Do you know that the question I hear most often is “how do I approach sensitive topics and events?” I always answer: with an open heart and mind.
Let’s discuss the topic dujour in Canada: the news of the discovery of a mass grave in what was one of the residential schools.
Were you shocked when you heard the news about the discovery of 215 dead bodies of Aboriginal children? What went through your mind when you heard that the mass grave of the Kamloops Residential School held remains of children as young as three years old?
The political leaders in Canada rushed to affirm their shock and horror at this news and that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (The Commission) will work hard to heal our country in the wake of this discovery and move forward with our lives.
The reality is that this is not the first time evidence of Canada’s genocide of Aboriginal people has surfaced. And this is not the first time the Truth & Reconciliation Commission is paraded front and centre, giving the appearance of action and progress. In fact, what we see happening is a well established strategy to create the appearance that our leaders are working hard to bring about closure, so we can say “never again”.
This all rings hollow to those who are familiar with Canada’s history. The promise to “never again” and sending “thoughts and prayers” into the social ether look like attempts to keep up the appearance of Canada’s clean hands.
The Commission is essentially compelling the oppressed survivors to collaborate with their oppressors, blurring the lines of victimhood and obscuring the patterns of oppression- creating a self-sustaining loop of control of the narrative. Those who control the narrative have the power to undermine and silence the voices of survivors in an attempt to erode their resilience, their history and their humanity.
“Never again” happens again and again, a slogan that is treated as a mantra but reeks of criminality and genocide. The “never again” narrative has become a way for Canadian Settlers to continuously become increasingly disassociated and estranged from news that upsets them. It is an attempt to gaslight the survivors of Residential Schools and its genocidal agenda.
The Commission is effectively an attempt to abrogate the Canadian government from guilt and thus, stay away from any truly restorative and healing action towards the Aboriginal people.
It serves as a tool to simplify the narrative, misleading the public into thinking that their understanding of what happened in Residential Schools is truer than that of the families and survivors of this part of Canadian history. That the inexplicable and horrendous conditions they had experienced, the difficult decisions they were forced to make and the genocide their endured is over-dramatized.
If we continue focusing on these events as separate entities then there really is no hope for change—we will eternally remain as hamsters running the same rungs, on the same wheel and keep saying “never again”.
If we do want to create reconciliation and equity the commitment we need to make is willingness to listen to, search for, and eliminate social structures which normalize differences in power and privilege.
None of the gimmicks we try will work, instead we must embrace the commitment to honesty in the face of our settler past and make tangible reparations. We can only do that if we invite the Aboriginal people to the table and give them the stage. Support them as they tell their truth and work with them to make reparations that are meaningful to THEM—instead of offering superficial platitudes.
The “never again” mentality that emerges every time a horrific and appalling mass crisis occurs; puts a pressure to create the appearances of action that will ensure nothing like that ever occurs again. This way the focus becomes not the truth and reconciliation, but on creating a narrative of responsiveness. It’s a dangerous narrative, one of platitudes and silence. Primo Levi wrote about the danger that lies in this form of simplified, censored thinking: “In countries and epochs in which communication is impeded, soon all other liberties wither; discussion dies by inanition, ignorance of the opinion of others becomes rampant, imposed opinions triumph… and censorship promotes ignorance of the arguments of others and thus intolerance itself: a rigid, vicious circle that is hard to break.” (Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved).
Why is this so? Because privilege protects privilege.
So what can we do? We can offer our Aboriginal friends the stage so they can tell their story without us being ready to jump in to defend ourselves or our ancestors. They will tell you what they need. Make no mistake, they are communicating with us clearly. We know what the Residential School initiative was created for and that we have families that are still struggling with the generational trauma inflicted on them. We know that the Aboriginal Elders are voicing the truth clearly. And we know what they are asking for so they can start healing.
The Truth & Reconciliation Commission is not enough if we’re not willing to listen to the truth. And it’s not enough if the discovery is not followed by action and effort that is meaningful to the Aboriginal people as voiced by them.
It’s our collective shame and it’s our collective failure to ascribe solutions based on our comfort level. The truth is not easy to hear, but it is worse to have lived.
Let’s learn to listen with intent and work on solutions jointly.
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