CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 40 . . . . June 23, 2017
By describing reconciliation as a journey, Monique Gray Smith places this concept in a context that younger (and older) readers can understand quite readily. Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation invites the reader to be an active participant on the journey. Why should one even bother to make the journey? Well, throughout more than 150 years of Canadian history, government policies which instituted and sustained systemic racism, and the residential school system created "internalized racism, . . a lack of pride and honour" (p. 13) in the identity of Indigenous people.
Any journey necessitates some packing. Rather than clothes, toiletries, and a camera, Smith asks her readers to pack attitudes and attributes: a willingness to be open to new ideas, to be curious and questioning, to listen to others and to discuss meaningfully, and to think about facts which might be painful or difficult. Equally important, Smith asks her readers to "unpack" ideas and attitudes which are dismissive, defensive, and defeatist. She also provides the story of her personal journey along the road of reconciliation. Monique Gray Smith has had to reconcile the two faces of her own identity as both "colonizer" and "colonized", settler and Indigenous, and this has given her a dual perspective which informs this book.
The initial chapter of this four-part book not only "welcomes" the reader to the journey, but also introduces its organizing structure. Each of the following three chapters is titled by one of the three concepts represented by a braid of sweetgrass: Honesty, Love, and Kindness. Some First Nations make seven-strand braids, each strand of which represents one of the Seven Sacred Teachings: Honesty, Respect, Love, Courage/Bravery, Truth, Humility, and Wisdom. As with all spiritual teachings, the Seven Sacred Teachings are multi-layered, learned by example as well as by direct instruction.
The second and longest chapter is titled "Honesty" and explores the reason for the journey of reconciliation. It begins with a well-known statement by Judge Murray Sinclair, who states that:
Honesty implies a truthful telling of those aspects of Canadian history and government policy which led to the residential school system. Smith provides an overview of the pre-contact era (i.e. the time prior to the arrival of European settlers). Despite differences between the various Nations (the word "Nation" is used instead of "tribe"), Indigenous peoples had a common world view, a highly developed sense of stewardship for the land, and a shared sense of responsibility for the raising of their children. Although conflicts developed between Indians (the term used to describe Indigenous peoples, until the 1980's) and settlers, by the terms of the 1763 Royal Proclamation following the Seven Years' War, lands occupied by the Indians "would be considered Indian land until ceded by Treaty." (p. 33)
Two crucial changes occurred with the British North America Act of 1867: Indian education became a federal responsibility and the process of Treaty-making began. "The Treaties set out obligations, benefits and promises for both Canada and the First Nations signing the Treaties." (Pp. 33-34) While education was a significant governmental promise, Indian day schools, located in or near First Nations communities, were often run either by various religious denominations or by the government and conveyed the message that traditional ways and beliefs were inferior.
With the Indian Act of 1876, assimilation became official government policy. Band Councils replaced traditional systems of governance and, perhaps most importantly, defined who was Indian and who qualified for Indian status. Smith makes it clear that this was discriminatory to women. In 1876, Canadian women did not have the right to vote, so this significantly challenged those matriarchal and matrilineal Nations where women were leaders. And, Indian status was patrilineal; if an Indian woman married a non-Indian man, she forfeited her status rights, and if she married an Indian man from another band, she would have to become a member of her spouse's band to have Indian status. The rest of the nineteenth century saw a series of federal legislative acts which further diminished human rights for Indigenous peoples.
Smith is fair and honest in presenting the revisions to the Indian Act which took place in the middle decades of the twentieth century, one of the most significant being Indigenous Peoples' being given the right to vote in 1960. But the 1960's was also the era of the Sixties Scoop, the removal of Indigenous children from their families, by "child-welfare authorities who deemed the children's parents unfit to raise them . . . [usually] without the consent of their families or Bands. (p. 38) These children were usually adopted into non-Indigenous families, who could not or would not maintain cultural and linguistic ties, with significant psychological impact for the children. And those families who lost their children to the Scoop suffered profound emotional pain.
Residential schools existed for more than 150 years, and they are the primary focus of the second chapter. A map of Canada shows the location and name of residential schools in each of the provinces and territories. Anyone who is familiar with the history of residential schools knows that the story is a shameful one, both for those who suffered its indignities, deprivations and abuses, and for those who inflicted them upon the students. Smith spoke of her difficulty in writing this portion of the book, both as a writer, and as a mother, but, in keeping with the sacred teaching of "Honesty", she honours those who had positive experiences and the challenges they faced in giving voice to their stories. During a sharing circle, one woman stated:
Her experience was not typical. Loss of culture and language (the two are inseparable), being assigned a number (instead of the use of one's personal name), physical and psychological ill health (due to squalid living conditions and grossly inadequate nutrition and clothing), and all manner of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual) are the substance of the stories which Survivors told the members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Illness was common, and at least 3,200 students died from a variety of ailments. Not surprisingly, many students ran away, trying to escape. Few were successful, and many died in their attempt. Recently, two extreme forms of abuse have surfaced: forcible sterilization of at least 3,500 females students in Alberta (p. 61) and the punitive use of electric chairs.
Residential schools were intended to sever the tie between a child and his or her family, and the result was traumatic, both for the child and the family. Parents were devastated by the loss of their children, as were siblings and other relatives. When children did return to their homes after their time at school, they were profoundly disconnected and were often left with feelings of not belonging anywhere. Disconnection from regular family life meant that these children lacked parenting skills when they had families of their own. One of the elders spoke of the sacredness of the bonds between parents and children: "that sacred bond was broken when children were taken away for school. It can never be repaired, and so how wounded is that mom and father, and what do those wounds look like in daily life." (p. 71) Nor were those wounds unique to those who attended residential school; anyone who grows up in any sort of family learns the family's "rules" and these rules of behaviour have often continued to influence subsequent generations.
However, the third and fourth chapters of the book offer hope. The third chapter, "Love", explores the concept of love as "medicine", a way to find healing and reconciliation. The 1980's saw many Survivors coming forward to tell the story of their experience at residential schools and, in the process, to unburden themselves. Financial compensation can never entirely mitigate the harm that was done, but the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) of 2006 offered monetary settlements, a claims process, and a variety of measures to support the healing process. Perhaps most notable was the public apology delivered in Parliament, on June 11, 2008, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While not received positively by all, for some Indigenous people, it was a personal turning point, marking a move forward in their lives. In 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was launched, with a multi-faceted mission that took its commissioners and advisors on a six-year, nation-wide journey of events and hearings which resulted in the 94 Calls to Action, the " 'how-to' part of reconciliation" (p. 96).
The fourth and final chapter focuses on "Kindness and Reciprocity" and how reconciliation moves from concept to action. Certainly, much of Canadian history demonstrates a profound lack of kindness towards Indigenous peoples. However, the final chapter explores the ways in which genuine reciprocity, the need "to treat people the way you want to be treated . . . the Golden Rule" (p. 102) is the means by which reconciliation will happen. The chapter contains several pages in which young people from a variety of ethnic and religious ancestries – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – reflect on what they have learned about the history of Indigenous peoples and how that learning has affected them. These are young people who can become allies, individuals who "work to support diverse groups even if they don't identify as members, . . . [people who understand that] It is in our differences that we find our similarities." (p. 118) Finally, Smith offers readers some answers to the question "What Can You Do?" Remember this book "isn't a read-and-do-nothing kind of book" (p. 10): it challenges readers to think, to reflect, to share, to discuss, and to act. Her final statement says it all: "one thing I know for sure is that there is always an answer. And it is never "Nothing." There is always something we can do. (p. 125)
I was profoundly impressed by this book, and the length of this review gives some sense of just how much Smith managed to "pack" into it. My work as a teacher-librarian in a senior high school and as a reviewer for CM has made me very familiar with much of the history of Canada and its Indigenous peoples, but I still learned a great deal from her book, and I did re-examine much of what I thought that I knew. Although the intended audience for this book is stated as being ages 9-13, I think that it could work with students up to and including age 16. Throughout the book, "Reflections" challenge the reader to think hard about issues, and boldfaced words and sidebars define words or concepts within context. Photos, both black and white and colour, tell even more than Smith's well-honed prose, and a collection of "Reconciliation Projects and Initiatives" offers both teachers and students some active options for continuing the journey of reconciliation. A listing of "Online Resources" and a "Reading List" provide a curated list of more material to research and explore, and a "Glossary", a "List of Residential Schools", and an "Index" complete this 158-page work.
Orca Book Publishers has done an amazing job of providing fiction for middle and high school students who are reluctant readers. Although Speaking Our Truth isn't for "reluctant readers", it continues to demonstrate Orca's commitment to the publication of accessible materials for young adult audiences. This is a book that definitely has a place in middle and high school libraries, and it would be a useful supplementary resource for teachers of Canadian history and Indigenous studies. Although the book is available as both hardcover and softcover, I am pleased to see that it is also available as an e-book, either as an epub or as a pdf. Buy a few copies for your library and for your social studies/Indigenous studies teachers. I believe that they'll be very, very well-used.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB, Treaty 1 Territory.
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