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âcimostâtowak, Stories we tell: Truth as the Path to Reconciliation

*Photo by Mike Graeme

My name is Mathew Dueck, and I am the Associate Vice-President, Distance and Part-Time for the Students’ General Association (SGA) at Laurentian University and a fourth year-Indigenous Social Work student. I am of the Buffalo Clan, and my Spirit Name is Gimewan Niimi, meaning “Rain Dancer.” I firmly believe that Indigenous voices must be amplified and celebrated, and what is written here is a brief introduction to concepts such as colonization and oppression, truth and reconciliation. First, though, it is important for me to share that, being of mixed ancestry and raised in a white home, I am conscious of colonial violence from the perspective of those who have promoted it in its many forms, as well as those who have suffered

The chronology of Indigenous peoples in Canada not only documents a narrative earmarked by oppression but is also reflective of themes of decolonization, resiliency, empowerment, and resurgence. To understand how these concepts frame our current context, we must first consider how we understand history, knowledge, and truth.

History, or historia, is derived from Greek and Latin roots, and means “to know” through “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation”. This definition implies that knowing is not a passive encounter with knowledge, but rather a quest you actively engage in. The concept of tapwewinin known in my nêhiyawak (Cree) tongue as “the act of telling the truth,” is not much different, at least as it exists within an Indigenous paradigm. As a sort of metaphorical dance between meaning-making and storytelling, alongside teachings and histories, tapwewinin is a living, breathing, and ever-evolving force. As an Elder once explained, it is to be worn as an entity not separate from one’s identity. Truth and history, at their core, are intimately connected. A telling of history born from truth-telling, showcases a rich and multi-faceted narrative that is by no means simplistic or one-dimensional. The chronicle of Indigenous peoples is likened to a painting, painted by many painters, although it has all too often been overshadowed by non-Indigenous historians and scholars allowing grossly oppressive acts of genocide to fade into the background.

Canadian history textbooks taught in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary classrooms undeniably exemplify the advancement of patriotism through careful descriptions of events and characters, woven together authoritatively. Storylines brand European explorers as the so-called “discoverers of Canada,” well-intentioned heroes worthy of garnering high praise and attention. The “Indian,” on the other hand, is supposedly in great desperation of what the Europeans can offer, but is by his own misfortune, unruly and unsophisticated. This is illustrated in “Breastplate and Buckskin,” a textbook written in 1953 and used for many decades, describing “Indians” as “warriors who dressed as devils and pranced about trying to scare French explorer, Jacques Cartier.” (The reaction noted to this is: “the Frenchman smiled.”)

Perhaps most confounding is that while textbooks and curricula used in the Canadian education system have stoked this narrative, content discussing the residential school system, or the sixties-scoop, has been largely absent. In 2012, Justice Murray Sinclair shed light on this issue, stating: “I expect that I will still be approached in five, ten or fifteen years by people saying, ‘I received my elementary, secondary and post-secondary education in this country, and I never heard a single thing about the Indian Residential schools.’” It is clear that knowledge and its dissemination have missed the mark on truth-telling, and, as a result, students, including university graduates, are left with a fiction and the truth is lost.

According to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2011), the Nishnaabemowin verb, “biskaabiiyang,” or “to look back” essentially means that in order to “return to ourselves” through a deconstruction of colonization, and ultimately reconciliation, Indigenous and non-Indigenous intellectuals and communities must be willing to work individually and collectively to critically examine the impacts of colonialism in all its manifestations. She writes, “we are still enmeshed in the insidious nature of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and this means that I need to keep Biskaabiiyang present in my mind when I am making my way through the world” (p. 50). Indispensable to this process is the ongoing analysis of the roots of colonization and the branches produced in its fruition.

In 2015, ninety-four “Calls to Action” were outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ (TRC) Final Report “in order to redress the legacy of residential schools and

advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.” Areas for redress include, but are not limited to, child welfare, education, youth programs, and health. Since the release of the report, “reconciliation” has become a sort of buzzword that has occupied much of the Canadian political landscape, and while progress has been made, a plethora of barriers persist, particularly in relation to self-government processes, access to equitable healthcare, and clean water, as well as within the child welfare system, in which Indigenous children are overrepresented. Despite these barriers, Indigenous people endure in their resistance and healing, and have made invaluable inroads in broader Canadian cultural and social identity. Asserting sovereignty over the narrative of their own people, Indigenous storytellers persevere, shaping Canada positively.

Yet, the conversation on reconciliation must concede that truth comes before reconciliation and requires admitting to the past and current harms done to Indigenous people. As Riley Yesno (2018) states, “the truth is, there is no Canada without Indigenous people; they are the original, foundational, fundamental parts of this land. Instead of trying to make room for them in colonial systems and institutions that were never meant for Indigenous people to exist within, we need to find the willingness to tear it all down and reimagine what a nation that respects truth might look like—and then build that nation.”

 

Mathew Dueck is currently pursuing an Honours Bachelor of Indigenous Social Work at Laurentian University, situated on the traditional territories of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek and the Wahnapitae First Nations. With nēhiyawak (Plains Cree) and Red River Métis roots, and raised in the Mennonite tradition, Mathew aspires to apply his insights as an up-and-coming researcher and policy developer to issues of accessibility, mental health, and Indigenous representation in post-secondary education. Similarly, motivated in utilizing the cultural seeds of his upbringing in Manitoba, along with his respectful connections to Mistawasis First Nation, Mathew has continued to promote the inclusion of those who have, like him, been faced with marginalization. Met with the additional challenges of having a disability, his research aims and career interests occupy the intersection between innovative advocacy and transformative legislation, where his passion for human rights and culture have already earned him a new name, proffered by elders in the Indigenous community: Gimewan Niimi (Rain Dancer). Buoyed by a vision for inclusive educational experiences that find ground in the teachings of the Cree and Michif peoples, Mathew continues to stand as a paragon of diversity and resilience, sowing the seeds of truth and reconciliation for generations to come. In 2019, he was named a 3M National Student Fellow by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) and 3M Canada. He lives on Vancouver Island.

 

References

"history, n." (2019, September). OED Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/87324?rskey=IJP23r&result=1&isAdvanced=false

Simpson, L. B. (2011). Dancing on our turtle's back: Stories of Nishnaabeg re-creation,

            resurgence, and a new emergence. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Arbeiter Ring.

Tait, G. E. (1953). Breastplate and Buckskin. Retrieved from

https://books.google.ca/books?id=yIzQNAAACAAJ

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth,

reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Exec_Summary_2015_05_31_web_o.pdf

Yesno, R. (2018, December 14). Before reconciliation is possible, Canadians must admit the

truth. Retrieved from https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/before-reconciliation-is-possible-canadians-must-admit-the-truth/