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Motion 10 - Racism and the Harmful Legacy of the Residential School System

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Motion No. 10, which deals with the harmful impacts and the legacy left behind by the residential school system. The residential school legacy:

. . . is not an event that only occurred in the past; for some Indigenous peoples, this institution is a living history, and a lived experience that they are still processing.

This is a quote from Dr. Natahnee Nuay Winder in the book Residential Schools and Indigenous Peoples: From Genocide via Education for Processes of Truth, Restitution, Reconciliation, and Reclamation, on page 143.

Natahnee Nuay Winder, a citizen of the Duckwater Shoshone Nation, is Paiute, Ute, Navajo and African American. In her research article involving intergenerational university students entitled “Colliding Heartwork,” she states:

When former members have the courage to share their [residential] school experiences, it can become emotional and distressing for both the person sharing and those listening to their truth in telling of an event. . . . It is human nature to provide comfort and support and alleviate the pain. This action is where our hearts reach out to support, which creates space for where our hearts collide.

Honourable senators, this debate about residential schools will reflect how the tradition of debate in this chamber allows us to share our perspectives on the various aspects of the residential school legacy through a process we will call “Colliding Heartwork at Senate.” We’ve been given permission by Dr. Winder to use this term. The sacred space where our hearts will collide will include our allies — you, the senators.

In her 2015 book Strong Helpers’ Teachings: The Value of Indigenous Knowledges in the Helping Professions, Cyndy Baskin, a Mi’kmaq and Celtic author, quotes Patton and Bondi on page 490, saying:

Allies for social justice recognize the interconnectedness of oppressive structures and work in partnership with marginalized persons toward building social justice coalitions. They aspire to move beyond individual acts and direct attention to oppressive processes and systems. Their pursuit is not merely to help oppressed persons but to create a socially just world which benefits all people.

The end aim of Colliding Heartwork at Senate would be to help find a form of closure for these centuries of unresolved grief, including the recent and ongoing discovery of bodies of children who did not return home.

How will our future, as senators and as Canadians, look when our hearts collide? This work will encourage us to reflect and to come to an understanding of how diverse Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories and Indigenous lived experiences intersect with the work that we do in the Senate. It’s a chance for us to reflect on how former students, their families and communities have been impacted by the legacy of the agenda of colonized “education.”

How does one foster understanding, harmony and community from one race to another? One way is to share, hear and listen to each other’s stories in a safe way. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, or RCAP, provided space where former students could finally put down the burden of pretense and share the dark nights of our souls publicly, something we had never had an opportunity to do. This safety allowed these extraordinary First Nations people to decide it was time to step courageously into the fullness of their lives. However, when stories are told but publicly challenged, ridiculed and ignored — as has occurred on the Senate floor beginning in 2017 — the wounds remain gaping.

In her research work with intergenerational university students, Dr. Winder informs us that each individual engaged with historical unresolved grief has had that shape their lives differently.

Authors Brave Heart, M.Y.H. and DeBruyn state:

Historical unresolved grief originates from the loss of lives and land, forced abandonment of culture, and prohibited practices of ceremonies and traditional languages, as well as other vital aspects of Indigenous culture destroyed by the settler conquest of North America.

Indigenous students in the research exhibited resilience in the wake of [residential] school history through paying tribute to their ancestors, relearning their language, making cultural items, exerting their Indigenous identity, holding tight to their history, and wielding various aspects of their culture … including the importance and continuation of prayer.

Honourable senators, telling our stories is related to our soul and our spirit’s intention to increase not only our consciousness but yours as well. Our experiences that had earlier been kept in the dark become illuminated to us and to you. Bringing our stories into the light is the first step toward ending this dark relationship.

As a Cree First Nations iskwêw, or woman, I knew I would not remain in victimhood. I was meant to be more than what other humans envisioned for me. This was why I want to revisit the attacks on former students of residential schools that were launched — and protected — under the guise of parliamentary privilege. What function did this targeted racism and racial profiling against First Nations by a former senator serve?

Colleagues, in the training provided to the former senator and in her assessment criteria done by the University of Manitoba after completion of the training, it was noted that time was spent

. . . exploring the concept [of racism] in depth and how it is systemically embedded and entrenched within social, political and legal institutions. . . .

Reflecting on her past conduct, the former senator affirmed that it did not align with her obligations as a senator in relation to racism. It was said:

She noted how it has caused hurt and harm for Indigenous peoples and communities. She expressed sorrow as she sees how this is wrong.

It was also indicated that she took full responsibility for her past actions and accepted that she had breached 7.1 and 7.2 of the Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code for Senators.

Dr. Jonathan Black-Branch stated:

She leaves the program with further knowledge, ideas and understandings, equipped with new tools for approaching her professional work and her personal beliefs.

However, the belief of former students, including myself, was that she left the program much as she had entered it. This was confirmed in her exit interview.

In the session regarding the historical context of Crown-Indigenous Relations in Canada, Dr. Miller, a Sixties Scoop survivor, provided her feedback, stating:

In particular, she probed why it was a problem to post letters from people who had not had abusive experiences in the residential schools on her website. I discussed Residential School denialism and how some people could interpret presenting only those letters as contributing to the denialism narrative as well as the reality that given how recently the residential schools ended, we still have many colleagues and co-workers let alone elders whose lives were profoundly changed in negative ways by the experience and whose trauma is still deeply felt. Her response to this was “Oh — so it’s just too soon.”

Dr. Miller continues:

. . . I very much had the impression that she has been of the opinion that the success stories of a few served as justification for the pain of the experience with regard to Residential School and 60’s scoop in particular. I hope that it is widely recognized that just because one has survived a painful ordeal and had a successful life afterward, does not justify the pain one endured or demonstrate that the pain was necessary for the success to be achieved.

Indeed, Historical Trauma scholarship suggests that refusal to recognize and or validate the trauma is a trigger likely to deepen the trauma, which I think is directly related to the issues with her website.

On the former senator’s training which focused on privilege, fragility, microaggressions, triggers and anti-racism practice, Dr. Miller states:

We also discussed privilege and how it blinds you to the oppressions experienced by those who do not have access to the same privileges . . . .

She continues:

We also explored in great detail the ways in which colonialism as an ideology always relies on systemic racism to justify displacement, extraction, theft, and psychic or physical violence. Racism can exist without colonialism but colonialism is always accompanied with a prejudicial narrative, often encoded in law, to justify colonial acquisition.

As James Minton, editor of the book discussed earlier, states:

I do not believe that it is anyway justifiable to leave the addressing of the endemic problems and manifestations of individual and society disempowerment, and differential privilege, to the disempowered and non-privileged.

He goes on to say:

We must be acutely aware that the crimes of residential school systems cannot be reduced to the injuries experiences by surviving individuals — for residential schools systems were not aimed at individuals but peoples.

In the concluding chapter, “Reflections,” the authors ask the reader to find their own truths within those stories and move to a place that allows for restitution, reconciliation and reclamation. While the stories are tragic, our story will not remain tragic. For to do so disrespects and displaces the thousands of years of knowing, being, and doing that our ancestors passed down through the ages to ensure a healthy future for our peoples.

Acknowledgement would also mean some form of closure for the Senate as we resolve not to inflict more harm on First Nations people. This means that we, as senators, would leave more informed, more compassionate and therefore stronger. As we support the former students and their families, they would also get stronger. This would be an example of conciliation.

As Senators, what are our own truths? We will not frame our apology as an ongoing story of colonization, nor as a gesture attempting to exonerate blame for egregious injustices and colonial violence, of which residential schools are an integral part.

We will be issuing our apology from the perspective of “colliding heartwork.”

Honourable senators, I encourage you to join me in the debates towards unbraiding the racism, systemic and institutional discrimination and abuse that occurred in residential schools and its resulting adverse impacts — the effects of which are still seen and felt by countless Indigenous Peoples and communities today. This is an opportunity to acknowledge the harm that these schools have done as well as engage in change. This change will come by senators acknowledging the ongoing costs of the oppression of Indigenous Peoples and the need for broader social and political change.

I hope you will join me in speaking to and supporting this motion as well as its apology, which will redress some of the damage that has been sown from the Senate on this matter, both historically and of late. Thank you. Kinanâskomitin.

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