If you had to distill the entire process of Truth and Reconciliation into one meeting, it would look like Gary Champagne’s talk on the evening of Saturday, February 18 at the Arbor Gallery.
There’s a lot to that statement. A lot of history, a lot of people, a lot of policy, a lot of pain.
You’ve likely heard the terms “truth” and “reconciliation” a few times in the past year and a bit. From a political and technical standpoint, TRC is a commission set in place by the federal government to investigate the lasting effects of the residential school system. In 2015, the commission released a report outlining the devastating impacts of the schools on First Nations people.
From a societal standpoint, it’s a step towards facing an uncomfortable chapter in Canada’s history.
The title was Truth and Reconciliation — Is Canada Ready? (My Personal Experience). There were about 20 of us sitting in a circle for the talk. Champagne explained this was a tradition for First Nations communities when they had events or announcements to make. He then asked how people trace their lineage. Two men to my right raised their hand saying they’re First Nations.
Afterwards, Champagne cited his experience working with Aboriginal communities while both in and out of government for the majority of his professional career. “What I’m giving you tonight is my version of what I believe is the case when it comes to ‘Us’ and the Aboriginal communities.”
Then he launched into a history lesson.
The attempt, I think, was to show how settler relationships with First Nations has been a centuries-long, systemic elimination of a people. But, that message was lost behind a hodgepodge of dates and names and titles—all coasting well above our heads.
Finally, after an hour or so, we took a break for refreshments.
I noticed one of the men who identified as First Nations walked directly to Champagne and they spoke for nearly the whole 15-minute break. As we settled back into our chairs, Champagne called on the man to step forward to speak.
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‘I keep my hair on’
“My name is Gil McGillivray,” he said. He has thick white hair and a mustache to match. His eyes flit about the room.
“Back in 1962 to 1967, I was part of the Indian Residential School. Being part of the Indian Residential School, I never really got to know my cousins, or my parents that well. To me, it felt like I was a prisoner of war, at that young age. I can remember the buildings. They were old army barracks… It’s taken me a long time to get over this.”
He didn’t speak for long, but what he said sparked the crowd. McGillivray started fielding questions about his experience. How do you manage the anger you must feel deep inside? “I do it for my kids’ sake, I do it for my family’s sake. When I was in residential school, they cut off all my hair and being 60-years old now, I keep my hair on.”
How do you think you got over it? “There are many nights where I still wake up. I have a bat in my room, a couple sticks. Because I was sexually abused and to me, to have that safety net to have a bat in my room, it sort of protects me and my family from any hurt…To have others I can talk to, my number one being my wife, who understands much of what I’ve gone through.”
Where before, dates and names floated above our heads, now the weight of McGillivray’s words hovered over the room, making us shift in our seats. A couple people sniffled and wiped their eyes. There was a shift in the room as a stark dichotomy between both speakers emerged. When the talk began, it was about policy and the System, now we saw and heard the effects of that System. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, the loss of identity.
After McGillivray sat down, Champagne continued talking, but it was much more casual. He shared anecdotes of his interactions with First Nations throughout his career. Some are funny, others serious. Most have to do with meetings between officials, though. Always politics.
Giving space and getting uncomfortable
This is not a slight against Mr. Champagne, in fact he’s been one of the more vocal local voices when it comes to relationships with First Nations. The talk was well-intentioned and informative, but in those moments, he represented the government, the politics, the oppressors.
As soon as the two men raised their hands to say they were First Nations people, the talk could have shifted into a dialogue rather than a presentation; both parties meeting eye-to-eye.
The discussion about Truth and Reconciliation is far from over, and McGillivray called it “a slow process.” It’s difficult, it’s complex, and it’s important it continues. It’s high time we break down that bureaucratic degree of separation, and for policy to start reflecting and promoting change as opposed to standing in its way. That begins by making connections on a personal level and giving Aboriginal peoples the space needed to express their concerns, and working with them on an equal playing field.
To hear parts of the talk, listen to our February 24 podcast.