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It’s up to all of us to bear witness

The Times Colonist by Maxine Matilpi 8 April 2012

In February, I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in my northern Vancouver Island Kwakiutl community of Fort Rupert. Although the event was open to the public, I was disappointed at how few nonindigenous people attended.

In a room of more than 100 people, there were maybe six non-indigenous people, including two Anglican ministers and my husband. I wondered about this absence of people of good conscience, those who consider themselves moral citizens and who are proud to call themselves Canadians.

I’d heard about the TRC hearings through the moccasin telegraph and the Kwakiutl band’s newsletter. Maybe non-indigenous people hadn’t heard about it.

Later, I worried that other people knew about the hearing, but thought it had nothing to do with them, that it was only for survivors or family members and communities. I don’t like to think it was wilful blindness, or that they think Canada’s history of residential schools and their legacy is about others, not them.

Because really, it’s about all of us, about our shared colonial history.

There are gaps in our collective story. I know about these gaps because I used to teach at a college, and every year I had students – high-school graduates – who were unfamiliar with the term “residential school.” When I explained its context, some students were shocked and disappointed they hadn’t learned this earlier. Some felt guilty.

Knowing this colonial history is part of what it means to be Canadian. The failure of the public school system to teach the whole truth means the story we tell about who we are isn’t complete. The paper records – like most history – is written by the “victors,” and as a result, our knowledge doesn’t go deep. But shallow understanding from people of good will is, as Martin Luther King pointed out, “more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.”

As uncomfortable and unpalatable as it may be, the residential-school story is part of our collective Canadian history. Those testifying at the hearings about our shared past are dispelling lies. Their stories matter profoundly because they have the potential to fill gaps in our collective story.

Like the testimonials told by Central American refugees in the Sanctuary Movement, they are deeply personal stories helping listeners to understand both our history and our current social reality. These stories are being told by whole three-dimensional human beings, and they have the potential to change both those who tell them and those who show up to hear them.

The listeners are invited (maybe forced) to feel, share tears, care. In some cases we were moved and challenged to take action.

The insights provided through these oral histories can contribute significantly to broader historical understandings.

This is our collective story: A child being brought (through the force of the law) to a residential school and seeing and remembering the tears in his mother’s eyes, a child remembering her own tears dripping onto the paper as she wrote letters home begging her parents to come and get her.

Such stories help us get beneath layers of information – surface facts, dates, events – and down to what really matters: a place where we can find ideas for healing, change and renewal.

The tellers need us present to listen, and they need us to listen deeply. They need us to be inspired into action, to “walk the talk,” to not imagine ourselves absolved through “statements of reconciliation” by survivors reported in the news, or by apologies offered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

On that long drive back to Victoria, my husband and I had lots of time to reflect on what we’d witnessed, about the significance of the stories we’d heard, about our responsibilities and the importance of being present to validate the experiences that were shared, and about what to do next.

On April 13 and 14, Vancouver Islanders get another chance when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be hosting a regional hearing in Victoria, billed as, “an opportunity for all Canadians, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal, to learn more about and bear witness to the legacy of the residential school system.”

My husband and I will find the time to be there, to listen, to bear witness.

Will you?

Maxine Matilpi, a member of the Kwakiutl First Nation, is director of the Academic and Cultural Support Program at the University of Victoria’s faculty of law.