Truth and Reconciliation: Is Canada Ready to do the Heart Work?

Written on 06/06/2021
Wilbur Turner

Content trigger warning: residential school abuse. For Residential School Survivors and their families, you can call the 24-hour crisis line at 1-866-925-4419.

In my social studies classes, I was drawing pictures of the map of Canada and plotting the routes of famous explorers like Jaques Cartier, and reading stories about the Hudson's Bay Company expanding trading throughout the new colony. It was the 1960s. It was these romanticized stories of Canada's history that we were fed as the children of white European settlers. No one seemed to notice the complete absence of Indigenous children in our classrooms. They had been erased from existence. What we didn't learn at the time was the brutal truth.

I am horrified. Canadians are finally waking up to the horrors of the residential school system following the revelation of finding the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops residential school. These so-called schools operated in Canada for over 160 years, with up to 150,000 children passing through their doors, some never to leave. My horror is not enough.

I shed tears. I listened to the stories of three work colleagues this week who are survivors of the residential school system. My tears are not enough.

I am angry. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources. If every Aboriginal person had been 'absorbed into the body politic,' there would be no reserves, no Treaties, and no Aboriginal rights." My anger is not enough.

I despise what the churches have done. I hate that the Catholic Church has failed to accept responsibility, failed to apologize, and failed to address First Nations people directly over this tragedy. My hate is not enough.

I am outraged. On May 25, 118 members of parliament voted against Bill C-15, an act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. My outrage is not enough.

I am ignorant. Growing up, I was oblivious to the afforded privilege I had as the descendants of grandparents who settled on the lands of the Treaty Six nations. I had no idea of the drastic impact of colonization and cultural genocide on the people whose lands were taken from them. I was unaware that I grew up on treaty land. My ignorance doesn't excuse me. 

When I speak to my Indigenous friends, I learn they have always known. They have always known about the children who perished in the residential schools. They are still experiencing the generational trauma and systemic racism that has penetrated their lives.

An Indigenous friend shared with me what I think we all need to hear, "The truth needs to be felt, not just heard. The survivors won't heal until this happens. I hope Canada is ready to do the heart work. Indigenous people have been leading the way... it's time that non-Indigenous people did." In a smudging ceremony at work, an Indigenous colleague requested that we "stop being sorry, and be educated." So far, how we have felt, what we have ignored, and what we have done is not enough.

Take Action

Get educated—research books on the residential schools. Take the Indigenous Canada course. Read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada - Calls to Action. Contact your Member of Parliament and demand court action against residential school survivors be dropped, and demand the TRC calls to action get completed. Demand that RCMP stops arresting land defenders. Use your privilege to amplify Indigenous voices.

Wilbur Turner (he/him), who identifies as gay and queer, lives in Kelowna on the unceded traditional land of the syilx peoples and has contributed on many levels to LGBTQ2S rights, both locally and internationally.

(Image Credit: Students at the Old Sun Indian Residential School in Gleichen, Alberta. PHOTO BY DISTRIBUTED /Truth and Reconciliation Commission)