I have always found that studying the past has everything to do with the present. Following a thread of research, even one that takes you hundreds of years into history, can lead you to shocking and difficulties realities to face. But those discoveries give us the ability to speak intelligently about current events, to appreciate the perspectives of others, and to influence government policies and entrenched attitudes.
I was reminded of this yesterday after attending a panel discussion on “Redress and Reconciliation in the Face of Post-Apology Revelations.”
The apology refers to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 address to the survivors of residential schools. In existence from the 1840s, with the last school closing in 1996, these institutions removed indigenous children from their communities and attempted to assimilate them into Western European culture. The children were often abused – physically, emotionally, sexually – malnourished, deprived of their families and their culture, sterilized in some cases – and the list continues. The federal apology was envisioned as a first step towards reconciliation and made reference to both the treatment received by residential school students and the negative legacy the schools left on survivors and their descendants.
The “Redress and Reconciliation” event, held by Algoma University’s History Department, the Shingwauk Residential School Centre and Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig, was an opportunity for reflection and discussion. Although yesterday wasn’t an anniversary of the apology, the panel was timely nevertheless – especially as Canada prepares for a federal election. Since the apology was first delivered by the government, research has brought to public attention even more atrocities that occurred in residential schools. This includes human experiments, as historian and panel participant Dr. Ian Mosby discovered. His research as a historian of food, health, and nutrition led him to evidence of already hungry residential school students becoming a research sample for testing hypotheses about nutrition and hunger. It has now been recognized as one of the most unethical experiments in Canadian history. In the wake of such revelations and in the span of six-and-a-half years, what weight does the apology carry? What does – what could – reconciliation look like? How do we understand the past, and how do we move into the future?
In addition to Dr. Mosby, the panel included local elders, faculty, students, and residential school survivors. The room was already packed with people when I arrived and others had to sit on the window ledges when there were no more chairs. Listening to the speakers wasn’t easy. There is no excuse for the atrocities that residential schools have become known for. To think that this was systematic, endorsed by our government and run by the church, is heartbreaking. As a non-indigenous person it’s especially difficult to know what to do or say in response. There were a lot of emotions circulating in that crowded room.
Speaking touched on the question of sincerity in the apology, an ongoing search for truth, the impact of residential schools between generations, difficulty in communicating across cultures, and the need for further action. The general feeling of the session was summed up early on by one white-haired elder, Mary Hill: “There are still a lot of words left unsaid.” Indeed.
Response to the apology is divided. I do wish that it could help provide closure, and for some people it has. But as the panelists brought up each in their own way, the apology doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t followed by action, a change in behaviour that mirrors a change of heart. The truth has not been fully uncovered yet. If the headlines of the past year have indicated anything, it’s that we still have a long road ahead of us before there can be reconciliation. And if the apology doesn’t mean anything to indigenous people, then who was it really for? Among several parties in the room there was a real suspicion that the statement was an excuse for powers that be to heave a sigh of relief, pat themselves on the back, and say “There, I’ve said it, it’s over.”
Things are far from over.
Suspicion is found in many groups across Canada. Not just suspicion towards the apology, but towards survivors as well. Both Dr. Mosby and Suzie Jones mentioned the difficulty in changing attitudes that seek to place blame rather than understand the experiences of people around us.
This is an issue I can speak to from personal experience. It wasn’t until half way through my undergrad studies that I even heard of residential schools – when I was studying in a building that used to be one! Growing up I didn’t know the history, and I inherited an attitude of contempt. I was in for a rude awakening. In the face of this difficult piece of local history, I found many of my perspectives beginning to change. I still feel like I know so very little, but I benefit from every opportunity I take to listen and learn.
As the panel wrapped up I was feeling at a loss. What can I do? These issues are so far out of my reach. But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen respectfully; speak graciously; recognize my assumptions and question them; and fight my own cynicism. Wouldn’t the world just be a better place overall if we did more of those things?
I have no idea what the apology means for the future of Canada. As the elders told us, it takes time to heal. No sweeping statements can fix things overnight. I’d like to think that the federal apology could one day be seen as a stepping stone in a path forward, if only by initiating events like this one which bring hidden histories and survivors’ experiences to light. I appreciate the time the panelists and event organizers took to bring this conversation into the wider community. That’s exactly why I find public history so important!
If you’re in the Sault Ste. Marie area and want to sink your teeth into some hard-hitting history, Dr. Ian Mosby is delivering a public lecture tonight on the topic of “Hunger, Human Experimentation, and the Legacy of Residential Schools” which is sure to be just as thought-provoking as yesterday’s panel. You can also find more fascinating Canadian food history in his most recent book Food will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front.