Some Indigenous Athletes Who Soared

Tom Longboat

Stories of Indigenous success can show the young what’s possible

WAYNE K. SPEAR | JULY 26, 2021 • CURRENT EVENTS

Among the world’s elite competitors are men and women of humble origin. The barriers to sport are many, especially for Indigenous people.

Still, stories of Indigenous sporting success are more plentiful than Canadians likely realize. One of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action is to provide public education that tells the national story of Aboriginal athletes in history.

Not much is certain about the childhood of one of the world’s most versatile athletes.

Jim Thorpe of the Sac and Fox Nation was born in 1887, or maybe 1888, somewhere east of Oklahoma City. Described by Dwight D. Eisenhower as a “supremely endowed” athlete, Thorpe played in the MLB and the NHL and excelled at running, jumping, swimming, skating, basketball and other sports as well.

He attended the Haskell Institute at Lawrence, Kansas and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, established by a Civil War veteran named Richard Henry Pratt.

Pratt ran his school along military lines with a view of assimilating Indigenous people. He’s responsible for the phrase “Kill the Indian in the child, and save the man.”

The Carlisle school was studied by Nicholas Flood Davin, whose 1879 report to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald recommended it as a model for Canada.

At Carlisle, Thorpe prepared for the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics. He dominated, winning gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon.

The Onondaga marathoner Tom Longboat had, like Thorpe, a reputation for excelling without ever practicing. Journalists called him a “lazy Indian.”

He escaped a residential school (the Mohawk Institute, in Brantford, Ontario) to pursue running. His remarkable career began in 1905, and he was an almost-instant celebrity.

A poem titled “Tom Longboat’s Victory” memorializes his infamous 1909 race against Alfred Shrubb: “For days and weeks, twas talked about—the whole world echoed it; / A thousand papers flashed the news.”

The Tom Longboat Awards, established in 1951 to honour outstanding Indigenous athletes, attests to his inspiration of numerous Indigenous athletes.

At the time Longboat turned professional, several Indigenous athletes were competing in the Olympics: marathoner Fred Simpson in 1908, and in 1912 track and fielder Andrew Sockalexis.

The Hopi distance runner Lewis Tewanima, a teammate of Jim Thorpe at Carlisle, competed in both 1908 and 1912, winning a silver medal at Stockholm.

Thorpe returned to Carlisle to train but Longboat would never set foot again in the “Mush Hole,” as former students called the Mohawk Institute. He considered the place unfit even for a dog.

Sports played a complex role in the Indian residential schools. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples says that “in school, in chapel, at work, and even at play the children were to learn the Canadian way. Recreation was re-creation. Games and activities would not be the ‘boisterous and unorganized games’ of ‘savage’ youth.”

The school inspector J. Ansdell Macrae noted in 1888 that “a noticeable feature of [the Battleford Industrial School] is its games. They are all thoroughly and distinctly “white.” … From all their recreations Indianism is excluded.”

Football, cricket, hockey and baseball were meant to teach children self-discipline and conformity to the rules, “thus contributing to the process of moving the children along the path to civilization.”

Sport was also a respite. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “many students stated that sports helped them make it through residential school.”

Andrew Amos was a provincial boxing champion. He was at the Kamloops school where the remains of 215 children were confirmed to lie in unmarked graves. He says that “it was through competitive sports … that we were able to cope and survive the daily routine of life at the residential school.”

The Oglala Lakota runner, Billy Mills, was orphaned at twelve. He chose to attend the Indian boarding school Haskell because his brother had gone there and he’d read good things about their sports programs. In 1964, Mills won an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meter run.

The brief hockey career of Fred Sasakamoose, of the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, began at the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, where he was forcefully placed after being taken from his parents in 1940.

Sasakamoose told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that the school’s sports director, Father Georges Roussel, had a dream. “Freddie,” he said, “I’m going to work you hard, but if you work hard, you’re going to be successful.”

So it was. Sasakamoose was brought up from the juniors by the Chicago Blackhawks.

But years in a residential school had made him lonely and homesick. After only eleven games, his major league career ended. The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada quotes Sasakamoose as saying, “I didn’t want to be an athlete, I didn’t want to be a hockey player, I didn’t want to be anything. All I wanted was my parents.”

Fred Sasakamoose would join the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, established in 1998 to address the legacy of residential school abuses. Sport and recreation would be an important component of the healing programs funded by the AHF.

Racism has a long history in sport, and particularly in the Olympics.

The shambolic 1904 games in St. Louis were a celebration of imperialism and racial superiority, featuring a sideshow of “primitive” contests called Anthropology Days that included lacrosse and spear throwing.

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics closing ceremony, 250 non-Indigenous dancers entered the stadium costumed in feathers, buckskin and redface.

They performed a faux Indian tribal dance, based on a traditional Provençal farandole, to a composition called La Danse sauvage. Then they marched into the five Olympic rings, each with a tepee in the middle, despite the fact that Montreal is on longhouse territory thousands of kilometres from the tepee-using nations.

In 2015 there was scandal when Dsquared2, the company contracted to design Team Canada’s Rio Olympic clothing, launched a line of women’s apparel called Dsquaw. Stereotypes that had shaped the Olympics over a hundred years ago were again on display.

For the first time in its history, the Olympics in 2010 included Indigenous people as official partners. The Squamish and Lil’Wat First Nations incorporated the Four Host First Nations Society (FHFN) with the Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh, and members of all four nations became involved in planning.

Canada’s history of colonialism and forcible assimilation has produced other barriers to sport — hopelessness, addiction, broken families, impoverishment, and isolation.

The more fortunate have the support they need to train and compete at an elite level.

Three times a week Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (of the Ulkatcho First Nation) was driven by his father to Williams Lake, 320 kilometres from home. Eventually Jerry Price bought a Piper Cherokee aircraft to cut their ten-hour commute.

The Inuvialuit cross-country skier Jesse Cockney competed at the Sochi 2014 Olympics, and at the 2011 Canada Winter Games he won three gold medals and one bronze. His father Angus relocated the family to Canmore, Alberta so Jesse could have access to the Canmore Nordic Centre and its training programs.

Carey and Jesse are the children of professional athletes. In his younger days, Angus Cockney was a cross-country skier. Jerry Price was a goaltender, drafted in 1978 by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Jonathan Cheechoo moved to Timmins, 300 kilometres from his home in Moose Factory, to develop his hockey skills. It was difficult to be so far from family, but he had a great deal of support.

Not every young Indigenous person is so fortunate.

Rilee ManyBears, a runner from Siksika Nation, had to overcome the death of his father, depression, drug abuse and attempted suicide to achieve success in competition.

Alwyn Morris, a 1984 Olympic gold medal winner in the 1,000-metre sprint kayak doubles, left his home community of Kahnawake and moved to Burnaby, BC. He trained at the canoe club and cared for his ailing grandfather. Morris was a Tom Longboat Award winner and, like Longboat, an outstanding Indigenous athlete who inspired many other Indigenous athletes.

One of them was Waneek Horn-Miller, a fellow gold medal winner (at the 1999 Pan American Games) from Kahnawake. Horn-Miller was 14 when the violence of the Oka Crisis occurred, in the summer of 1990. During the chaos of an altercation, a soldier stabbed her near the heart with a bayonet, but she survived.

In some cases, seeming barriers like isolation and remoteness turn out to be advantages.

According to Jim Thorpe’s New York Times obituary, “his favorite diversion was following his hunting dogs in the forest, which helped to develop his magnificent body.”

Indigenous cultures with long traditions of living on the land promoted strength and endurance.

Gwich’in and Métis cross-country skiers Sharon and Shirley Firth saw their Olympic success and their experiences trapping and hunting around Inuvik as connected.

The Firth sisters also benefited from the Territorial Experimental Ski Training, or TEST, program. Developed by an Oblate priest, Father Jean Marie Mouchet, TEST promoted skiing across the North at a time when the Canadian military was colonizing the Arctic, upending Indigenous lives.

Where family and community support systems are absent or insufficient, sport programs must fill the gaps. But there’s some distance to go, as the Canadian Olympic Committee admits.

CEO, David Shoemaker, says the organization is focusing on promoting more Indigenous talent, both at the competitive and leadership levels.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called upon governments at all levels to ensure the development and growth of Indigenous athletes, continued support for the North American Indigenous Games, policies promoting physical activity, reduction of barriers to sports participation, and the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in programs and sporting activities — not only as competitors, but as planners.

Of the 676 Canada Sports Hall of Fame members, 12 are Indigenous. That’s under two percent, in a country where Indigenous people make up five percent of the population.

Stories of Indigenous success can inspire our youth and show them what is possible. Opportunities for athletic growth and development can help them reach the heights.

Three hundred athletes will represent Canada at this summer’s Olympics, but the COC doesn’t know how many are Indigenous. They don’t ask, but that’s something they are planning to change, and will need to change, if they are going to remove barriers.⌾

The Debate About Indian Residential Schools Misses the Point

It’s never been about good and bad experiences. It’s always been about Canada’s Indian Problem.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | January 25, 2018 • Current Events

TRC
A page from the TRC report, “The Survivors Speak.”

SENATOR LYNN BEYAK laments that the histories of Indian residential school focus on the negative, and she has a point. A story about the abuse of a child does tend to capture one’s attention. So far as I’m aware, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission never once intervened mid-testimony to change the subject. “Yes, yes, we get it. But tell us about the knitting and the maths—you know, the good stuff.”

The topic of whether or not good things happened in the Indian residential schools, and whether they are sufficiently documented, is a mischaracterization of the debate we are now seeing. But while I’m on the subject, let me state once again that good things happened in the residential schools. Most scholarly sources describe them, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose reports include warm tributes to beloved teachers. (Every time residential school apologists claim that the TRC tells only the negative stories, they reveal their ignorance.) My own book, Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors, has entire chapters on movie and dance night, laughter, friendship, hijinks, and so on. My co-author, Larry Loyie, fondly recalled the teacher who encouraged him to write, and he had some fond and funny stories about his residential school days. He was however a writer of books, not of payroll ledgers, and never indulged the question of whether the arithmetic of good and bad arrived at a sum which could please critics like Beyak. We presented the whole truth, as best we could.

Indian and Eskimo Schools

Well, you can’t please everyone, but it’s useful to understand the character of a disagreement.The Indian residential school debate is and has always been about the right of one ethnic or cultural group to dominate and absorb another, and by doing so to appropriate and benefit from land and resources. The children, put into residential schools, often hundreds or even thousands of miles from home, could have learned English and grammar and grown up knowing the love of their mothers and fathers and grandparents. They could have got hockey lessons and a normal childhood. But the whole point of the Indian Residential School System as a system was to sever the bonds of family, so Indians could be turned into Christian Canadians free of the influence of their kin. Did Canada have the moral right, and moral obligation even, to do this? Does it have it now? Welcome to the real debate, ladies and gentleman.

The Let’s Focus On The Positive history of Indian residential schools was written, many times over, by women’s church auxiliaries, missionary societies, school administrators, Indian Agents, and government bureaucrats. Indian Affairs wrote it every year, in their annual reports. The folks who ran and oversaw the schools knew much, much more about them than today’s armchair apologists. When they declared the system a wise and benevolent success, math had nothing to do with it. Duncan Campbell Scott was aware that children were dying unnecessarily in the schools, of diseases caused by overcrowding and insufficient nutrition. The math, in this case, was not on his side. “But this alone,” he wrote to an Indian Agent, in 1910, “does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.” These folks knew what the debate was really about, and they made no effort to hide it. They were after a final solution of the Indian Problem, and no amount of bad news was going to make a difference.

I didn’t write this article to change anyone’s mind, because I’m not delusional. I wrote it to clarify. It was my day job for well over a decade to educate the public about the Indian Residential School System, and when I started, in the 1990s, most Canadians hadn’t even heard of it. Today there’s a consensus that the Indian Residential School System was not good, but a chunk of Canadian society can be depended upon to never take up that view. There are at present some thousands and maybe even millions of Duncan Campbell Scotts, looking forward to a day when there are no Indians in Canada and, as a consequence of this, no Indian Problem. There are also folks pained by the lost prestige of Mother Church, or by blemishes on the noble project of Empire. There are professional contrarians, skeptical of every affront to the status quo, a bag of human sand stubbornly anchoring the Old Order. I can’t explain the motives of every person who insists the residential schools were good, but I can ask them if they think Canada was right to attempt a wholesale assimilation of Indigenous people, and if they think Canada should stay on that course.

An interview with Justice Murray Sinclair

Wayne K. Spear in conversation with Justice Murray Sinclair | August 1, 2015
Murray Sinclair
Photo by Fred Cattroll

The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change

WKS: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an Executive Summary this June, and in December you’ll be releasing the full TRC report. What can we expect from that?

JMS: Many people are still looking for the basis for why we said what we said. The full report will reveal all of that. We have to produce that report in French and English, so that takes time.

WKS: At the final TRC event in Ottawa, the media seized on the phrase “cultural genocide.” Do you think this was a good place to start the conversation about the meaning of residential schools and reconciliation? Or would you have preferred the focus to have been elsewhere?

JMS: I was quite fine with it. We knew when we were writing the report that it was going to be the big question. It’s not only important to Survivors, but I think Canada and the political leadership of the country needed to know what we were going to say about it. It’s an important part of the foundation for the conversation going forward. It puts all of this experience into a proper perspective. This was not simply nice people who made a mistake. This was a truly unacceptable intention to wipe out Aboriginal people through the elimination of their cultures.

WKS: During the TRC you had occasion to comment on murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Your comments made me think of the death of Helen Betty Osborne and your work with the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. It seems that little has changed. Looking back over you long career, do you feel there’s been much positive progress?

JMS: I’ve always maintained that the kind of change we need—the change I’ve been talking about since the AJI [Aboriginal Justice Inquiry] days, which is really systemic change—is going to take a long time to achieve. It’s going to take several generations before we can realistically say that we are on our way to a decent end. Changing systems requires changing the way people believe about the law, they way they believe about their political systems, the way they believe about their institutions, and the way they believe about how they’ve been educated themselves. Those challenges are hard for people to come to terms with.

I think we expect that there will be some conscious, and unconscious push-back even, on the part of the people who are going to wonder if there’s not a different way of doing it. The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change.

WKS: How do we even have a conversation about systemic change when we are on the margins—of the media, of the institutions which will necessarily provide a space for conversations to happen? Aboriginal people have to be invited into these spaces, at someone’s good grace. It sounds to me like we may need to envision and create new institutions, new spaces to host the discussion about the change we need.

JMS: If we start thinking about things that way, we will immediately reject any solutions, because the idea of building from scratch is too overwhelming for most people. But what we’ve said in our report is that you can take what we now have, and you can build on that. This came out of the past. This will soon be our past. We need to figure out how do we take what we now have and change it enough that we can be assured that, in the future, we will have a better relationship, starting with a vision of what the future is going to look like. We have to ask ourselves “Is what we are doing each step of the way going to get us to that vision?” It’s feasible. Highly possible.

WKS: Thank-you, Justice Sinclair.

JMS: Thank-you.

External links: TRC | Murray Sinclair Biography | Settlement Agreement

94ways: how we will ensure the TRC report is not the RCAP report

 RCAP

A COUPLE WEEKS AGO, Zoe Todd posted a YouTube video inviting people to read from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 388-page executive summary. The video was conceived by Erica Violet Lee and co-organized by Zoe Todd and Joseph Murdoch-Flowers, and its inspiration came from Chelsea Vowel’s blog post “Reaction to the TRC: Not all opinions are equal or valid.” Ever good one, that.

You can read a CBC article about this project here.

As a result of these amazing folks, people are now posting their readings of the TRC summary on YouTube.

Chelsea’s post, which I recommend, was itself a response to Conrad Black’s National Post article “Canada’s treatment of aboriginals was shameful, but it was not genocide.”

Black took up a Utilitarian argument, heavily inflected by 19th-century tropes and by the White Man’s Burden—arguing that European civilization was such a gift to the natives that there’s no way you could call what Canada attempted genocide, even if you preface it with the qualifier cultural.

His point-of-view, that aboriginal people should be thankful for the gifts of human civilization, has a vocal following. Maybe not a majority following, but likely a sizeable minority. And since it’s a common enough position, it should be aired and not just dwell in the dirty cracks of CBC’s comment section.

I love a heated debate, and I’d be happy to undertake one in my (limited) spare time. But, OK, I’m coming down now from the soapbox. Lord Black is not the point of this post!

That National Post article has indirectly inspired a YouTube campaign, in which ordinary people—i.e. people who are not referred to in public as “Lord Such & Such”—are reading the very report that Black dismisses—without having read it! Seems to me like a decent turn.

But I had another idea, too. That’s the real reason I have written this post—to tell you about my idea.

It’s called 94ways. I’m not 100% settled on this name, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so far, in my opinion.

The idea is to create a website and the related social media where people can post simple, practical, actionable ideas related to each of the 94 recommendations of the TRC’s document Calls to Action. It could be an idea they are planning to do, or one they’ve already done. We could all brainstorm. We could trade experiences and stories. We could bring the report to life.

Nowadays you can even do things like organize a Meetup or host a Webinar. All of this could be part of the 94ways.com or 94campaign.com or 94toRestore.com or whatever it ends up being called.

All of this and more. The only limits are imagination, human will, and courage.

One final thought

Years ago I had a conversation with Georges Erasmus about RCAP—the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (Actually, we had a lot of conversations over the years about RCAP!)

Georges was reflecting on the 1996 final report. It had just come out, and he was looking forward to a holiday, after his intense traveling and media work around that extraordinary and unprecedented five-volume, 4,000-page work.

You see, he went straight from being National Chief of the AFN to being co-chair of the Royal Commission. Every time the man tried to take a holiday, someone would arm-twist him into another job. In fact, that’s what happened after RCAP. Phil Fontaine called and said, “Georges, you’ve got to come help create this Aboriginal Healing Foundation. If we don’t do it by April 1st, we’ll lose the $350 million.”

Georges said, “I’m not looking for a job, Phil!” But it was futile.

He spent the next 14 years at the AHF, and even today he is hard-at-work, building up a nation run by the Dene, for the Dene.

Anyway, what Georges told me was that, just as the report was to be distributed, the feds pulled the funding. As a result, RCAP lacked the resources it needed to properly and effectively get the report into the hands of Canadians.

Remember, this is before YouTube and Twitter and Facebook. It would be years before the technology existed to put RCAP on the Internet, and even more years before anyone did. (You can now find it here.) So back then, if you didn’t have an actual printed copy, you were pretty much out of luck.

And most of us did not have printed copies.

RCAP’s final report became a cliché: you know, the report that collects dust sitting on a shelf. Only I doubt it even did sit on a shelf in more than a couple Parliamentary offices. There were some great efforts to get the word out, for example by reading the entire report, page-by-page, on the radio.

A few lucky people (like me) managed to get the report on CD, but back then the technology was so primitive that they may as well not have bothered. It was designed for installation on a server running Windows NT, because back then a five-volume report was basically an unimaginably huge amount of data—certainly not something you’d pop into your lousy desktop.

I never did get that darn RCAP CD-ROM to work!

I’m sure the feds were happy to have a report no one could access. Because that meant no one could challenge the government to do something.

Well, it’s now 2015, and the people can do all sort of things. It will be 100% impossible for Mr. Harper and his kind to bury the TRC report, the way RCAP was buried, although they will try as best they can.

And they will fail.

Contact me if you think 94ways is a good idea.


Update (06/25): I have registered the domain 94ways.com and am gradually building the site. You can now visit and have a look around. The next step is to create the social media accounts. I hope to have this done in the coming days. Please share your comments, ideas, suggestions or other content here, or at 94ways.com. Thanks!

Education is the key to reconciliation

100 Years of Loss

BRITISH COLUMBIA’S Education Minister, Peter Fassbender, announced late last week that the province will introduce a new education curriculum on Aboriginal cultures and history this autumn.

Education was a focus of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 recommendations. (Download the TRC’s “Calls to Action” document here.)

Here’s an excerpt from the TRC’s education-specific recommendations:

Education for reconciliation

62. We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to:

i. Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.

ii. Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.

iii. Provide the necessary funding to Aboriginal schools to utilize Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in classrooms.

iv. Establish senior-level positions in government at the assistant deputy minister level or higher dedicated to Aboriginal content in education.

63. We call upon the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada to maintain an annual commitment to Aboriginal education issues, including:

i. Developing and implementing Kindergarten to Grade Twelve curriculum and learning resources on Aboriginal peoples in Canadian history, and the history and legacy of residential schools.

ii. Sharing information and best practices on teaching curriculum related to residential schools and Aboriginal history.

iii. Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.

iv. Identifying teacher-training needs relating to the above.

There are many more education recommendations in Calls to Action. Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, has said that “Education is the key to reconciliation.”

It makes sense for him to say this. The residential school system was an education system of a sort. It didn’t provide much at all by way of skills or learning. Mostly, it was a child labor system.

Always poorly-funded, the residential schools depended upon the output of child workers. Relatively little teaching and learning took place, especially until the 1950s, when reforms gradually were introduced.

The point is that the present-day education system can help to redress what was done by an education system of the past.

For this reason, I’ve been working for years on residential school curriculum. One of the projects with which I’ve been involved—”100 Year of Loss”—is already in use in two Canadian school systems, Nunavut and Northwest Territories.

Next month, I’ll start work on an exciting new curriculum project which I will say more about when the time arrives.

In the meantime, I commend British Columbia. And I look forward to more school systems responding to the TRC’s recommendation to “make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students,” in “consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators.”

eBook Download: Reconciliation & the Way Forward

Reconciliation and the Way Forward

LAST WEEK in Ottawa I had the pleasure of launching the book Reconciliation & the Way Forward with my friends Shelagh Rogers, Glen Lowry, Sara Fryer and Mike DeGagné. I contributed an essay (“Time to Get Our Indian Act Together for First Nations Students”) that was previously published at the National Post. Click on the image above to download a 4.2Mb PDF version of the book.

Looking back on this week’s Truth and Reconciliation final event

The Delta Hotel

It’s a sunny Tuesday in Ottawa, and I’m having shawarma with my son on Bank Street. We are the only customers this late in the afternoon. On the TV there’s a live broadcast from the nearby Delta Hotel, where I too had been only minutes ago. Earlier in the day, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its report “What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation.” As I eat my shawarma I try to imagine all the restaurants, all the bars and lobbies and lounges across Canada, and elsewhere, that this broadcast is reaching.

It’s difficult to summarize how I feel.

It’s earlier in the week and I am tucked into a corner of the second-floor balcony, looking into the Delta foyer. There are people everywhere. It smells of burning sage and the grilled chicken from the restaurant below. Voices combine to an indecipherable roar that resembles crashing water. The noise is punctuated by the sounds of forks surrendered to exhausted plates, of drumming, of abrupt laughter. A drum group whose members include Wab Kinew plays a song, and right above the drummers, on the same second-floor balcony to which I’ve escaped, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada taps his foot.

My senses are numbed. It’s relieving, and also a bit strange, to realize that I can walk two blocks in any direction and find myself in the sleepy day-to-day of downtown Ottawa.

I see many familiar faces. I’ve been at this long enough now that I catch myself reminiscing about the old days. The people I talk to agree: it was different then.

Twenty years ago the pain of Indian residential schools was raw. It tore through the rooms where we gathered. Anger and hurt so fresh, so intense, it was frightening to behold. I’ve lost count of the gatherings of residential school survivors I’ve attended—some well over a decade before there was a TRC—but the emotions are something you can never forget. I knew more than a few senior bureaucrats who didn’t mind admitting they were terrified, half-convinced they wouldn’t get out unscathed.

All these years later, there are survivors of terrible abuse who are telling their story for the first time. The familiar anger, and the hurt, remain. But the mood at this week’s final event is not what is used to be at gatherings of this sort. We aboriginal people are stronger than we were. We are no longer so filled with shame and self-loathing that we are unable to talk about what happened in those institutions. Survivors know that it wasn’t their fault, and one by one they are letting go of the destructive emotions which have held them back. We are looking to the future, and we’re in no mood to settle for anything less than what we consider good and just.

Healing and reconciliation, as Justice Murray Sinclair notes, are personal matters. It’s up to individual survivors to assess progress. Everyone wants to believe, but when it comes to the relationship between aboriginal people and the Canadian government we are all agnostic. For a century now native people have complained of politicians who deal only in fine-sounding words. Although the mood of the week is positive, I note the standing ovations given to people who, like Ellen Gabriel, have had their goodwill and patience depleted—not only by inaction but by government actions which are seen to contradict the spirit of reconciliation.

Here, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final event, we are reliving the June 2008 apology. On that day the painful experiences of aboriginal people were recognized and validated by every political party, including the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. No longer could anyone credibly argue (as I remember people did) that there was nothing to apologize for, beyond perhaps the unfortunate zeal or wickedness of “a few bad apples.” Now, as in 2008, we were receiving official acknowledgement of the pain and injustices inflicted on us.

It took decades to get here. Years of survivors telling their stories, year after year pushing for recognition, apology and restitution. It’s been over 20 years since Phil Fontaine saw his story of residential school abuse on the front page of the Globe and Mail. (He later told me he didn’t expect this airport conversation to end up in print.) In the years following this revelation, many hundreds of survivors organized themselves.

A remarkable coalition formed around the cause of truth-telling, healing and reconciliation. Survivors, churches, activists, artists, politicians, elders, front-line workers, citizens, and other joined for a common cause. Survivors and their supporters published books and commissioned reports. They created support groups and lobbied for an apology. They launched what would become Canada’s largest-ever class action lawsuit, the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

Out of this exhausting and relentless effort came the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. To understand the feelings in that room, as the TRC summarized its findings, you have to understand the amount of time and work that went into making that day a reality. In terms of sheer human will and commitment, the determination to have the history of Indian residential schools properly recognized rivals anything else this country can put up—including the building of a transcontinental railroad, or the establishment of a nation from sea to sea.

It’s done now. There’s no turning back.

My Truth, My Reconciliation

TRC

Will Canadians learn anything of useful value from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada? Will they even be interested in doing so?

These and other questions are on my mind as I prepare for the final closing events of the TRC, from May 31 to June 3. I don’t expect to find the answers to my questions in Ottawa. It will take years to assess the efficacy of this commission. And ordinary Canadians, not the Establishment, will be the ones who decide. Or perhaps not.

I’ve been asking questions about the Indian residential schools, and looking for answers, for a quarter century now.

In the early years of the last century, my grandfather Gowandehsonh was in the Anglican-run Mohawk Institute (the longest-running Indian residential School, better known today as the Mush Hole). He rarely spoke of it, mentioning as we drove by the building that he used to dig in the moonlight for raw potatoes to eat. This information—delivered casually and in passing—came without context or further explanation, and young as I was I could do nothing but sit in confused silence.

In the 1990s I began studying the residential schools for my doctoral thesis. Around the time former AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine went public with his story of residential school abuses, and others soon came forward. In 1992 I had my first candid conversation with a former student, or “inmate” as Indian Affairs had once termed them, about what really happened.

Since then I’ve interviewed hundreds of people and written several books, including Full Circle: the Aboriginal Healing Foundation & the unfinished work of hope, healing & reconciliation (get your free ebook version here) and Residential Schools: with the words and images of survivors.

Bob Watts, who played an instrumental role in setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said something to me I’ll never forget. It’s quoted in my book Full Circle:

I don’t think of reconciliation as the Prime Minister of Canada and the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations having some sort of hug-fest on Parliament Hill, and then everything will be okay. I think about my friend Ken, who was in his sixties when he told his daughter for the first time that he loved her. He didn’t know that was part of the deal being a parent, because he never got that himself as a kid. To me that’s reconciliation. I think there’s going to be hundreds and thousands and maybe tens of thousands of little wee tiny reconciliations. But all those have a force.

I’ve interviewed former students, church leaders, therapists, lawyers, journalists and government officials from the front-lines right up to the Prime Minister. I’ve found that everyone has their own ideas about what reconciliation is and how we get there. My book ended up being a collection of personal truths, jostling against and conflicting with one another. I expect the TRC’s final report to be the same, offering to Canadians myriad reflections on the truth of experience rather than the objective Truth of a judicial inquiry. I also think my friend Bob is closest to being right about the nature of reconciliation.

I was in the House of Commons when the Prime Minister of Canada apologized for the government’s role in residential schools. It was a powerful speech, and I was frightened at how unprepared I’d been for my nearly-overwhelming emotional reaction. But even then I knew that, on their own speeches and slogans and photo-ops are not going to get us very far. This isn’t about the National Chief nor the Prime Minister, although they doubtless have a role to play. The thousands of unseen, unreported, uncelebrated gestures of ordinary folks are what will make the difference—if there’s going to be a difference at all.

I’m going to Ottawa in search of this.

You can join me this weekend, wherever you are, by participating in the Legacy of Hope Foundation’s #hopeis social media campaign.

I Went to an Indian Residential School, and My Father was the Principal

Guest post by Mark DeWolf

Indian residential schools

Part of my Truth is my memory of how it was at the residential school during the years my Dad was the Principal

IT’S A COLD BUT sunny day in Edmonton as I cross Jasper Avenue and approach the front doors of the Shaw Centre, the venue for the final national event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Streaming out one door is a large group of non-aboriginal teens, chatting, laughing, doing a bit of good-natured jostling. It’s Education Day at the TRC event, and a good number of local schools have arranged for their students to attend, no doubt hoping that the kids will not only learn about the work of the TRC and the reason for its establishment, but also gain something from the experience of sharing the event with thousands of their First Nations neighbours. Have they? I wonder.

Continue …

An Interview with Shelagh Rogers

Shelagh Rogers

ON SATURDAY, April 13, 2013, I chatted with Shelagh Rogers about the work of truth and reconciliation, books, and her years at the CBC. An excerpt of this discussion appears in The Roundtable episode 38. Here, for your enjoyment, is the entire interview.

Follow me on Twitter

Subscribe

Canadians need to educate themselves about indigenous peoples

TOMORROW MORNING I will get on an airplane and fly to Halifax, where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is hosting its latest gathering. Already the event has produced headline material, derived from the statement yesterday of University of Manitoba President, David Barnard. Toronto Star Reporter Louise Brown characterizes this apology to Aboriginal people “an unusual move,” and so it is. Yet Canada’s universities, and indeed the entire education system, have good reason to feel the bite of conscience. Please allow me to expand upon that theme.

Read More

The Missing, Murdered Women

Murdered, Missing Women rally in Ottawa

THAT LONG STRIP of the Trans-Canada highway connecting Prince Rupert to Prince George was already well established as a “Highway of Tears” when I drove it in the Summer of 1999, weeks before I moved to Ottawa. Deena Lynn Braem was shortly thereafter added to the list of women, many of them Aboriginal, disappeared and murdered amidst the generalized indifference of Canadians. The trial a few years back of pig-farmer and sexual sadist, Robert Pickton, simply reinforced what those of us paying even a speck of attention already knew: that it was entirely reasonable to assume you could abduct, torture, rape, and dispose of Vancouver’s street women and get away with it.

Continue …

Of Truth and Reconciliation

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (whose website may be accessed here) is faring poorly of late in the court of public opinion, for reasons that have been widely reported. Foremost concerns have been the acrimonious resignations and dismissals of senior staff, a two-year delay of primary activities such as staffing and office-assembly, the apparent compromising of the Commission’s independence, and the inability of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to compel testimony by means of subpoena, or even to name perpetrators. Many are wondering if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be able to accomplish anything of value.

One might well begin in fairness by acknowledging the extraordinary burden of the “truth and reconciliation commission” brand name. It’s rather like coming into the world christened Brock Skyconqueror. Even before the business cards were printed and the phones were installed, people were day-dreaming about 1989 — Nelson Mandela and the crumbling walls of the prison, that sort of thing. It may however help the cause of expectation management to familiarize yourself, if you haven’t already, with the precise character of this institution:

2. Establishment, Powers, Duties and Procedures of the Commission. Pursuant to the Court-approved final settlement agreement and the class action judgements, the Commissioners: (a) in fulfilling their Truth and Reconciliation Mandate, are authorized to receive statements and documents from former students, their families, community and all other interested participants ….

This is to say, the Commission’s authority consists in the power to listen, under conditions which actively forbid assignment of responsibility:

[the Commissioners] (g) shall not name names in their events, activities, public statements, report or recommendations, or make use of personal information or of statements which identify a person, without the express consent of that individual, unless that information and/or the identity of the person so identified has already been established through legal proceedings, by admission, or by public disclosure by that individual.

I could go on quoting legalese from Schedule N of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, and no doubt you’d be enthralled by my doing so, but most of the twelve-page document establishing the scope of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is contained in these extracts. The rest of it is amplification, that the Commission shall “adopt methods and procedures which it deems necessary to achieve its goals” and shall “have available the use of such facilities and equipment as is required …,” etc.

Part of the burden of this Commission, and quite a large part, is truth — specifically the expectation that it will root out and present to Canada The Truth of the Indian Residential School System. But since the TRC is neither a public inquiry (see 4. Exercise of Duties: “… the Commission is not to act as a public inquiry”) nor a legal process, truth can only mean personal truth, the truth of one’s convictions and experiences as presented to the Commission. Another term for this is subjective truth.

It’s for me impossible to imagine the Government of Canada, the Churches, and their many respective lawyers agreeing to the establishment of an independent investigative body with quasi-judicial powers. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is precisely what one would expect of a court-mandated, lawyer-negotiated instrument: it is a circumspect compromise between parties, an admission of responsibility which carefully circumscribes consequences.

As an agent of public education it does hold promise. The TRC is mandated to create from its gatherings, as well as from other source documents (voluntarily yielded), “as complete an historical record as possible of the IRS system and legacy.” The importance of this cannot be overstated. But the challenge here is on the distribution, and not on the production, end. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples generated enormous material and testimony related to residential schools, much more than could be contained in its Final Report, but few have seen it. Many Canadians remain ignorant of Canada’s Indian Residential School System, and are therefore ignorant of its consequences and legacy. Without a sustained campaign of public education, which means actually getting the stuff into the public domain, the Canadian public is certain to remain in its bubble on not-knowing. So far the degree of effective public outreach is the principal difference between Canada’s and South Africa’s truth and reconciliation efforts,  according to comments made by South African professor Piet Meiring. But even here, we must acknowledge that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has resources unequal to the work of educating a country. It must have public and private sector partners in this endeavour.

So to recap: there’s a modest potential for some good in this Truth and Reconciliation Commission, only don’t expect an uncovering of Truth and the reconciliation of Canada and Aboriginal peoples. Rather, hope that individual truths will reach the individuals who can be reached, and that some small, personal acts of reconciliation will result. Expectation of anything more is a mere dream.