Reconciliation in Wood Buffalo
Every day I ask myself whether my actions are contributing to the process of truth, healing and reconciliation. When I started to write about Fraser & Komarnisky’s 150 Acts of Reconciliation I was completely unaware of the impact it would have. I thought it would be a simple project. Some of the steps are relatively small, from listening to a podcast to looking at Indigenous art with a curious mind. While others have challenged me to the very core, looking inward at the prejudices that I have and asking whether those perspectives are holding me back from creating positive relationships? I’ve learned that reconciliation is very much everyone’s responsibility, it doesn’t just fall upon Indigenous communities. We all have a stake in a balanced relationship between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people.
For 100 years, from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century, a government policy on Indian Education removed children from their homes and placed them in government and church-run schools. The sole purpose of the residential school system was to assimilate seven generations of children of their Indigenous culture and language in Canada. By the 1990s, 140 schools had housed a total of 150,000 students.
A class action lawsuit in the early 2000s brought to light the abuses that many residential school students suffered, and started the reconciliation process. Residential schools and other colonial impacts such as Métis scrip or the pass system were hidden from Canadian society. Reconciliation encourages us to explore that past, for if it were to remain hidden, we would be bound to repeat it.
The nearest residential school was located in Fort Chipewyan. While the building is no longer standing, the impacts it left on the community and generations of former students is undeniable. The school was called the Convent of Holy Angels Indian Residential School, and it was open from 1902 to 1974. It was operated by the Grey Nuns and Oblates of the Roman Catholic Church, the sisters and brothers who mostly originated from Montreal, where the orders are still operating today. Some students from the region were sent even further to other residential schools such as the St. Henri in Fort Vermillion, and Blue Quills in St. Paul.
Nowadays, the site of the Holy Angels Residential School has been repurposed and reclaimed for community celebrations and cultural retention. The simple act of taking it back as a space to share traditional ways of life such as feasting, beading and speaking Indigenous languages is in itself a testament to this community’s cultural endurance.
Aside from the powwow arbor, the rest of the area is practically frozen in time. Wherever you walk, you are surrounded by barbed wire fences, serving as a stark reminder that the school was a prison, and those fences were there to keep children, as young as five, imprisoned. I think of how quiet and sad the communities and homes of parents and grandparents would be. I have trouble imagining what my street would sound like without the laughter and occasional shrieks from the neighbourhood children.
Hearing the truths about our society that allowed these systems to take place is extremely difficult. However, the revelations that will continue to be unveiled as we work through the process of Truth will result in understanding, tolerance and maybe even friendship. I see it as an opportunity to not only be wary, but also to celebrate the survival of Indigenous culture, despite 100 years of policy trying to eradicate the way of life of Indigenous cultures (there are over 60 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada).
We are still here and that is amazing. Everyone can enjoy Indigenous culture, especially during treaty and Métis days, when the whole region is treated to Indigenous hospitality and vibrant cultures. Year round you can stop by the Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre, whose mandate is the bridging of Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.
Last year, I had the privilege of attending a former students’ gathering hosted at the site of the school in Fort Chipewyan. During the gathering, we spent hours listening to former students speak of their experiences. What was most amazing, was how most of them found a way to love and be loved despite being brought up without compassion or parents. It is hard not to think of my own family members who attended the residential school in Wabasca, Alberta, especially those who aren’t ready to share their story, having buried the horrors in the deepest part of their memories. The destructive impact of residential schools on Indigenous people was the breakdown of the family structure and the loss of connection to Indigenous language and culture.
When my mosom, Harvey, (paternal grandfather) had a debilitating stroke in his late sixties, it was the first time I was able to build a relationship with him. I spent the first year teaching him what it meant to be a grandfather, and most importantly what was appropriate behaviour around his granddaughter. He saw me as a woman paying attention to him, which dissuaded me at first, until I realized that he didn’t have the opportunity to grow up in a nuclear family.
Young Indigenous men and women are learning how to raise our children from scratch, having parents or grandparents who themselves grew up in an institutionalized setting.
I was fortunate that I had a chance to rebuild one of those family linkages that otherwise would have been lost forever. Throughout that decade with my grandfather, I learned as much as I could from him about trapping, life on the land, and most importantly, pride in our culture. What I wouldn’t give to have one more conversation with him, tell him about my project and then get teased mercilessly. He wanted me to move forward, when all I wanted to do was find out his past. Despite the pain that glimmered behind his look when I would press him, it was clear that his wish was for me to live in a different world than he. A better one.
I believe that change for the better is underway. This special issue of Your McMurray Magazine is an example of the positive movement in our social discourse. This resurgence is all due to the incredible strength of former students who shared their stories and the Indigenous people and allies who are envisioning a renewed Canada.
The Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada succeeded in bringing the truth of the residential school experience to light, but it did more than that. It challenged government, businesses and every citizen to follow actionable steps. Since the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Final Summary was published in 2015, the response has been unprecedented. The corrections in the education system was the first step. I can’t count how many people I’ve met who were astounded that the history of Indigenous people in Canada wasn’t taught to them in school.
If you are interested in partaking in the process of reconciliation, start with informing yourself about Indigenous history and people. Then pass that information on to your children and they will pass it on to theirs. It took generations to get where we are, it will take generations to get where we are going.