SASKATOON — Reconciliation Canada held a one-day event in Saskatoon June 8, as it travelled across the country with a message of reconciliation, carried in no small part by Reconciliation Canada ambassador and Indian residential school survivor Chief Robert Joseph.
“Reconciliation really begins with you. The worst thing that could happen is if you all went home tonight and never thought about it again,” said Joseph, in closing the daylong reconciliation talks that took place at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Activities included a panel, various small group discussions and activities, and larger discussion circles facilitated by community leaders.
Joseph addressed the crowd on reconciliation and what it means to everyone: “I am nothing without you, we are less without each other,” he said, quoting his grandmother. “I don’t know where we lost the way in understanding something so profoundly simple as caring for each other. And in this great country of ours we now share a history that is horrific in nature, and that still resonates with us, you and I, people are still feeling the effects and fallout of the experience of what they call the Indian residential school regime.”
Joseph described his idyllic childhood in a loving West Coast island village, until the Indian agent took all the children away. His older brother and cousins would run into the forest when they heard the boat coming, and hide in the highest trees until nightfall. But eventually they would come back and they would be taken away.
“This happened over a period of 100 years, over 150,000 kids snatched away from our homes,” he said, before describing the indignities and abuse suffered, from basic racism to far worse. He lost his hearing because his ear was cuffed or pulled with every infraction. “After 11 years of that, by the time I had gotten to Grade 12, I was so beat-down.”
When he returned home, all his caregivers had died, and he drifted to extended family members’ couches and began drinking heavily. Part of the effect of the school was loneliness, so he started his own family. But eventually his wife and children left because of his drinking. A friend took him fishing, and he realized how ashamed he was and said, “God help me” — adding that it wasn’t really a prayer, as he was angry at God.
“I was looking up and saw the entire universe, and then I heard this voice and it said to me, “In spite of what you’ve done to yourself I love you and you are part of all this” — and I came back to the boat and slept for a while,” said Joseph, saying that ever since that time he’s been on a healing journey. “We all have value, we all belong to this divine place, and if we want to we can all seek and determine and find our place.”
Sitting in a circle, he had a second vision of a whirlpool of people but this time no voice guided him in what it meant. However, when he slept, answers came to him that survivors would heal through their own tears, sharing their stories.
“I realized then that we could heal, and we could rely on Aboriginal medicine,” said Joseph, adding that manifesting love so that nobody is hurt is key.
The first national TRC dialogue was hurtful, but gradually the tone began to change as people began to hear, listen, and shift. Apologies, acceptances, and forgiveness were followed by hugs, tears and more forgiveness. Relationships were transformed.
“I knew then that reconciliation was possible,” he said. “We’ve begun to transform our country, whether we know it or not, we’re already on the road to reconciliation.”
A recent poll said that seven out of 10 Canadians are interested in reconciling, and he sees it as evidence that we have come a long way. It has since grown to 84 per cent.
“That’s the good news, we should be celebrating. I know it’s difficult to hear the stories, but we need to hear them,” he added, citing the TRC report and the 94 calls to action as one place to start for the average Canadian. “This moment in Canadian history is unparalleled for its optimism, and for the hope that’s gaining momentum, everywhere across this country.”
He added that nobody is immune from trauma, but facing it is what keeps us from despair. “All of us Canadians, we have some notions about who we are — fair, we’re just, we believe in equality, we believe in so many basic virtues that we yearn to live those out, so let’s find a way to live those out,” he said. “It starts with you.”
He encouraged everyone to figure out how to put reconciliation into their lives, even just saying hello casually to a stranger on the street, or some other small act.
“Reconciliation is a matter of many acts, some monumental and some miniscule, but all of it is important to create a new kind of energy and spirit that we need as Canadian people, to elevate ourselves, to hold each other up, to respect each other, to honour each other,” said Joseph. “You see those are things we can do. You can hold each other up, you can love others; we can build a society where we can all walk with dignity, integrity, and respect.”