First Nations must turn the page on residential schools
TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Mar. 31 2014. Shawn Atleo
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has held its final public event, and I was honoured to be there.
The TRC was set up for former students of Indian residential schools to tell their stories, to raise awareness about the tragic reality of the schools and to help us all move toward reconciliation. But although the final event finished Sunday in Edmonton, this is not the end of our collective journey to reconciliation.
Almost six years ago, I sat in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered the apology to former residential school students on Canada’s behalf. I remember his words. I remember the flood of words and emotions flowing from our people. I remember the words of then-national chief Phil Fontaine, responding to the apology and speaking of this “dreadful chapter in our shared history” and the need to face the “darkest moments.”
And I remember the words of my grandmother, who sat next to me, holding my hand, and whispering: “Grandson, they are just beginning to see us.” She told me about a dream she had of trying to turn a dark page, a heavy page. Too heavy. She knew it would take many people to turn it, for it was a page in the same dark chapter Mr. Fontaine referred to.
I have spoken many times about what is required for Canada to reconcile with First Nations, of the need to respect and recognize us as peoples and respect and implement our inherent rights, treaties and title.
But at the final TRC event in Edmonton, my thoughts turned to what reconciliation means for and requires from First Nations. This work affects me in my role as National Chief but also as an individual. I know about abuse and experiments carried out on innocent children – some within my own family – and the resulting deep intergenerational trauma. I know that trauma.
Through the pride of our culture and the strength of our ancestors, we can begin to move out from that embedded sense of trauma, move out from the darkness into the light of confidence in our future.
Through the truth, we must free ourselves from the bonds of anger and hate. We will never forget. But we must not burden another generation with anger and pain. We can give them the strength of our spirit, our songs, our languages and our cultures.
Children are at the very centre of our cultures, our homes and families. We can once again capture that deep care and concern for children. It starts with forgiveness within our own families – forgiveness in order to stop holding on to the pain and the suffering, so that we do not pass this on any longer.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Those experiences and the pain they caused teach us about not being victimized again and about not victimizing others. This learning will help us heal and it’s needed to rebuild our families, our ways of knowing and learning and of education. This is not about absolving responsibility – rather, it is something internal, a sign of strength. It can free us and empower us to move forward. It begins with our commitment to break the cycle.
We will take control of our lives, lands and governments. We will achieve First Nations control of First Nations education, a goal of our people ever since the first group of children were taken away to residential school – never again! We will take control not because of government, but because of our rights and our responsibilities, our support for one another and, most of all, because of our children. We will have the courage to do the hard work within our communities and with other governments. If our communities have been set up to fail, then we will push ourselves to answer: What will it take to succeed?
This is our time to put the next generation first – to listen to them, to nurture them. And in their hands, our cultures, our languages and our well-being will flourish.
All those things they tried to take from us in the past, we will gift to the next generation. That is our ultimate response to the residential schools, our ultimate act of truth-telling: to say, “We are still here.”
The new dawn is here. It is in the eager eyes of young children who want to learn, who want to know who they are, who want to know their story, their songs, their spirituality, the beauty of their people. Each and every one of us must be ready to see this beauty so we can act and shape change now within our families and our communities.
Just as my grandmother said: “They are just beginning to see us.” I believe she was also alluding to the truth that we, too, as a people are beginning to “see” again.
Shawn A-in-chut Atleo is National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
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