Derek Thompson – Thlaapkiituup, Director, Indigenous Engagement
An Affliction of Our Stories: Contemplating the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation
Reflections by Derek Thompson – Thlaapkiituup, Director, Indigenous Engagement, in commemoration of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Brave survivors, through telling their stories, have stripped white supremacy of its legitimacy.
Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in response to the Government of Canada’s 2008 Statement of Apology – to former students of Indian Residential Schools
My mom, Maude, was shipped off to the Saint Michael’s Indian residential school when she was four years old and at eight years of age, she was sent to the Alberni Indian residential school. She’d just turned 17 when I was born as her first child and just out of Alberni Indian residential school. Her mother and father, Irene and Micha, were also Survivors of the Indian residential school experience in Canada, and her sisters Lucy, Olive and Jessie, are also Survivors. I was privileged to be a witness for my mom’s formal adjudication process a few years back, and her testimony haunts me to this day, her story as a brave little girl enduring the lasting impacts of physical and sexual abuse, and all in an effort to determine how much money she should be compensated for her so-called suffering. But what really stays with my mom is the difficulty and discomfort of not knowing how to be a sister, not knowing how to belong and just be with her sisters. As a Survivor of the Indian residential school experience in Canada, she’s lived her whole life simply wanting to belong, to feel a sense of belonging, and that around this time every year, at the start of the school year, in the month of September, she goes through what she describes as our bodies and minds remember that feeling – of not belonging.
This past summer my mom shared a meal with her sisters – my aunties – Jessie and Olive. For a long time, there was a void nearly as vast as the known universe between them despite being geographically only hours apart. I watched video footage on Facebook of them seeing each other for the first time, and it was equally heartening and heartbreaking. My mom hugged each of her sisters and they cried, they giggled, they cried again, they looked at each other with their hands lovingly wiping away each other’s tears, they held each other closer crying all over again, they kissed each other repeatedly on each cheek, and the tears softened into pure and utter joy. The video abruptly ended, and not long afterwards I got a text from my mom, “Hi my Son, I’m out with my Sisters, can you please buy us lunch?” To which I wholeheartedly replied, “Absolutely!”
The time they spent together will forever remain between them. I didn’t even ask my mom how her visit was, and I’d imagine the experience itself was awkward and unfamiliar, emotional and difficult to understand, and altogether overwhelming in every way. But not so overpowering to get in the way of them taking great delight in each other’s company. I imagine three little girls, or teenagers, amused by all things trivial, foolish and cheerful, and as girls do they tell of all things treasured, hopeful and important, these women, now grandmothers, being transported back to a time before their lives were so brutally disrupted.
There are shadows that reflect only a bit of light, and there’s a darkness that lets in no light at all, distinguishable only by the passing of time and silence, memories and nightmares forever fixed to an ocean of grief, and yet buoyant in life and purpose. In this way, my mom has been a mystery to me, fastened but moving. I don’t know the reasoning that brought my mom and her sisters together, I’d like to know, but it’s not my place to know or even ask. There are some shadows that must remain barely lit, and some darkness that if you shone a light, it might just reveal something beautiful, like three sisters coming together to bask in the glow of love, security and acceptance.
My mom’s childhood throughout the horror of the Indian residential school experience, and her life that followed, is much like a story that has no beginning, a middle filled with inexplicable pain and misery as well as moments of happiness and confidence, and a conclusion that has yet to be written. But like any narrative, the ending is dependent on the structure and the accounting of a chronology of life events marking all of the core memories of experiences and feelings. There are chapters missing, some chapters abruptly ending, chapters with a single sentence, and some chapters written in a language indiscernible by the stain of time and silence. I wonder what this chapter means to her and how she’ll write it.
My mom and her sisters, like all Survivors of the Indian residential school experience in Canada, were violently forced into a system that was hellbent on killing the Indian in the child, stealing all that is innocent and wholesome and left victimized. All Survivors were abandoned with their own warped sensibilities of piecing together the brutal and unforgiving history of their childhood – this history that stole our children and who are children no more.
What is at stake in pastness for me is the future and the process of becoming. Truth-telling, reconciling with each other and coming to terms with history provides strategies for countering inequalities of power in the knowledge of the past. We learn how scanty evidence can be repositioned to generate new narratives and how silences can be made to speak for themselves to confront inequalities of power in the production of sources, archives and narratives. We need to make these silences speak and, in the process, lay claim to the future, and move the process of becoming to that of being. If history is being written in the present, if our stories are being told today, it’s time to change the debate of what history was and claim it as ours, and shape it into a narrative that shines a light on what it means to be Canadian in an era of redress.
As we enter this era, now or never, and into this third chapter to commemorate truth and reconciliation, it’s important to consider what is at stake, individually and collectively. How much you contribute to this work is dependent on, well, I suppose that this is entirely subjective. Because who I am to say what it’s dependent on? What I do know, is that we are never so steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, when we invent or otherwise rationalize the wrongdoings of the past, when we take comfort in the trivial and rote exercises of land acknowledgments and orange t-shirts, and when we enrich our privileges with a lack of sophistication. If our national story is hidden in the shadows of oppression and assimilation, if our national identity is based on the segregation of Indians to Indian reserves, if the story of the Indian in Canada is the story of Canada, then I think it’s time to drag out these silences of the past and quiet its deafening ignorance and hate.
For this third chapter to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, what will your story be? What will our shared story be as Canadians? How will we work towards ensuring that we create health and academic systems, spaces, practices, and attitudes that ensure Indigenous peoples feel like they belong, and that they are valued in a way that makes us as health and academic professionals feel like we belong as well?
Their stories of the past – my mom’s story, her mother’s story, her sisters’ stories – are unnerving for me in how untold stories haunt us and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive, and how long held secrets create the narrative that tells us that we’re not worthy of love, not worthy of acceptance, not worthy of confidence, and that we’re not worthy of a life filled with all things good and whole. Chapter after chapter, silence and time pen stories of tragedy, grief and pain unresolved in the span of our lives and often working its way backwards, and never learning that the most powerful story we can ever possess is our own.
This story was republished on September 25, 2023. The original version of the story is available on the Office of Respectful Environments, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion website.