(soundbyte: Tim O'Loan)
“It was easy to make the shift from being the advisor to the chair and travelling with him and such, to what I do now, because I feel that what I'm doing now is as important as what I tried to do with Justice Sinclair, which is continue to turn the lights on Reconciliation.”
(music: “Hoka” by Boogey The Beat)
Indigenous Perspectives. Stories from Indigenous public servants.
This is Indigenous Perspectives, a program where we hope to explore the experiences and perspectives of Indigenous public servants, what reconciliation means to them, and what it can be for Canada.
(music: “The Cry” - Greg Reiter)
On June 2nd, 2015, Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the truth and reconciliation commission, officially presented the 94 recommendations of the Commission, 6 years in the making.
In his remarks, Justice Sinclair characterized “the residential school experience [as] one of the darkest, most troubling chapters in our collective history.”
“Over one hundred years of mistreatment of more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children placed in these schools.
“Seven generations of Aboriginal children denied their identity.
“Separated from their language, culture, spiritual traditions, and their collective history, [these] children became unable to answer questions as simple as: Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? And, who am I?
“Fundamental questions [that] guide us in life, influence our choices, strengthen our ability to take advantage of opportunities and help us find and fulfil our sense of self.
Justice Sinclair proclaimed that “The Survivors have entrusted us, and by extension, all the people in Canada, with two priorities.”
“First, the Survivors need to know before they leave this earth that people understand what happened and what the schools did to them.”
“Second, the Survivors need to know that, having been heard and understood, that we will act to ensure the repair of damages done.
“We must endeavour to become a society that champions human rights, truth and tolerance, NOT by avoiding a dark history but rather by confronting it.
“If we are to truly live by our convictions, we must confront and accept that Canada’s history includes a history that’s inconsistent with how we see ourselves.
“We must all call for the ongoing progress of reconciliation, regardless of political affiliation, cultural background or personal history of connection to this dark history.
“Reconciliation is not an [Indigenous] problem – it involves all of us.
“The eyes of the world and the gaze of history is upon us.
“What we do now and in the years ahead matters a great deal.
“It matters not only for those who are with us today, but also the generations to come and […] those who are not with us here today [but] whose memories we must honour.
“We must work together…
“…we must speak the truth.
“At its heart, reconciliation is about forming respect.
Great words of wisdom from Justice Murray Sinclair
And now, in their own words, the thoughts and feelings of some of Canada's own public servants on their past, our collective past, and the path forward.
(flute: Greg Reiter)
I am a survivor of the Sixties Scoop policy. I have been reintegrated into my family and got to know my grandfather and such and my birth mother as well. So, I was raised in a typical dysfunctional family I guess – I don't know if that's typical or not – but my father was non-Aboriginal and I was raised in a very dysfunctional place. So, I went off and joined the Army. I believed like many Indigenous people believe that we were offside or stupid or inferior and so I went off to join the Army. Jumped from the pot and in some respects into the fire. So, I joined the infantry and I was very proud of my service but it was a tough place. I left wounded after 10 years. Not only physically but spiritually as well.
I find a lot of people that I have spoken to, especially in the federal public service, there's a lot of trepidation as well. A lot of a lot of changes. Employees just going through the motions or just putting on a good face. At the same time, too, I've seen a lot of non-Aboriginals in government who are supportive and who really believe there is something wrong. It's just that the way we're structured, it isn't fixing the problems. It's hard because the political system isn't made to really make quick and decisive decisions. There's a lot of debate and a lot of conversation going on. It's really hard too with the whole Reconciliation Council review happening Canada-wide and you can see there's a lot dropped off the board because of the people that are resigning from the commission or getting new jobs or they have these consultations, these meetings [inaudible] but they're not going to force-feed them down everybody's throat. People have to come to the table. But just the fact that we're collecting that information, that we're getting these stories, we're documenting it, it's a really significant thing and I don't want to understate it. Like I said I'm very hesitant about results but the fact that we have these stories, maybe my daughter who is 3 years old, she might have some stories about reconciliation in her curriculum about how Canada, and North America in general, was one part of the largest cultural genocides, both physically and in the cultural sense. Growing up I never had any exposure to anything like that. You know we had a few anecdotal Thanksgiving stories that were always kind of tilted from a colonial storytelling, and were always a little bit too peachy for reality. But we never learned anything about residential schools, it wasn't part of the curriculum and I think it is now. I've spoken to some people about it, but growing up in the 80s and 90s it wasn't a conversation. People weren't interested. I think it's a progressive move that we are talking about it now. Hopefully our kids will have a bit more actual knowledge about what happened in the past.
You know in our own life journeys if we can be aware that those of us that were raised before 1980, you know, a lot of the things… because I do hear “Well that was appropriate because it was the vision of the day” when it wasn't appropriate even for those times. But you know what, a lot of people don't know about the legacy of residential schools and that's okay but if people can create a space to learn. There is one document that's online that is a very good document, it's called “They Came for the Children” and if people Google “TRC, They Came for the Children”, so about a 35 page document, they can read that. I think it'll give a pretty good condensed version of what this country has gone through and if people are open to “Okay, maybe what I was told about Indigenous peoples was wrong” or “Maybe my view needs to evolve a bit” then I think we're onto something.
Ultimately reconciliation comes down to whether Indigenous people in Canada can feel safe to be themselves wherever they are: accessing services, you know, having a job, living a life in different parts of the country. Can they feel safe? And this is where a lot of the Calls to Action from the TRC come into play where there's recommendations not just about government, there's recommendations about how teachers conduct themselves in schools in terms of being trained and aware of the history of residential schools and the importance of teaching to kids in a way that is culturally relevant and engaged. There are recommendations for lawyers to make sure the lawyers in their practice are fully briefed and respecting Indigenous rights in their practice. There are recommendations for businesses. There are recommendations from medical practitioners to make sure that the health care experience for Indigenous people is safe and nurturing. There are recommendations in the TRC for police. There are recommendations for universities and how they design curriculum, how they manage research, how they manage partnerships with communities.
It was out of luck that I was tapped to go to the TRC, so I took a secondment from the federal government into TRC and about two or three months after joining the TRC I was tapped to be the Advisor to the Chair. And it was four years. As you can imagine it was very emotional. Working for Justice Sinclair was incredibly challenging because first of all he's been a judge since he was 38, since 1988 or 1989, so there's nothing legally that I can inform him that he didn't know already and he was a profound reader. I would tell him about a book at supper time and the next morning he would have read it and he just assumes so much information. He's like that and just a kind gentleman and he was a safe space, but you have to bring your A-Game when your work for Justice Sinclair and professionally it honed me in. He's very spiritual. He's Midewiwin and he would go off to ceremony and the TRC was infused with ceremony as well. So it was an amazing journey, but as you can imagine… four years… emotional. Spiritually damaging in some respects I guess because I didn't protect myself very well. So while I was at the TRC I had to go into therapy. I think a few employees did. But you know it is what it is. And you know I think I'm richer as a result of that.
How could anyone protect themselves against the sort of things that you would be exposed to as part of that process? Is it even possible?
You know, I'm not sure. We haven't – the TRC employees – we haven't all gotten together but I can tell you there's more than just me that has walked away spiritually injured. You know we used to use the analogy “to honour the stories, let them wash off you”. I shared that with my therapist just last week and she said, “That's a great analogy, but you know what? No matter how much you do that, some stuff will stick.” And I just did not protect myself the way… I think I could have protected myself better. You kind of wanted to wanted to honour the survivors and their emotional time by acknowledging the emotional moment. And I just didn't wash the stories off very well. A lot of that stuff sticks and I made connections to the survivor's story with my own personal story. Abuse on multiple levels. And I didn't realize when I started with the TRC how much these stories and experiences of survivors were my experiences as well. Even though I was raised in a non-Aboriginal family – the issues around shame abuse on multiple levels – those were my stories as well. And I had to go in and check in with a professional just to make sure that I got through it as healthy as possible. I'm still in therapy. As a veteran I'm now with the operational stress injury clinic which is set up for veterans with PTSD and so will continue with my own healing journey. I know that there are TRC employees that are out there that are also suffering as well and I just pray that them and others that have been impacted by this again have an opportunity to heal as well. It was an emotional time, not only for survivors but anyone that's been involved with it. See, that's one of the things that I try and do now is to share internally. There's a mental health component to this, right, and there were hundreds of people that within government supported the applications, had to read the applications, and as you can imagine they're very very emotional stories. So, I hope that this department can support people that are impacted. That they can now find a safe journey as they heal.
I actually learned about the cultural genocide and the actual genocide of people in my late 20s or early 30s. I'm only 35 myself now and that's kind of ridiculous. I consider myself pretty well [inaudible] in most regards. I like science and technology and I like history but the victors write the history books and not a lot of history books spoke anything about the losing side, the Aboriginal side. The ones who had to live on reserves and had their lands taken away and things like that. It's hard for me to identify, too, because I never had that identity. Aboriginal. It's a bit tricky. There's a lot to be said and a lot to be heard in all of it.
Tell me about the sort of work that you're doing right now. Is it difficult to go from something that monumental and historic to, you know, a regular job again so to speak.
You know what, not so much because right now I'm wounded. I have an accommodation with my boss and I am in therapy and there is emotional recovery associated with that. Thank God there's Veterans Affairs and the support that they've been giving me, you know, there's a physical manifestation of my PTSD. So I have a kinesiologist. I have a physiotherapist and a massage therapist and therapist and so that takes a lot of time away, and emotional recovery associated with that, right, so I have a safe space and regardless of how important whatever I'm doing, I speak on reconciliation now. My struggle with my PTSD is sustained concentration so I have a challenge of writing and sustained reading – concentration with reading – and that's shot. But because of my safe space it allows me an opportunity to go off and continue to give my presentations on a bit of the speaker circuit not only within the federal government but beyond as well, Churches… and last night I spoke to the Big Brothers Association, Kiwanis Club. In the not-too-distant future I'm going to go off West to speak out there as well to schools and such. So, it's healing for me to share, so I get something back out of it, right. Kind of like what you and I are talking about right now. It is healing. As you can see it is emotional. I do kind of wear my emotions on my sleeve, but that's OK. And you know we'll get through this, but in the meantime it's something that I believe in. So it was easy to make this shift from being the Advisor to the Chair and travelling with him and such to what I do now, because I feel like what I'm doing now was as as important as what I tried to do with Justice Sinclair, which is to continue to turn on lights on reconciliation. You know, you kind of you know… if you speak in front of 100 or 200 people it feels good to do that and people come up and really thank you for that. Or you know some of these speaking engagements I'll come back and there'll be six or seven emails in my inbox and people thanking me for, you know, my authentic story. There are a lot of times people say “Aboriginal awareness. I've done that. I know that” right? But I think with my presentation which is a non-governmental Government in Canada presentation, I have permission to deliver it. It's not sanitized. It's real. It's authentic and I go by no speaking points. And it's my authentic story within the presentation, so I think people appreciate it as well. This isn't a Government of Canada sanitized good old clean presentation. No, it's not, but in no circumstances do I feel that it damages. It doesn't damage the government because it was in partnership with the churches and it doesn't damage the churches. I'm not here to point fingers at anyone. I'm just here to inspire reconciliation and that's, in essence, what one of the things that Justice Sinclair – in being witness to him as he was in his travels – watching… He brought people that were part of the residential school legacy, right? But it's not up to us to turn the mirror against anyone or point fingers at anyone. You know, if people are going to be inspired by reconciliation then they're not going to do it if they're wounded. They're going to do it if they're going to get on board “the reconciliation train” if they're inspired to do something about it, not if they're wounded.
Indigenous Perspectives: Stories from Indigenous Public Servants is a production of Employment and Social Development Canada.
All opinions expressed on Indigenous Perspectives are strictly those of the individual and are not necessarily those of their employer.
Public servants featured in this episode were Ryan Jeddore, Daniel Jette and Tim O'Loan.
Our main title music is by Boogey the Beat, with additional music provided by Greg Reiter.
I'm Todd Lyons, host, writer, and technical producer for this series.
Thank you for listening.