The TRC Closing Events: Reflections of an Aboriginal Student
Pitseolak Pfeifer, The TRC Closing Events: Reflections of an Aboriginal Student
I can say that I became part of history last week and that I am proud of having done so. I participated in one of the most important recent events in our country’s history, which brought Canadians together by the thousands. All of the Walks for Reconciliation held throughout Canada on the occasion of the TRC’s hearings in other cities have seen tens of thousands of Canadians walk together for a common purpose. Unlike the G7, Occupy movement, or other large protests that have brought thousands of Canadians to the streets, the purpose of these walks was informed by human love, empathy, and a desire to set up new beginnings. The Closing Events of the TRC in Ottawa brought Canadians from all walks of life, from different parts of Canada, and from all ages together for one purpose: to connect at a human level and to bring about social change together.
If the history books do not capture the human element of the TRC’s work over the years, then I believe we will once again fail to learn the true lesson of reconciliation: that reconciliation requires bringing people together in a positive way, so that we can continue our lives on a more equal footing in the future. That is, reconciliation means participating in the foundation of new beginnings.
I found myself in a unique position — I wore many “hats.” I was a witness, an ally, a supporter, a comforter, a family member, an Aboriginal person, an Inuk, and a university student. The magnitude of this learning opportunity did not escape me for one moment. Through these events I learned about historical relations between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state, but I also learned about myself and the many identifications that I embody. And, I learned that there is hope. As Justice Sinclair noted, the residential schools’ effects and the broken relations between Aboriginal peoples and Canada is Canada’s problem, not only Aboriginal peoples’ problem. There was a feeling shared among participants that there is now a willingness to mend this relation together.
My life experiences brought me to that moment in time, at the right time. The forces of the universe always do this for us, whether we like it or not, and whether we learn from it or not. I may not have been a survivor of the residential schools, but I have been a victim of the effects of colonization. In my lifetime, I have witnessed racism, violence, suicide, abuse, and patronizing, demeaning and hateful conduct of settler descendants against my people. White men while in secondary school up North and in my teens in southern Canada sexually abused me. I know what it is like to struggle with lifelong feelings of worthlessness and suicide attempts, and with self-destructive behaviour.
I have lost much in my life, but while I was among the crowd witnessing the events, sitting next to survivors and Elders, I silently cried for those that have suffered for years. I know what it was like for those children. I sat and stood alongside many non-Indigenous people during the week. I saw church members who, not out of guilt, made themselves available to Survivors. I saw the tears of Canadians who felt compassion and love. The lesson I was there to witness is that regardless of what I and many thousands of Aboriginal people and children have endured, not everyone is suspect, not everyone is racist, and there is hope for our country.
When I left home to attend the events, I remember thinking that the whole country should witness them. The emotion and energy I felt while participating made me realize though that, regardless of our small numbers, our collective presence sent out prayers to the universe with hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow. History books can never seem to capture the energy that accompanies change. Western historical accounts are often read like a book or seen like a video, without grasping the dreams, prayers, and hopes for change. The universe does that for us. Energy is always flowing. Change is happening.
Ronald Niezen, in his book, Truth & Indignation, describes how templates are used in witnessing events such as the TRC, where participants engage in clapping or silence to show solidarity and respect. I chose to be silent, to listen, to hug, to smile, and to shake hands. I have been changed forever.
Ronald Niezen, Truth & Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.