Truth and Reconciliation

There is a woman. Close to my age less a couple of years. She has dark hair streaked with grey. Brown eyes. Almost the same height. Not very tall.

And there the similarities end.

I was born into a family circle that while at times felt frayed and disorganized (my judgement not necessarily the ‘truth’), was never broken. I always knew who my parents and ancestors were. My siblings and aunts and cousins. I knew where I fit in, even when I railed against what I perceived as the limitations of that place of belonging.

She was born of an Indigenous Mother. Was spirited away immediately after birth and never felt the arms of her birth mother hold her, cradle her, protect her. Placed into the arms of a woman whose skin was lighter and her ways, though loving and kind, never touched the core of her being, she lived her life never feeling like she fit in. Not knowing what it meant to belong on a deep and spiritual level within a family circle, she spent her life searching for the missing pieces she could not name.

Eventually, this woman, the one close to me in age whose life path was so different, found herself on the streets. She knew where she fit in on the streets. At the bottom of the barrel, or a bottle as she liked to joke. On the street, her native roots did not stand out so much. On the street, she found her kin. Damaged. Wounded. Battered and scarred, they circled round her in a protective layer of kinship she’d never known before.

“I belong here,” she told herself every night as her head hit the hard plastic pillow of a shelter bed.

“I belong here,” she whispered to the night-time city sky lit by the glow of a pipe being passed around the circle in which she sat shoulder to shoulder with those who looked as beaten and broken as her.

Eventually, this woman who never felt the arms of her mother tenderly cradling her body as she exited the womb and made her entrance onto this planet, found herself fitting into street life as if there was no other place to be. Lost to her adoptive family, never having known her ancestors and kin, she wandered through her days hiding her pain of not knowing where she belonged beneath a protective layer of paid-for-sex that bought her what she believed she needed most, drugs and alcohol and anything else that would keep her alive.

Because, no matter how hard life became, the thing she always did, because it was the thing she’d known how to do all her life was; Survive.

When this woman’s path and mine intersected, we were both searching for a place to belong.

We both found it at a homeless shelter. For me, it was a job. For her, it was a place to survive.

Over time, we shared our stories finding common ground and connection in the one place that held no judgement or barriers. An art studio.

It was there, in front of an easel we found ourselves reflected in the images we created and the stories we told of what had brought us to this place.

That was many years ago. Our paths have gone separate ways.

She moved away. I moved on.

She has been on a healing journey for many years now. She’s working, living, creating, being who she was always meant to be long before a system that thought it knew best what was good for her, tore her from the arms that could have given her the thing she searched for all her life: Belonging.

It is a sobering thought.

It is only the circumstances of our birth that put us on different paths.

And, while I have known hardship, heartache, betrayal and abuse, I have never had to search for belonging, or fight for my right to freedom, equality, justice.

I have never had to hide my ancestry, never had my culture torn from me by its roots, or had my skin scrubbed to make it more white.

I have never known the depths of discrimination, injustice and racism that she has. I have never been put into another woman’s arms without ever having known my mother’s touch.

I have never had to travel her path to find my way back from the darkness of the street where the only way to survive is to do whatever it takes to stay alive.

This woman whose long black hair is streaked with white and whose brown eyes are encircled with life lines etched into her skin, she is brave. She is fierce. She is courageous and true.

I want to be more like her.

Fearless, no matter how the winds of life bow her back. Honest, no matter how tough the truth. Loving, no matter how deep the hatred and condemnation she faces.

On this, Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, let us all seek to be as brave and courageous as this woman and all the women, children, men and ancestors who walked these lands long before the settlers came and took away their right to walk these lands celebrating their culture, history, traditions and truth.

Let us stop erasing the truth of the history that has brought us to this day.

____________________________________

For S and G and R and so many more and all the children who never made it home and all those who did and were forced to carry the wounds and scars and memories of all they endured and witnessed and hid from in Canada’s Residential Indian School system.

Today is the first time Canada has responded to the Call to Action 80 of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Action 80 called for a federal statutory day of commemoration.

Today also coincides with Orange Shirt Day. Orange Shirt Day is an Indigenous-led, grassroots commemorative day honouring residential school survivors and victims. Founded by Phyllis Webstad, from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, the orange shirt is a reflection of her experience when, on her first day of school she arrived dressed in a new orange shirt and had it taken from her. The orange shirt has become a symbol of remembrance of all Indigenous children who were violently removed from their families to attend residential schools, enduring experiences which the TRC has described as “cultural genocide”.

 

What are you willing to do?

I feel like I have been holding my breath for the past week. I feel like the burden of these days have settled on my spirit, bringing me little peace of mind, little gentleness of body.

Mind and body are all one.

Our human condition is all one.

We are all one people sharing this one planet walking this one earth, together.

We are One.

Peel back my skin, my blood runs red. My bones are white.

Peel back your skin, your blood runs red. Your bones are white.

Peel back the layers of my story, your story, we were all born of a mother’s womb. Different yet the same.

Our lives entered this world through a force of nature that sometimes feels too mystical, too ephemerally magical to comprehend.

Yet here we are. Walking this one earth. Sharing the same air. The same waters. Lands. Breath.

A friend commented on my FB page this morning that “There is always light after darkness.”

She’s right. The earth turns. The sun rises. Darkness rests. The earth turns. Sun rises….

If we keep our eyes closed, we will never see the light. To see the light, we must step into the darkness with our eyes and heart and minds wide open to its shadows, its hidden mysteries, its beauty.

The lights shines brightest in the darkness. So does truth.

In an email exchange with a friend this morning I commented on how to heal, Indigenous peoples have had to be able to speak the truth of what happened to them.

In my own life, speaking truth has helped me heal from childhood abuse, initmate partner abuse, and from my own misdeeds on this journey called, ‘my life’.

Speaking truth heals.

So does facing it.

And the truth is, non-Indigenous Canadians have struggled to hear the truth and to face our shared history of racism and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples because… it hurts.

It hurts to think that our forefathers acted with such cruel and callous intent towards those who walked these lands long before the first boatload of settlers arrived.

It hurts to know that, while the motivation behind Residential Schools at the time may have been considered ‘best practices of the day’, (even writing that phrase I am aghast to think it was possible knowing what we know today, but at the time, it is possible it was so) they did little to stop the abuses they uncovered, at the time and during the century and a half of their existence, and continue to take little concrete action to address the truth of the inequities of The Indian Act today which continues to limit the rights and lives of Indigenous peoples.

And it hurts to think this land, this country of which so many of us are proud, believe is a fair and just nation, is not, has never been such, and continues to be not a fair, just and equitable nation for Indigenous, First Nations, Metis, Inuit and many people of colour.

It hurts.

Truth does that sometimes. It hurts.

But when I write it out. When I state unequivocally, we are not a fair, just and equitable nation for all, there is hope. In the face of the truth, I do not have to waste my time defending against it.

In acknowledging it, I open the door to the question… “What am I willing to do about it?” What am I willing to do to dismantle the lies I’ve told, the mistruths we all told to keep the status quo in place, no longer continue to exist? No longer continue to keep those who have been harmed by our inability to bear witness to the truth, can breathe fresh air, drink clean water, live fearlessly on this land that has been their land since long before we arrived.

What am I willing to do about it?

I will speak the truth. I will not hide behind platitudes of “We’re doing our best”. “It takes time to right a ship this large.” “It’s complicated.” “Change doesn’t happen over night.” etcetera. etcetera. etcetera.

It is in our denial, in our shying away from truth, in our dismissal of facts, our refusal to hear the pain and trauma, our habit of casting blame on the victims, to wash away the struggles of many with words like, ‘it’s time to get over it’, or, ‘‘those people. they’ll never change. they’re just dirty, rotten….’, it is in our inability to listen, and hear and be present with the truth, that we become that which we do not want to be, ‘an unfair, unjust and inequitable country.’ A country where the privileges bestowed the majority, simply because of the colour of our skin, give us an inequitable right and access to fresh drinking water, education, safe housing, health care, financial well-being, freedom of speech, justice and so much more.

The light shines brightest in the darkness.

It’s time we cast light on the truth so that we can stand in the darkness of our past, and find our way into a future where all children, all people, no matter the colour of our skin, our faith, our age, our education, our history, the depth of our bank account, or our ‘connections’, have the possibility of living a future free of racism, discrimination and abuse.

A future where our Canada is a just, fair and equitable nation for its people.

Namaste.

_______________________________

The anger comes in waves — this morning’s news shared on CBC that our Federal Government “says it’s not liable for cultural damage caused by Kamloops residential school: court documents”

I use the ‘our’ intentionally. This is our government. We cannot, must not, let them get away with denying the truth.

Link to CBC article.

Prayers Are Not Enough

I sit at my desk this morning, listening to the Robins calling to each other, the sweet twittering of their babies in the nest tucked in the beams beneath our deck a melodious accompaniment to this gorgeous day.

The leaves of the trees shimmer and dance against the peacock blue of the sky above. The yellow wings of a Finch flitter through the greenery. They are passing through on their migratory route north. Their song adding a sweetness to the morning symphony.

And I listen and watch and let the beauty sink in and still my heart is heavy. My spirit uneasy.

I am grateful the media continue to report on the discovery of the remains of 215 children discovered under the soil of the former Kamloops Residential School.

I am grateful the story has not been brushed over, buried like so much of the truth of what happened in those dark days of our history.

And I feel sad. Confused. Angry.

Where is the Catholic Church?

Where is the Pope’s voice of care, concern and above all, admission and accountability?

The Bishops are offering up prayers.

Prayers are not enough.

_______________________________

In 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission requested funding of $1.5 million from the Federal Government to assist them in searching for what they knew to be true. There were many bodies of children buried beneath the soils of the network of approximately 140 Residential Schools that were in operation, run by churches of many denominations, across Canada from the 1880s until the final school closed in 1996.

Their request was denied.

In 2018, despite the urging of Prime Minister Trudeau along with survivors and families of the children, Pope Francis refused to provide an apology for the wrong-doings of the Catholic Church.

Today, the Pontiff remains silent on the discovery of 215 children’s bodies buried in unmarked graves on the site of a school run by his Church.

The Government of Canada has not yet offered to fund further investigations using the same technology to help find the bodies of lost children on the sites of other Residential Schools.

Let us not let their silence be a reflection of the truth. Let us raise our voices. Let us demand action.

____________________________________

Where Is The Church?

Two-hundred and fifteen
bodies 
two-hundred and fifteen
children’s lives
lost
to a system 
that did not
care
for the innocents
and treated their souls
as fodder for their own redemption.

Two hundred-and fifteen
children’s lives
buried
while they stood by
and watched
silent
as priests and nuns
Bishops and Cardinals
hid
the evidence
of their disgrace
beneath the soil
of the lands
that once belonged
to the people
whose souls
they professed to be saving.

Two hundred and fifteen
buried
while the Church remains
silent
unrepentant
uncaring.

Where are you?
Your prayers
are empty
when your voices
remain silent
to the truth
of your transgressions.

Where are your coffers
open
to support the hands
digging
for truth
for the bodies
who must be found
to bring comfort
solace
closure
to the families
who suffered so much
at your hands
holding high the cross
with which you hammered
your faith
into their bodies and minds 
to erase their culture
their traditions
their spirits
out.

Where is this church
that promised to love
all God’s children
standing
in the truth
of all that they did
to harm
these innocents?

Oh God,
how can your people
find comfort
how can they find their missing children
when your emissaries on earth
stand silent
in the soil
bleeding
dark 
with the blood
of all that was done
in your name
to steal the lives
and futures
of your children?

Is your Church missing too?
Is its faith lost
beneath the dark soils
of its past
that cannot be erased
and must never be forgotten.

Flags are Lowered. We Must Raise Our Voices.

Brandon, Manitoba Residential School — where 50 unmarked graves of students were found in 2018

When the boy became a man, he carried with him his past. Troubled. Painful. A heavy burden he could not put down even though it did not sit comfortably on his back.

As time moved on, and the burden grew heavier, he searched for ways to soothe the memories that would not lay quietly in the past.

He drank. He gambled. He took illegal drugs.

And still the memories haunted him.

He was a little boy. The day was sunny. The skies clear. A truck arrives. There are children sitting on the benches lining its flatbread. Some are crying. Some are laughing. Some are silent.

There is a man in a uniform. He clenches a piece of paper in a tight fist and reaches out with the other to grab his hand. His mother pulls him back. She is crying.

He’s never seen her cry. Never heard her yell.

The man in the uniform is stronger. Louder. By now, the boy is crying too.

His tears and his mother’s anguished cries cannot change the course of history.

He is bundled up into the back of the truck, thrust between two older boys as the truck pulls away from the only home he’d ever known.

When I meet the boy who is now the man, he is a client at the homeless shelter where I worked.

He is in his 50s. A big man. Good looking with dark, laughing eyes, high cheekbones, a barrel chest. Strong looking. He wears a white cowboy hat. His legs are bowed from years of riding a horse.

“I had a ranch,” he tells me. “Me and my boys worked the land.”

The memories worked him harder until he could no longer carry their burden and fell beneath the weight of the bottle that never left his side.

“I want them back,” he says. “Not the memories. My boys.”

He tells his story in front of a class of 11 other men living at the shelter. They are all taking a course to gain their certificates to work on industrial jobsites and in the oil patch. Part of the month long course includes a segment on self-awareness which I volunteer to teach once a week.

One of the questions I ask in the course is for each person to name someone they admire. They can be a historical or fictional person. Someone they know. Someone they’ve read about in the news. A friend. A family member.

The boy who became the man answers, “My grandfather.”

What is it about your grandfather you admire most? I ask.

“He was a proud man. A good example. He had a loud laugh that rose up from his belly and made it giggle like a bowl full of jello.”

It is when he says the word, ‘jello’, that I see the flicker of memory cross his face. It is as fleeting as a streak of sunlight in a heavily clouded sky.

His mother fed him jello when he had his tonsils out as a boy. Before the man in the uniform came and tore him away from her arms.

There was no jello at the Residential School. No laughter. No bellyful of anything but hunger and fear.

He is working hard to be a better man, this boy who is now the man. He is working hard to build a path back to his boys.

“I want to be a man they can be proud of,” he says. And then he adds, proudly. “I’ve been sober three months.”

It is not easy claiming and holding on to sobriety in a homeless shelter. Chaos. Despair. Depression. Addiction. Overdoses. Suicide. They are everywhere. They permeate the air like mist from a waterfall, clouding minds and dampening spirits.

He was determined to beat the odds. To find his way back home. To reunite with his boys. His mother had died while he was still at the school. “Her heart was broken. She lost all six of her kids to that place. I was the last to go. She never saw any of us again.”

He wanted to be sober so he could see his boys again before he died. He never got the chance.

Three months after the course ended, he was felled by a heart attack and his life was gone.

And still, these many years later, I remember him. The boy who became a man who lost his way beneath the weight of the shame of a past he could never forget. It was not his shame. It belonged to those who gave a boy memories he should never have had to carry.

He never made it back to his boys.. But in those final months of his life, he was the kind of man he always wanted to be. A man his sons would be proud of.

_______________________________

I share this story today in honour of all the boys who became men and all the girls who became women and carried with them the scars of Residential School.

I share it to honour the mothers and fathers who lost their children, never to see them again.

And I share it to remind us all that our silence, inaction, denial, blindness… they are all contributors to the trauma and racism, the denial of rights, the dismantling of culture and family structures experienced by Indigenous peoples.

We do not need Indigenous peoples to tell us again and again what happened. We must stop retraumatizing the victims by expecting them to teach us what ‘went wrong’.

We know what went wrong. We did.

We must now set things right by telling our government and leaders to do the right things. We must demand changes to government legislation, policy and practices so the unalienable rights of Indigenous peoples to self-government, according to their own laws and traditions, are recognized and implemented.

Flags are lowered. We must raise our voices. Now.

Can education end poverty, homelessness and discrimination?

I am at a dinner party. The people around the table are all successful by society’s norms. They have achieved status, good jobs, make contributions to their organizations, families, communities, society.

One of the guests states they know how to resolve the problem for Canada’s Indigenous people. “Give them goals,” they say with conviction, “and hold them to the outcomes.”

The other guests murmur in agreement. Yes. Yes. It’s what’s needed. They need to stop whining and start doing more to be productive members of society. Sure, we messed up, someone mentions, we treated them unfairly, but that’s in the past. It’s time to move on.

I chime in and ask if anyone around the table has read the Truth and Reconciliation Report. There’s a lot of head shaking, No.

So, we can sit here with answers when no one has read a report that provides clear directions on how to move forward in addressing the inequities and injustices that have created the trauma and crisis today.

Good point, someone says. But they still need to be held accountable to goals. They need to progress.

And who are we to say what that looks like I ask, when we don’t understand the people, culture, history and our role in creating the issues today?

I ask one man, the CEO of a large multi-national corporation how he would respond if a consultant, hired to help fix a problem in the organization, walked in and said, I know the answers. Here’s what you have to do. Yet, the consultant had not even looked at the organization’s balance sheet, annual report, strategic plan or interviewed leadership, etc.

The man laughed and replied, “I’d throw him out.”

Yet, it’s okay to act like that consultant about a situation you have not spent any time understanding.

There was a long silence and the conversation changed to another topic.

 

Yesterday, a reader commented on my post that education is vital. “… the answer is education. It lifts people, it lifts families, it lifts communities. And, while it is lifting people out of chronic cyclical poverty and its attendant problems, it lifts spirit, self-esteem/pride and empowers more accomplishment.”

I agree.

But it’s not just those experiencing homelessness, or poverty, or other social injustices who need education. It is all of us.

Recently, a man told me of his experience looking for a place to live. He arranged for a viewing of an apartment and when he got there, it was mysteriously, suddenly, unavailable.

You can’t tell the colour of my skin on the phone, he told me. But I could see his [the landlord’s] revulsion by the look on his face when he opened the door.

The man is Blackfoot.

It happens all the time, he told me. Sometimes, people don’t even bother to pretend. They just say, “I don’t rent to Indians.”

It doesn’t just happen to indigenous people, but to immigrants too.

Someone sees the colour of their skin, and doors close in their face.

Education is needed.

For everyone.

Discrimination hurts all of us. It fosters resentment, disillusionment, despair; entitlement, injustice, disrespect.

It creates Us and Them communities where the ‘have’s’ deny the ‘have not’s’ access to the resources and supports they need to be able to live without feeling the burden of poverty pressing them down.

It is not up to those who are being discriminated against to prove to the rest of us that they are equal, worthy or deserving. It’s up to each of us to let go of our thinking that someone else is not equal, worthy or deserving of our consideration, fair treatment, justice, dignity.

When we tear down the barriers we have erected to keep ‘them’ out of where we live, work, play and create communities, we create a world where tolerance, understanding, justice, and consideration for all has room to flow in all directions.

And that requires a willingness to learn — about the impact of our thinking we have all the answers for those we judge to be less than, other than, outside of our human experience.

We need to educate ourselves on the injustices we create because of our privileged thinking and belief that ‘they’ are the one’s who need to educate themselves to do better.

We are a planet of diverse cultures, faith, traditions, ways of being on this earth.

What we share in common is our human condition. And that is all we need to be equal to one another.

The rest… it comes with educating ourselves about the beauty in our differences, and learning to become compassionate in our view of how those differences make us each unique and richer in the experience of sharing our world in ways that create better, not just for the few, but for everyone.

Namaste.