposal writing process by the bid committee, the implications of winning the bid for the U of M going forward, and their personal reactions to the document-signing event.

Laara Fitznor: It’s not really a wrap-up; it’s one step of the many part of the journey, that [all of this] has come together.

The Bid Committee … had several meetings over a couple of years, working meetings to see what sections people might pool up, offer up, based on their expertise and research and desire. We had some good writers from Karen Busby’s area [Faculty of Law’s Centre for Human Rights Research]. There was a lot of checking back and forth; there were always points of clarification that were needed, about the bid committee and what our hopes and desires were, without losing sight of what the TRC wanted, and the good sensibilities of survivors and archivists … when you think about all those pieces … I would say that there was a lot of thoughtful, deep discussion, a lot of dialogue. I don’t like calling them debates. A lot of dialogue and a lot of recognition that we needed to work with a deep ethics, of why we’re doing what we’re doing. People were very caring. The final stages were kind of exciting too, pulling things together and seeing something begin to take shape—our hopes and desires and desires for it to be accepted by the TRC.

The Bulletin: Deborah, do you have anything to add, about what the process was like, or what your role was?

Deborah Young: Well, I’ve been here for two years, and I came in to the committee probably six months into it, and as you can tell from what Laara shared, the work of the committee was already well advanced. They were working over the span of four years, these ideas were being cultivated and formulated. The committee became formalized two years ago.

Fitznor: Even more than two years ago, because it has been a year since the submission, and the committee worked in collaboration two years before that, so it’s going on four years. And the thing is with this [proposal], it gets formalized within an institution but that doesn’t mean that we weren’t doing work on our respective teaching and connection with community service and research into residential schools.

The Bulletin: Can you say more about that? About it now being housed in a large educational institution? I’m sure that there are some mixed feelings about that as well.

Fitznor: Sure, there would be. If you talk to survivors at the ground level, they may make critical remarks, and it’s hard not to agree with them. Our faculty had a retreat once at one of the convents, Villa Maria. I’ve never been at residential school but I walked into the meeting and my body went weird, I think because I’ve heard so many stories from friends and family, and the way they would describe it, like floors that were spic and span shiny, like there’s no lived in feeling — and the way my body experienced it, my being there. I had shared it with a couple of my colleagues, that it struck me that this would have an effect on survivors. And if you want to be a feeling person, you have some compassion and commitment to the depth of how people can get hurt and whatever the oppression is, this has an impact.

So getting back to your question, I think, yes, that would be their angst about it. We have to find ways to make changes at all levels, multiple sites, multiple perspectives, multiple disciplines. It can’t be just in one place, and that’s one of the things we had talked about: to ensure that we have a number of organizations and groups involved.

The Bulletin: That’s something that really impressed me about that document [the proposal] — how many organizations and partnerships are already lined up there.

Fitznor: We had lots and lots of discussion about that, and the importance of that.

Bulletin: So there’s less of a sense of it being housed someplace or, of course, in any sense, being “owned” by an institution, and more of a sense of it, first of all, being a “stewardship,” I think was the word used, and just being a shared resource and responsibility. Deborah, do you have anything to say about that part of it?

Young: For me, it’s been a very interesting professional and personal journey. It was pretty much a wrap by the time I came in, and I felt very privileged to be part of the bid. And I see that Laara has some of the apology statement copies tucked in right there [on the shelf].

Fitznor: Oh yes, those are for my students. I have to remember to give them away tomorrow.

Young: This is part of our, the university’s journey towards reconciliation, but also …

Fitznor: Also making it a public declaration. If I can just add, the things that have been important for me, is seeing the public statements that have been made. Whether it was the United Nations making the declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples, I get my students to read those, because they go in-depth. If you want to do something with programming, just read that! What rights are and about reclaiming the language and recognition of levels of oppression. So for us for David [Barnard] to be making a public statement like this, that’s, in many ways, taking a big risk. People may not be on the same page as he is about it, or they prefer to keep it quiet, or keep it under wraps, or deal with it but not in such a public arena. I think it’s been good.

The Bulletin: Yes, it’s been an education for me too, since I’ve started working here, almost four years ago, and since that time I’ve attended many different events. One that was very memorable was the one that Joanie Halas was involved with —

Young: National Aboriginal Day; “Frontrunners.” [In 1967, ten Indigenous young men were chosen to carry the torch from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Winnipeg for the Pan American Games. When the runners arrived at the stadium, they were not allowed to enter. Instead, a non-Aboriginal runner was given the honour of carrying the torch inside. Thirty-two years later, the province of Manitoba issued an official apology to the runners, nine of whom were students at residential school. Niigaanibatowaad: FrontRunners explores this story, and the despair and abuse suffered in the residential school system. It is a story of survival, hope, reconciliation, and a dream for a new beginning that transcends hatred and racism.]

The Bulletin: Yes, that’s right. That was such a memorable event, just how she incorporated this content into the classroom experience and allowing her students to be part of that and take on that responsibility of how are we now, going forward as teachers, how are we going to include this as part of the classroom experience for our students? That was really meaningful to me. And I think you’re right, having it be a public declaration is important – what struck me at that event, were the number of survivors who mentioned having to deal with this on an individual level, by themselves, and even the difficulty of owning that experience — of being a residential school survivor or the intergenerational effects — publicly.

Fitznor: And trying to convince others that it’s real … As a professor in education, I need this kind of thinking to help students move forward, not just me…. So it becomes a shared responsibility and a shared desire. Because it may be a responsibility but people may not desire to do it, so there’s resistance.

One of the things that we’ve talked about is having allies, so that it’s not just Aboriginal people working alone, so that we’re gaining and working with allies, alongside. You would hope that people have the same shared value of community and non-oppression. There are so many things with the Canadian Charter—if you look at that and see what happened in history — that can’t continue to happen.

Young: The residential school experience, although it deeply impacted our communities, it’s a Canadian experience. It’s a Canadian experience that impacts all of us, not just our First Nations people. It’s a non-Aboriginal issue as well. It impacts everyone — and our history, interpretation of history. It impacts how we act as individuals, as a family and how we act as a community member. It all has implications, right across the spectrum.

The Bulletin: Deborah, what do you see as the wider implications for this being housed here? Reading some of the vision statements in the proposal, and how it envisions people coming here [to the university] not only to do the kind of scholarly work here, but also doing personal research.

Young: Absolutely. And I view it not as implications, but as opportunities. “Implications” is a very …

Fitznor: Oppressive

Young: Yes, an oppressive word. So I tend to view it as opportunities that are coming towards our university, and are indelible not just to our survivors and Aboriginal community but the larger population as well. The importance of the National Research Centre — and I suspect that it will be renamed, that we’ll go through a naming ceremony. For me on a personal level—I’m all for research, but this is a collection of the stories of my people, of our people and they need to be treated with respect, with integrity, and I view each of the stories as containing the spirit or the soul of the person who is choosing to share those stories with us.

And it’s either through those oral testaments, the personal statements that the TRC has been gathering over the last five years, or the stories that we are finding in the archives—the government archives, the church archives, archives that are existing within our communities, and the personal, oral stories that some of our survivors are carrying with them and are yet to be shared. So, for me, yes, it is research, but it is so much more than that. We’re talking about a living institute, a living, alive institute that’s holding sacred teachings. And that’s how I tend to view the national research centre. It’s something that’s very personal for me.

You have the bid; the bid is now done and now we are moving into the next phase, the development of the centre itself. The beginning part of that phase was June 21, the signing ceremony.

The Bulletin: Yes, thanks, both of you, for making that clarification. It’s one part in a much bigger process. I see a lot of good will coming from the administration that’s in place now — not that I think it wasn’t there before, though I know less about the administration that was here before I started this position—but to what extent is that key? Or what role does that play in all of this, do you think?

Fitznor: [Laughs.] That’s the biggest key you could ever find. In all my years of teaching and looking at what needs to happen, if you don’t get that support—that’s the teeth to make it happen. If you don’t have the policy support, the policies and the declarations, and making it unapologetic: these are the issues and we shouldn’t have to apologize that we “have” to talk about this. I’ve been here since 1982, off and on, except for a five-year span when I went to teach at the University of Toronto, so I’ve seen a lot of starts. Different administration will have different ideas of what will or should happen, but with this administration, its goals and Strategic Planning Framework that articulates goals in it, it makes it a lot more “real.” I was going to say “easier,” but that’s not necessarily true, but it makes it more real.

Even for a faculty to be talking about it, it’s more real when the goal is embedded within the institution. So in a sense, it’s not just an initiative led by a faculty member and when that person leaves, so does that really neat project. Once it’s instituted, it becomes part of the culture of the institution, and it makes it easier to ensure that these things will continue.

These articles first appeared in the July 18, 2013 special edition of The Bulletin, entitled ‘Truth, Reconciliation and the Path Forward.’

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