Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Truth & Reconciliation - on Being a Witness

This is the second in a series of blogs I'm writing on my experience attending the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria last weekend.  The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Canada addresses the Indian Residential School system that existed between 1840 - 1996 (see their website for more information).  If you haven't read my introductory blog entry, you can read it here first.

In many First Nations along the West Coast, especially those with ceremonies in longhouses, there is a tradition of choosing witnesses.  These people are given a small amount of money, and are formally charged with carefully observing what happens at that ceremony, so that they can tell future generations, and others who are not present.

In his speech at the Opening Ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Victoria (which I attended this past weekend),  Justice Murray Sinclair, one of the three commissioners, told us that if we had chosen to come to the event, no matter who we were, we had become witnesses.  We were "commissioned" to share what we learned at the event, to inform our communities and networks.

Justice Sinclair said that part of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will do is make it impossible for future generations to deny that the residential schools existed, or to deny what happened in these schools.  Students' experiences are recorded on official record, preserving a national memory that cannot be erased.  I had never considered how easy and convenient it would be for Canadians to minimize or gloss over these painful and shameful experiences.

I pondered the fact that I had not even heard of Canada's residential schools until my Native Studies class in first year university (!).  I still remember sitting on my bed, having just read a first-hand account from a former residential school student.  I wept in disbelief and anger, especially over my discovery that the Church had been so intricately involved in the abuse and cultural genocide.  This truth must be witnessed to, and must be spread broadly, not just to the few people who happen take Native Studies.  If we do not witness to the injustice, we risk repeating the injustice, for although we'd all like to think we've come a long way, the colonial attitudes that implemented residential schools are still buried in our minds like seeds.

The responsibility to witness is especially relevant for people who follow Christ.  Last summer, at the first annual Creative World Festival, which takes place on the grounds of St. Mary's Residential School, Ched Myers said this: "For Christians, the luxury of historical amnesia is unequivocally prohibited.  Jesus said, 'Do this in remembrance of me.'  He told us to ingest memory."  Ched challenged us to actively remember the people whose lives had been profoundly dis-membered on those very school grounds.

So I am attempting in these blog posts to fulfill my duties as a witness - to tell you what I saw and heard and felt in Victoria.  In my next post, I'll begin my witnessing.

1 comment:

Michael J. McCarthy said...

Very well put; glad you were there.

Michael J. McCarthy