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How everyone can participate in truth and reconciliation

Explore resources for non-Indigenous folks to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors and their families
By: Michelle Grady
October 28, 2021
An illustration of children sitting holding their cut hair with their heads turned down.

The illustration by Keitha Keeshig-Tobias Biizindam depicts the second thing that every residential school child experienced: having their hair cut off. From the artist’s statement: “And even if nothing else ever happened, that was enough. Residential schools cut Indigenous children off from their family and loved ones, their culture, their community, the land and their self-worth.”

In the wake of the May 27 confirmation of the remains of 215 children buried at a former B.C. residential school (external link)  and the confirmations that followed (external link) , Amy Desjarlais (Waabishka Kakaki Zhaawshko Shkeezhgokwe) and her co-members of the Rebirthed Teachings (Kiwenitawi-kiwin Kiskino-hamatewina) Working Group wanted to take action.

Rebirthed Teachings, founded in 2016, is a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous colleagues on campus who have come together to foster truth, understanding and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and to build an understanding about our shared history. 

Desjarlais, who is Ojibway/Potowotomi from Wasauksing First Nation, anticipated that more horrific stories about the residential school experience of Indigenous families would continue to come to light, making it imperative to look at our country’s violent past and walk a path of action together. To help, the group created a resource guide that shares educational materials and calls to action with the university community and beyond.

Why the resource guide?

As a knowledge keeper and aunty, Desjarlais has been facilitating cultural workshops and drum circles for some time, but when the news broke about the children, she knew it was time settlers (non-Indigenous people) learned and challenged misteachings too.

“Right after the announcement in May, I was watching the community’s reactions via social media. I know through the work that we’re doing with Rebirthed Teachings that participants have this response to the KAIROS Blanket Exercise (external link)  like they need to do something,” says Desjarlais. The blanket exercise, developed by the Aboriginal Rights Coalition in partnership with Indigenous elders and teachers, is an interactive way of learning the history most Canadians haven’t been taught.

“With that in mind, as I saw peers and colleagues in the community offer different actions and responses, I reached out to Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour, professor in the School of Social Work, because he had suggested a couple of different actions and because he's from the impacted community, Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, I thought it was important to touch base with him, and make sure there was collaboration and that I was supporting his work.”

Together, McNeil-Seymour and Desjarlais, along with her collaborators within Rebirthed Teachings, came up with the list of educational and activist resources to share with the community. 

What’s inside

Along with links to past work of Rebirthed Teachings including an  (google doc) aftercare toolkit (external link) , the resource guide features educational materials from the think tank Yellowhead Institute (external link) , as well as other educational institutions, links to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report (external link) , many documentaries and lectures to engage with and several calls to action.

For her master’s thesis, Desjarlais’ wrote Emptying the Cup: Healing Fragmented Identity, which explores an Anishinawbekwe perspective on historical trauma and culturally appropriate consultation; it was published by the Centre for World Indigenous Studies’ Fourth World Journal. “It included a guide for non-Indigenous folks to consult with Indigenous Peoples and to frame it as a relationship, and that’s where this work started.”

An approach to education and challenging misinformation we’ve been taught that starts with relationship building is essential to Desjarlais. “We approached the resource guide the same way that we did the KAIROS Blanket Exercise because, unlike the experience that Indigenous folks have had in learning western practices that was very traumatizing, it's important for me as a leader to make things as gentle and kind as possible. And to make sure that people come to learning at their own pace, but give them some signposts and support on their path.” 

Our responsibility as settlers

It’s really important that settlers take up the responsibility to self-educate so as not to put the weight of education back onto Indigenous communities, says Desjarlais. “The resource guide puts the onus back on the individual to do the work first, and then to come back to engage. Once that work is done, we invite them to continue in the community learning circles.”

Desjarlais also stresses that reading is only half the battle. “You can't learn everything just by reading and watching documentaries or lectures. It's important that you establish actual friendships and relationships with Indigenous People within our organizations. Reciprocation is important: you're putting in effort, you're not just taking from the community and not just taking from Indigenous folks.”

Fear has always impeded the relationship-building between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, says Desjarlais, and she hopes this resource guide does something to challenge any fear that surfaces in those that venture to learn from it. “There’s all sorts of fear: fear of the unknown, of what’s different, of growing as a human being. I think it's important that we challenge fear when it shows up because fear has no place in love (external link) . And that's what relationships are based on is love -- caring for one another as human beings.”

Monica McKay, director of Aboriginal Initiatives within the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion, who established the Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services (RASS) and the Aboriginal Student Centre, says that harmful knowledge systems still exist across the country, and work toward unlearning is essential. 

“The systems in Canada that ensure people know nothing about Indigenous Peoples are still in place. Dismantling that is really difficult, because it's so thoroughly embedded,” she says. “So I echo Amy’s thoughts on the fear of the unknown, and the fear of letting go. I think of Maya Angelou, saying, ‘When you don’t know, you don’t know. But when you begin to know, it’s your responsibility to do better.’ Seeking knowledge is not something to be entered into lightly because with it comes responsibility.”  

The work has to move beyond books, says McKay, into engaging with learning and unlearning in experiential ways that call us into relationship with others. “When I’m asked to provide a Traditional Opening in a good way, I often end my thanksgiving with: be mindful of your words, actions, decisions and behaviour and their impact on those around you. I hope that those are things that people begin to think about and incorporate in their whole lives, because that's where transformation and change happen.”

 (google doc) Access the resources Amy has put together for the university community (external link) .

Visit Amy’s blog (external link) .

To see Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour’s work, watch his TED Talk (external link) , or see him in conversation on P'èsk'a​ Picks (external link) .

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