Monday, May 14, 2012

Day One Hundred Sixty Six: Truth and Reconciliation

The lake is steamy, still. White flowers bloom on tall bushes. I look close, and the flowers are clumped like Saskatoon berries. I remember halving a tiny Saskatoon berry and it is shaped like this flower. I look at the small green leaves. I look at the ski hill and see the white, flowering trees, mingling among the Chokecherries and others. Only for a little while do they let us know where they grow. Soon they will camouflage into the bush. I feel like an insider in this outside world.

I walk past the big tipi and there are eight or nine canvas tipis set up on the grass. I wave at a vehicle which passes me, then hear it turn around, and slow at my back. I turn. A friendly face asks me where the Governance Centre is.

I nod to my left. "Are you in town for the TRC Hearing?"

"Yes," he says.

"I'm a teacher," I say. "I'm bringing my students."

He smiles. "First I need to find some coffee."

"There's a Robin's Donuts straight across the highway." I point past the bridge, and curve my hand to the right and then over the tracks and highway.

He smiles again, drives away and I notice he has Manitoba license plates. It's not even seven am. I wonder if he is here for the pipe ceremony which is supposed to start at 7:30.

At about 9:15, my students and I unfold the banner made for us by Sue Bland: It Matters 2 Me. We walk in twos and threes behind Constable Muirhead who has her RCMP cruiser's lights swirling, leading us away from the school. We walk past the curling rink, through a detour, onto Broadway, and past the laundromat and car wash. At Robin's Donuts we turn right, onto Highway 35 to the intersection at Highway 10 where Constable Muirhead pulls out into traffic, gets out of her cruiser, and stops traffic while the grade tens cross the highway, banner leading the way. We walk over the train tracks, past the Coop Card lock station, past the All Nations Healing Hospital, and at the Governance Centre, Constable Muirhead stops her car, and waits for us. She waves us in, and we walk up the lane of the Governance Centre, the parking lot full to overflowing, cars parked on either side of the lane and beyond.

We are shown to the gallery, overlooking the inside of the giant tipi, which is set up like a circular board room below, with plush seats in a circle. At the front, opposite us, sits one man at a table for two, across from another table for two. There are two microphones. I see that this is the same man I gave directions to this morning.

We have walked in mid-leaders bringing welcome. Chief Barry Kennedy from Carry The Kettle is speaking, and one of his points is that every residential school location should have a monument, just like they do in Germany to commemorate the atrocities. Howie Thompson is Master of Ceremonies. He has a big, booming voice, and someone later says he emcees powwows. But now he is speaking softly, says he has green eyes, not Wallmart eyes, Creator eyes, and when he was in residential school he was beat for saying hello in his own language. Says its hard to hear the newcomers speaking their language so freely when he was punished just for saying hello in his language, the language of this land.

Chief Perry Bellegarde of Little Black Bear speaks of Peaceful Coexistence which was promised in Treaty but never implemented. He says his people have experienced others trying to bring civilization, then assimilation, then termination, and now finally integration. He says people are not just Residential School survivors, but Thrivers. Calls on non-indigenous in the audience to go back and talk to our people, the people we elect, write letters, get behind treaty implementation. He references the government's apology to First Nations people, but says that words with actions behind them are empty and meaningless.

Chief Mike Starr of Starblanket First Nation shares his community's healing process where they welcome people from all over to participate in a 28 day journey to restart healing. He also mentions an Elder's book, which he told us about when my students interviewed him for our book. He thanks Wendall Starr for his help, keeping the smudging fire.

Chief Jeremy Fourhorns from Piapot is only 32 years old. He acknowledges the prayer, elders, chiefs, community and "especially the non first nation visitors". I am touched by his generous spirit, and all the others who have also specifically mentioned non first nations. He talks of how the legacy of residential school is just part of life and how hard it must be for others to understand what this means.

Chief Roger Redman of Standing Buffalo shares his own experience with Residential School, and how it was a positive experience for him, like a big family, and that he understands being "institutionalized" and how people have trouble leaving the structures of institutions. He refers to the teachings and elders as the way to move on.

Howie talks of the indignity of applying for the IAP after the Common Experience process, then Edmund Pratt on behalf of Muscowpetung speaks so softly I have trouble hearing him, but I do hear of how he lost his uncles, his heroes, who suffered because of Residential School legacy, and how he was spared from the first hand experience himself, but losing his uncles to violence was a great loss. He says, "How are we going to get out of this? We have to keep talking."

Howie welcomes Chief Koochicum from Peepeekisis and then Tribal Chairman and President Edmund Bellegarde of the File Hills Tribal Council acknowledges, as most have, the prayers, elders, songs, chiefs, councilors, headmen, members of communities, TRC, and Justice Murray Sinclair for the important work that is being done. He shares his own irony of choosing to attend Residential School, benefiting from the matrons, staff, cooks, Kookums and Grandmothers, child care workers who were father figures.

Aggie Dustyhorn, who used to work with us at the High School as our school Social Worker, taps me on the shoulder. They are ready to take our students outside to debrief before we leave. We follow Aggie out of the Governance Centre, across the crowded parking lot, and one-by-one, bow our way into the tipi set up on the grass. Aggie leads a talking circle and we all share what we have learned this morning.

Mr. Cochrane picks us up with the bus, and we arrive at the high school in time to get the afternoon students lined up, ready to walk to the Governance Centre for the afternoon. We follow Constable Muirhead again along the same route. We trek up the stairs and join the gallery audience as Justice Murray Sinclair discusses the significance of these hearings. "Now that we know about Residential Schools, what should we do now?" he says. He explains that the future of our country will soon be in the hands of newcomers, immigrants, and they need to know what they are inheriting, accepting that this legacy is part of the future responsibility. He reiterates that all voices are welcome at the TRC Hearing and reminds people of the Health Care workers available if anyone is feeling overwhelmed of in need of support.

My students and I listen to three distinct voices, share their relationship with residential school. One is in his thirties, another in her forties, and the second in likely in her fifties. This is a great act of bravery we witness, as people tell personal details, on the record, in front of a full house. We are honoured to listen. There is a call for a recess. My students and I wait downstairs for Aggie who takes this second group to the debriefing tipi for another talking circle.

Once back at the high school I realize I have left our banner on the back step of the second level gallery. I drop by the Governance Centre on my way home. Snap a few pictures of the near-empty chamber below, pick up the banner, and run into Sue -- banner creator -- downstairs. She and I are chatting as Justice Sinclair comes out and he apologizes for not acknowledging the students. I thought they did, just as we were leaving, but he feels they should have done so earlier, while the students were still there. I assure him we'll be back tomorrow. He asks if I would write down the name of the school so he can acknowledge them properly tomorrow.

I walk out of the near-empty parking lot, toward the ski hill and home, the white flowers in the woods still winking their whereabouts. The wind is strong, cooling my bare, pale arms in the sunshine.

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