Intersections

October 29, 2012

Q. How do three recent news stories about alcoholism, a housing crisis and a recent canonization intersect?

A. Through the discourse of reconciliation

When I started to become interested in the reconciliation process in Canada, I set up google alerts  with the tag words “Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and “Indian Residential School.” I generally receive a few alerts a week about the commission and the IRS system. Often, they are articles that mention a TRC event taking place somewhere, or the announcement of an upcoming talk or event. Sometimes, it is an article about new curriculum, an approaching deadline, or about reconciliation processes happening elsewhere around the world. For the most part, I use the alerts to try to understand the IRS TRC’s media presence and how influential the discourse of reconciliation is (or isn’t) becoming.

This week, I got three alerts, and together I thought they represented an interesting intersection of issues:

Commisioner LIttlechild in Rome for the canonization of the first Aboriginal saint. Photo: Wab Kinew in the Winnipeg Free Press.

1. A story about the first Aboriginal canonization. The title of the article is “It’s the same great sprit.” The subheading is “Canonization of Kateri is a big step toward true reconciliation, but the embrace could go further.”

2. An article about the one year anniversary of Attawapiskat’s declaration of a state of emergency (and the release of Alanis Obamsawin’s documentary about it).

3.  A news release about Romeo Saganash’s public struggle with alcoholism. Saganash noted his experience in the Indian Residential School system as one of the factors that lead to a recent incident on an Air Canada flight.

The three articles landed in my email inbox within days of each other and cover a broad range of issues that touch upon the process of reconciliation: negotiating religious relationships, lack of funding and support for indigenous communities, and the after-effects of the IRS system in the form of alcohol abuse.  In each case, the Indian Residential School system is raised in a different context, drawing attention to the many ways it touches indigenous (and non-indigenous) individuals and communities.

The article, written by Wab Kinew, about Kateri’s canonization is the one I find most intriguing. Here’s an excerpt, but I definitely recommend giving the full piece a read:

The canonization ceremony (Kateri is one of seven new saints) capped off a series of celebrations that brought indigenous North Americans into the Catholic Church perhaps more completely than ever before. The rite itself featured a prayer in the Mohawk language. The night before, at a special vigil for Saint Kateri, the cardinals, bishops and worshippers present smudged with sage and sweetgrass — this in the San Giovanni In Laterano Basilica, the “mother of all churches.”

Yet even as indigenous North Americans are celebrated by the church, there are signs the embrace could go further. During his remarks, the Pope noted that although Saint Kateri “worked, faithful to the traditions of her people,” she “renounc[ed] their religious convictions.”

The church views indigenous cultures as merely a host for the Catholic religion. This approach is called “acculturation” by Catholic missionaries. As one priest explains in the new film In Her Footsteps: The Story of Kateri Tekakwitha, acculturation is the process where the local culture becomes like a “prism” through which the “truth” of the gospel is revealed.

Talking to many of the indigenous people at the canonization ceremony, many of them residential school survivors, I don’t think this is what they have in mind. They speak of embracing Catholicism, but also of practising their traditional spirituality. It is precisely this pluralistic approach that made the inclusion of smudging and indigenous language so important to them. It is that same reason that motivated so many of them to wear their traditional clothing to Vatican City.

As Chief Littlechild says: “We can have both spiritual beliefs, although it’s the same great spirit and the same Creator.”

There was much talk from church officials this week about how Kateri’s sainthood opens the doors for new forms of evangelism. Pope Benedict himself called for a “renewal of faith in the First Nations.” This misses an opportunity.

The truth about reconciliation is this: It is not a second chance at assimilation. It should not be a kinder, gentler evangelism, free from the horrors of the residential school era. Rather, true reconciliation is a second chance at building a mutually respectful relationship.

I heart ImagiNATIVE

October 19, 2012

Last night, I attended the opening night screening at ImagiNATIVE, the indigenous film and new media festival in Toronto. In short, it was awesome. Alanis Obomsawin’s first film, Christmas in Moose Factory (1971) and her most recent film, The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012) were screened. I feel I could write a lot about these two films, about how well they communicate so many things that are often so hard to express, about family life, about challenges and resilience, about colonialism and injustice, but also about optimism and hope. But, these days, most of my writing is targeted toward the dissertation, so instead, I will simply say that they are two wonderful films that I hope people get to see. To read a review, check out Lisa Charleyboy for the CBC.

The festival has also integrated artwork into Toronto’s urban landscape. While waiting for the subway after the film, I saw that the public transit’s screens were showing artwork dedicated to raising awareness about and paying respect to the many indigenous women who are missing or have been murdered and whose cases remain unsolved. The art project is called the Stolen Sisters Initiative.

“Your Courage Will Not Go Unnoticed” by Angela Sterritt

ImagiNATIVE is on until Sunday.  Check it out!

More information on the Stolen Sisters Initiative from the artintransit website:

National Exhibition by Indigenous Artists brings Indigenous Women’s Rights to the Forefront

Pattison Onestop, imagineNATIVE and Amnesty International Canada co-present Stolen Sisters Digital Initiative (SSDI), a national project presenting four commissioned works that celebrate and honour Indigenous women and their contributions as strong, successful and valued members of society.

The four one-minute, silent digital works were created by award-winning, Canadian Indigenous artists: Jesse Gouchey and Xstine Cook (LIKE IT WAS YESTERDAY), Lisa Jackson (SNARE), Cara Mumford (WHEN IT RAINS) and Angela Sterritt (YOUR COURAGE WILL NOT GO UNNOTICED).

“I’m honoured to be selected to participate in the SSDI. It’s through art that we can express the human side of tragic social issues like this, so often lost in news coverage,” says Genie award-winning filmmaker, Lisa Jackson. “It’s an opportunity to recognize the women at the heart of the issue and to bring an awareness of the violence against them to a broader audience.”

SSDI will play on the Pattison Onestop subway screens to over 1 million Toronto’s daily  commuters and nationally on 254 digital monitors in 33 shopping centres across Canada, at the Calgary International Airport, and TIFF Bell Lightbox leading up to and during the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.

The Festival’s SSDI webpage (http://imaginenative.org/festival2012/SSDI) includes details on mall and shopping centre locations screening the SSDI, a resource page featuring artists, issues and links to organizations to find out more about the history and movement surrounding Indigenous women’s rights.

“The passion of our partners, collaborators and artists to bring attention to such an important issue to potentially over 2.5 million viewers is an unprecedented opportunity,” beams Daniel Northway-Frank, Programming + Industry Manager. “To challenge our artists to marry artistic style and social justice is a new and exciting venture. We hope this initiative adds a strong voice and attention to the Indigenous women’s rights movement in Canada, and spurs action and awareness through creative outlets in other Indigenous communities and countries around the world, which sadly have similar experiences.”

The SSDI project started as a call by imagineNATIVE and its partners to Canada’s Aboriginal artistic community to conceive of a video piece creatively reflecting and responding to the Stolen Sisters, a term adopted by the Aboriginal community and larger social justice organizations of the struggle to find answers for the over 500 official (and arguably more) unsolved cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.

Pamela Sevigny and Qatsuu Evis after their Inuit throat singing performance.

On Thursday I attended the opening evening of the Truth and Reconciliation Event in Toronto. Like many of these events, the evening included statements of support and challenge as well as musical and artistic performances. Lt. Governor David Onley pledged his ongoing support for the work of the commission while Chief William Montour of the Six Nations of Grand River called the TRC toothless, pushing for more recognition of ongoing issues facing First Nation communities such as land, health and housing.

As always, the evening focused on some difficult truths, about Canada’s colonial history and about a challenging road ahead. But the event was also a celebration of sorts, a celebration of resilience. The MC for the evening, Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, noted that even in the face of incredible obstacles and hardship, “we have not forgotten how to dance and we have not forgotten how to laugh.”

Two young Inuit throat singers were a great example of this laughter and resilience. The two young women stood on stage, holding each other by the arms, standing face to face. They began the rhythmic humming and deep gutteral sounds of throat singing. An exercise in both competition and collaboration, each song ended in laughter. I am by no means an expert in Inuit throat singing, and so all I will say about their performance is that it was beautiful, and that their laughter was inspiring.

Before and After Images of Thomas Moore

It has been a long time since I’ve posted to the blog. Life with baby is busy! My research continues to progress, but the pace has certainly changed. There have been many moments over the last few weeks where I’ve thought, ‘I should post this to my blog,’ but just didn’t get the chance.

A friend and colleague, Eric Large, recently sent me an interesting article about the missing children who never returned from the Indian Residential Schools. Many children died while in the IRS system. Their bodies were often buried at cemeteries near the schools. Some families didn’t know (and still don’t) what happened to their children or their bodies. The article mentions the work of researchers now trying to find out where those bodies are to provide some sort of peace of mind to families. A small fragment in the article stands out to me. A researcher is quoted as studying the movement of students at a particular school, but her work is cut short because the records simply cease to exist after 1916. She pursues the documents “until the records disappear.” In the context of the article, this simply refers to a particular school’s records.  But the words strike me as indicative of a much larger issue. So many of these schools didn’t keep or lost their records. But there is nothing simple about disappearance. Many factors are involved in the disappearing of things, of people, of cultures, and it is an active rather than a passive process. As I continue to look through archives, I am reminded that the gaps found there are not simply absences but active erasures.

Two of the most circulated images from the IRS system are of Thomas Moore. Arranged as before and after images, the photos are an evocative representation of the goals of colonial assimilation. When I began this research, I had hoped to write about Thomas Moore. I quickly found, however, that finding out what happened to young Thomas Moore was more difficult than I had thought it would be. Because the images are some of the most re-printed images from the IRS system, I would have thought that more about his life would have been known. But, I found that this was not the case. One exchange with an archivist in Saskatchewan provided some limited information:

Thank you for your enquiry. Yes, the two photos are probably some of our most popular images. No, we do not have the original photos. They were copied from the Canada Sessional Papers, No.14, Volume XXXI, No. 11 (1897). This Department of Indian Affairs Report was for the year ending at June 30, 1896. The photos would have been taken before that date.

The only information we have on Thomas Moore comes from the student register for the Regina Indian Industrial School, 1891 to 1908 (microfilm R-2.40, see entry No. 22). He was actually admitted to the school on August 26, 1891 when he was 8 years old. He was a full blooded Indian from the Saulteaux tribe. He was from the Muscowpetung Band which is about 35 miles northeast of Regina. His full name was Thomas Moore Kusick. His father was St.(?) Paul Desjarlais (deceased) and his mother’s name was Hanna Moore Kusick. The boy was a Protestant and had previously attended Lakes End School. His state of education upon admission consisted of knowing the alphabet. His height was 3 feet, 11 inches and he weighed 54 1/2 pounds.  There is a note in the admission register that directs one to look for page 20 in the Discharge Register. However, we do not have this document and therefore we do not know when he completed his education.

The height and weight information strikes me as particularly sad. He was just a boy, 3 feet 11 inches and 54 1/2 pounds.

With this email exchange, I had very quickly reached the point where the records (at this particular archive, anyway) disappeared. Of course, information about Thomas Moore may be scattered in several archives (and I have reached out to several). More than likely, the best place to look for more information will be outside the archives, in communities near Regina, or through networks of extended family. I’m going to keep looking, but I don’t have much hope of finding out what happened to Thomas Moore.

If anyone out there has any information, please feel free to reach out!

Images of the different incarnations of the before and after images of Thomas Moore.

Day One in Halifax

October 27, 2011

It’s the end of the first day of the TRC’s third national gathering in Halifax. The day began with the lighting of the sacred fire, which took place on the grounds of Province House. The ashes from the sacred fire at the first gathering in Winnipeg were transferred to the sacred fire in Inuvik, and have now been brought to Halifax. According to the TRC:

The Lighting of the Sacred Fire happens before we begin each Event to ensure that it is the spirits and the teachings that guide us and protect us while the Commission does its work. The transferring of the ashes has become a symbol of national unity as it becomes lit from coast to coast to coast.

The ceremony took place in front of a statue of Joseph Howe (1804-1873), a Nova Scotian politician. Under his outstretched arm, the commission, elders, and participants watched as the sacred fire was lit. (Photos of sacred ceremonies are forbidden. The image above was taken before the ceremony began.) Shortly afterwards, the Truth and Reconciliation Walkers entered the square. The group of five walked for 2,200 kilometres from Cochrane, Ontario to attend the event in Halifax: Patrick Etherington Jr.Robert HunterJames KiokeSamuel KooseesFrances R. Whiskeychan. As they walked from community to community, they raised awareness about the Indian Residential School legacy and the truth commission’s work. I had the honour of hearing Patrick Etherington Jr. speak in Winnipeg about their journey to the first national gathering. They are a truly inspiring group. For more on their journey, click here, or here.

Inuvik in Images

July 1, 2011

Petah Inukpuk holds up an image of his grandfather as he gives his testimony to the commission.

Like the IRS TRC’s national gathering in Winnipeg last summer, the Inuvik event is a complicated negotiation between personal, familial and national reconciliation. And like the Winnipeg event, I have a feeling it will be some time before I process and begin to understand these negotiations.

The days are long and filled with emotion. The morning and afternoon sessions (generally focusing on the gathering of testimony and expressions of reconciliation) often contain stories of extreme hardship and abuse, as well as those of resilience and survival. The evenings are then filled with music and cultural expressions; people dance and sing, ask questions, continue to share their stories and create connections.

Tomorrow (Canada Day) is the last day of the event. I’m sure I will continue to think about what I’ve seen here for a long time to come. I hope to post more about the event, but in the meantime, here are a few images from the last few days.

At the welcome ceremony.

The Commission and dignitaries face the crowd during the traditional blessings.

Dancing to "Forty Days" after a long first day.

The "igloo church" not far from the event site.

After my trip to Vancouver, I traveled to my next stop: St. Paul, Alberta. After flying into Edmonton, I drove 3 hours to St. Paul. The landscape was beautiful. Not quite the flat lands of the prairies I had been expecting, but low hills, fields of crops, and bales of hay. The grass was yellowed in spots, creating patterns that spoke to the wild weather sometimes experienced in these parts.

A back view of the school

I traveled to St. Paul in order to attend the annual Blue Quills Cultural Camp. I had read about the Blue Quills First Nations College and their story of taking back their school (in the 1970s) and wanted to learn more about it. At the time, the Minister of Indian Affairs was Jean Chretien, who predicted that the school under Aboriginal control would only last six months. Forty years later, the school is still going strong. They offer programs in Business Application & Data Management/ Office Readiness, Cree Language, Early Childhood Education, and Information Technology among others.

The school is governed by seven local First Nations communities: Beaver Lake, Cold Lake, Frog Lake, Whitefish Lake, Heart Lake, Kehewin, and Saddle Lake, representing approximately 17,500 people.

Coinciding with the national day of reconciliation on May 25th, the Cultural Camp was a week long event held at the school. The schedule was filled with arts and crafts (rattle making, decorative drums, hide scraping etc.), sharing circles, wagon rides, sweat lodges, and traditional ceremonies (horse dance ceremony and chicken dance ceremony). These events helped to create a real sense of place and a strong sense of community.

Eric Large looking up at his former school

During my visit, former student Eric Large took me on a tour of the school. He pointed out the old dormitories where he slept, the supply closet for the nurse, old classrooms. We walked through what was once the girls dormitory. “I don’t know much about this part of the building,” he said. “We were never allowed here. They always kept us apart. We didn’t take classes together, eat together or play together. Even brothers and sisters were separated.”

As we walked through the third floor of the four storey building, he pointed to one door, now locked. “This is where the traveling dentist worked from. I gave a tour of this building before and the smell of the dental fluoride came flooding back to me. I asked the others on the tour if they could smell it. It was so strong. I guess that’s my body remembering.”

The school means different things to different people. For some it is filled with difficult memories, others recall the struggle to reclaim the space, and for current students it is a place of learning and empowerment. Thank you to Eric Large, Bernadine Houle-Steinhauer, Harvey Young Chief, Charles Wood and many of the other participants for sharing your knowledge and creating such a positive space.

Coqualeetza

June 14, 2011

After I visited St. Mary’s, I drove the short distance towards Coqualeetza. Soon after arriving, it became very clear that my short trip out west would only be long enough to scratch the surface of Coqualeetza’s history. Thankfully, Patricia Raymond-Adair and Karen Bonneau at the Coqualeetza Cultural Education Centre answered my questions and kindly photocopied a mass of documents (including old pamphlets and media coverage) that I’ve brought home with me to go through.

When I began this research, I was under the impression that many of the former Indian Residential Schools no longer existed. I had heard stories of schools that had been demolished, neglected and decayed, and had heard several times about schools lost to (both intentional and unintentional) fires.  As I continued the research, however, I found that several of the schools have been taken back by communities. And I wanted to hear more about the strength and determination involved in doing so.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the former Portage la Prairie school is now being used as tribal and administrative offices. Some former students work in the same building where they went to school. The Coqualeetza school in Chilliwack also has an interesting history.

The Coqualeetza site has been used over the last centry as a Methodist Indian Residential School, a tuberculosis hospital and army barracks. In the 1970s, the Sto:lo First Nations occupied the former school to reclaim it as their own. A report in the Chilliwack Progress (May 5, 1976) describes the occupation:

Acting under orders, with the sound of tribal drums ringing in their ears, members of the Canadian Armed Forced heaved against the front door to the former nurses residence at Coqualeetza. By 7:45pm Monday 23 people were carried or led away from the scene that erupted only a short time before when members of the Stalo Indian band decided to stand ground and disobey military and RCMP orders to vacate the Coqualeetza facility.

The Coqualeetza Cultural Education website notes that the occupation was an attempt to “publicize the lack of action on achieving reserve status and ownership of the Coqualeetza Property.” The occupation certainly brought more attention to the Sto:lo First Nation’s claims to the land. The buildings, now being used as the headquarters for Sto:lo Nation and other cultural, health and educational initiatives, still show traces of the past. But they also reveal a promising future.

My next post will be about Blue Quills in St. Paul, Alberta. And shortly afterwards I’ll be heading up north to Yellowknife and then Inuvik. I hope to be posting images and reflections as the trip unfolds.

Thanks to Patricia and Karen for their help at Coqualeetza!

The cement foundations of what was once a classroom at St. Mary's Indian Residential School

“It was an evil place. It was a beautiful place.”[i]

I recently took a trip out west to Vancouver, BC. The trip was both personal (to celebrate the wedding of a friend) and research-related (to visit the grounds of former Indian Residential Schools, first in BC and then in Alberta).

The first school I visited was the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, a school that was demolished in 1965. (The students attending there at the time were moved to a new government-run St. Mary’s not far away.) The remnants of the first school, the oldest permanent Indian Residential School in British Columbia, can now be found in the Fraser River Heritage Park.

It was a beautiful late spring day when I visited the park. I had printed out the map of the former school from the Park’s website before my trip and had it with me as I walked. Without the map, it’s unlikely I would have noticed the low concrete foundations embedded in the landscape of the park. The map included buildings that were still standing, that were gone but still marked in some way, and those whose traces had since vanished.

Another cement foundation marking a structure that was once part of St. Mary's.

There were a few other people in the park that day, most were walking their dogs, a few were sitting on benches over-looking the water. I was the only one taking notice of the cement structures, walking from one to another and puzzling over the map.

I found it strange that the cement foundations weren’t marked in some way, so I went to the visitor center to see if I could find more information. There I met Don Brown, a manager at the Heritage Park, who informed me that indeed the foundations were marked. He mentioned that some time ago, they had painted numbers on the structures to coincide with those on the map. But time and weather had worn those away. Then they marked them with small metal plaques. Unfortunately, Don explained, some of those had been stolen, likely to be melted down for the metal. We walked back out to the structures together to see if we could find them and, after checking out a couple, found one marking the old gym.

There was something both beautiful and haunting about that space. It was both serene and unsettling. While at the visitor center, I purchased Amongst God’s Own: The Enduring Legacy of St. Mary’s Mission, a book that captures the contradictions of St. Mary’s. As author Terry Glavin explains, the history of St. Mary’s and the Indian Residential School system is complicated. He writes:

“This book is about a terrible story. It is a story that involves great suffering, betrayal, love, sacrifice, loss, and redemption. This book is also about a wonderful story, a story that involves faith, memory, comfort, forgiveness, sorrow and loyalty. It is also an unfinished story” (11).

The testimonies from the former students in the book discuss both the difficulties and opportunities they experienced at St. Mary’s. Without downplaying the horrible intentions and legacies of the system, the author and the former students involved in the book complicate the narrative of the IRS system as one where only heartache and destruction were the result.

In my next couple of posts I’ll write about the other schools I visited on the trip: Coqualeetza in Chilliwack, BC and Blue Quills in St. Paul, Alberta.


[i] Glavin, Terry and former students of St. Mary’s. Amongst God’s Own: The Enduring Legacy of St. Mary’s Mission. Mission, BC: Longhouse Publishing, 2002.

The last couple of weeks have been crammed full with interesting events. Recently, I posted about the Memory Studies conference in New York. The event, which started off with a fascinating opening night screening called A Film Unfinished, brought memory scholars from around together to discuss their research. It was the first time I was able to present some of my research on the IRS TRC’s national gathering in Winnipeg, Manitoba last summer, and I think (and hope) it went well.

Still from "Canned Meat". Image from Harbourfront Centre website.

Back in Toronto, I attended two other wonderful events. On Wednesday, March 30th, the Harbourfront Centre hosted Aboriginal Women in the Arts: Using Art to Reclaim Traditional Roles with Terril Calder, Lee Maracle and Cheryl L’hirondelle. Calder’s film, Canned Meat, was a jarring and beautiful film that spoke to themes of isolation, memory, and community. Maracle’s poetry, as always, was moving. Her responses during the Q and A were insightful and inspiring. And L’hirondelle’s songs were heartfelt and beautiful. (One of the songs was written in collaboration with Aboriginal women in prison in Saskatchewan.) My favourite song was “Wishful Heart,” written while walking through Vancouver’s downtown east side.

Image of the exhibit's book cover from the AGO website.

And last but not least was the Art Galley of Ontario’s symposium called Inuit Modern. The symposium, on April 2nd, brought together Inuit artists and curators to discuss the new exhibit at the AGO: Inuit Modern. As one of the moderators noted, it was the first time so many Inuit artists were gathered together in “the south.” (I learned that Toronto counts as part of “the south” when the point of comparison is so far north.) The participants discussed the tensions between concepts like traditional and modern, north and south, and art and authority.

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