In the sharing of individual truths comes collective enlightenment.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report has become a stepping stone to my understanding of the lives and realities of the people who were here before mine. The learning became my own responsibility, the commitments made in my name that I am expected to uphold have resurfaced in my consciousness because of this work.
I grew up a child of war-fleeing European immigrants raised in a small farming community in Southern Ontario. In my young life I was taught about noble savages and birch bark canoes and wampum belts as fetishes and historical relics. I had an idea there were still Indians around but there was no connection between the arrowheads we found in the sandy fields and the people who lived on the Reservation an hour away.
My youthful idealism led me to a progressive university program in environmental studies that was well ahead of its time on social justice issues and multi-disciplinary thinking and even there, at the turn of the millennium, the subject of treaties, of past abuse and colonialization and the nature of our relationship with the first peoples of Canada was a side-bar rather than a featured story.
I struggled all through my third semester to find a co-op placement and finally got word in the end of December that I would be living in Ottawa and working for the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution of Canada come the new year. I was elated to be working for the government and have the opportunity to gain experience in the real word... but in that excitement, I had no idea.
Little things become important when you are faced with such monumental suffering.
There were six of us hired that term to the department, which was just being transferred from the jurisdiction of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development to a Special Office under Jean Chrétien's PMO. I spent my first days mindlessly shredding documents and formatting spreadsheets. We finally moved offices from the bureaucratic warrens at Terasse de la Chaudière in Hull to a more high profile office on Sparks St Mall in the Capital and we were given the overflow work from the Analysts that processed claims.
Our job was to read the formulaic statements of claim and research whether, when and where a claimant had gone to school. If they were not present at a place or time declared we would scour the records of nearby schools to correct in the inaccuracies of forced faded memory and update their information in our database; carefully transcribing the documented minutiae of their childhoods so they could receive a full settlement. We became intimate with the lists of neat cursive attendance rolls and formal typed letters regarding field trips or disciplinary actions. Each of these records - shrunk to 8.5”x11” photocopies from the crumbling and yellowed originals - stored in black archival binders in a huge low-ceilinged room of rolling stacks. Experiencing the archives, knowing that it was not just the one person who you were validating (that is the word we used), but thousands upon thousands upon thousands across the country from the beginning of the history of Canada as a place, was humbling and terrifying and finally numbing.
The history of Canada is intertwined with the loss of indigenous cultures for those who were here and those who came from elsewhere.
I remember a day when I came across a claimant who had the exact same birthday as my father. I thought of my family and the hardship they endured coming to Canada after the war, and my father who only spoke German and how he learned English in school and he and his sisters taught my grandparents the language of their new country. And today think of the tragedy that I don't speak their mother tongue because it was not deemed important or necessary; that unique diasporan dialect of Peasant Swabish evolved in the plains of Hungary over centuries to become its own reality and how that language is good as dead, our traditions and festivals slowly atrophied until they no longer exist... the rosemary bush with the ribbons and the hats for the men with the flowers on them for the harvest festival celebration in the fall.
I went to cry in the bathroom. I cried for my family; I cried for the children that were stolen and tortured; I cried for the final shedding of the Christian faith that I had tenuously held in the face of the institutional nightmare that filled my days and haunted my dreams.
There is an expectation in bureaucracy that a human can do a Job and not be impacted by it.
The managers who oversaw our small group identified a few who were diligent and gave us more challenging work. I summarized Examinations for Discovery - three day interviews with people who had the most egregious claims. How did they treat you? Where did the touch you? How has your life been fucked up since then? Our job was to summarize the suffering into boxes in a database. I remember a day that one of the other co-op students leaned back from his chair and said "can I say ‘smack whore’ in my summary?"... I paused for a moment and replied, "No, I think you should just say 'prostituted herself for heroine'". There is a normalcy that descends, a necessary dissociation of worlds to protect your sanity as a young person coming into yourself and being shown a taste of horror while dealing with fundamental questions of reality.
I spent four months in that job and then went back to my leisurely existence of learning and partying and living and growing... and I tried to forget. There was no help, no support for those of us traumatized by consuming the suffering of others. It was truly the ultimate bureaucratic exercise - the pain passed on and through without a recognition of how we were to deal with this knowledge when we left the cubicle and computer screen and went back to our other lives.
We are all treaty peoples.
There is no denying that I have been impacted, as I think we all should be. The most important realization I have come to thus far in my reading is that treaties are not a one-sided agreement - it is not a They that We are imposing our wills on but an Us who have diverse understanding of this place we inhabit, reglardless of where our ancestors were born. I am a part of these agreements, made by others in times long past, and they are the story of this land. If we all want to live together in this place we must involve sourselves in the hearing and the telling. So I invite you now to remember and share your stories, difficult and tear-filled as they will be.
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