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Witnessing History: Looking Back at the TRC

Andrew Narraway, Witnessing History: Looking Back at the TRC

It feels almost surreal that the closing events of the TRC are over. It was the focus of our class for a month and the focus of indigenous peoples for over seven years. The work that was done is extremely important to the future of our nation but the actions taken now that the information is out are far more important. Already the Canadian government has avoided many of the recommendations that were brought forward by the commission, one can only hope that this is a trend that will change. Time and history will tell the tale, much as it has done so concerning the residential school system. As historians our job is to analyze the past and be a witness to whatever is happening in our present; our historical moment. The classic saying is that hindsight is 20/20 and if that is true we must really leave the true analysis up to future historians whose views will surely be changed by whatever outcomes arise from the TRC. For now, and for this blog post, I can only portray what I, along with my classmates, witnessed.

Preparing for the closing events brought certain assumptions that truly only come with academia. We are so used to reading about things as opposed to experiencing them, especially those of us who are historians. Until this past week I have never been confronted so readily with history that is both monumental and alive. It becomes such a numbing experience to read about past events. I have always been of the mind that we can never really know the past, that there is no truth only perception and what is created by the historian as an artist. Walking into the Delta Hotel and experiencing the living and beating heart of history happening before me only confirmed my already held ideas concerning Truth. The same feeling was experienced during the events, especially in relation to the perspective of Ronald Niezen’s work, Truth and Indignation. He went into the events of the TRC with what seems to be an almost purely critical and analytic eye. I went in being swayed by his perspective and ready to deconstruct everything before me as an “academic” (I don’t think I have the authority call myself that). To the possible dismay of Niezen, my predisposition to analysis was immediately destroyed by the first hand experience of these events. Being confronted so directly with people, their stories, and emotions completely changes the way you see things. Not that it is impossible to be analytical, there were moments where I did indulge myself, but it is so much harder being right there and experiencing it. In a lot of ways I feel like that analytical view should be left to future historians. Last week I was a historian of the relative past but for the moment I was in I was a witness, a witness of an event that will become the past for future historians.

History was not only present in the literal sense of these events being a moment within history, but it was also woven within the fabric of the TRC. History is really everything to the TRC. The history of atrocities committed within this country is the foundation on which it stands, the proverbial pulpit that allows it to voice its call for change. The primary way that changes will come about is through an acknowledgment of the history that has been archived by the TRC and an implementation of education that will fundamentally change Canadian history. Finally, the future events that will come from the final report and its recommendations will become a history for future historians to study and analyze where we went right, or wrong. History is an important tool for reconciliation, it is how people know themselves. When the history changes in this country and begins to acknowledge both past crimes of settlers and past victories of First Nations there will be a real change. The documentary Trick or Treaty by Alanis Obomsawin illustrates how a vicious cycle can be created through history by examining Treaty No.9 and its intergenerational effects, both symbolic and physical. The goal of the TRC is to break that cycle by revealing the truth. The past is seen as something that is still alive but available to be changed. As people we constantly look at the past as something that is gone and cannot affect us anymore but through the TRC’s closing events the reality of history’s effects can truly be seen. Colonialism is not dead, and neither is the legacy it left behind. History is constantly changing as the present becomes part of it, let us hope that the work done by the TRC is a turning point in this history, a splash in the river of time that sends ripples in both directions.

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