Tomorrow marks the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Also known as Orange Shirt Day, according to the federal government’s website, the holiday is meant to honour “the children who never returned home and survivors of residential schools, as well as their families and communities.”
It is a day set aside to remember the truth of the history of residential schools. Another truth is that Indigenous peoples are more than just their trauma. And, like other people, what we do is ultimately up to us and does not have to make sense to anyone else. This last part is important to remember when it comes to Indian residential schools and the churches that ran them because whether people like it or not, there are many Indigenous peoples who are Christians and that does not make them any less Indigenous.
Today in Canada we are seeing a resurgence of Indigenous culture, language, and agency. More and more First Nations are not only escaping poverty, but also in more than one instance have become economic powerhouses, employing Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals alike. And yet the focus seems to always fall on the poorest communities, facing the most problems. Of course, there is a logic to that. Publicity can help promote change, but it can also lead to a skewed view of Indigenous peoples in Canada today. And then of course there is the fact that as a species we like to gawk at disasters when they do not affect us. When First Nations are just another vehicle on the highway of life we maintain speed, but when there is an accident many of us slow down and take a look.
It may come as a surprise to some of you that as a discipline, Indigenous studies have increasingly called for people to abandon this deficit approach when it comes to studying Indigenous peoples. In part this change is a result of more and more Indigenous peoples becoming scholars. Unlike non-Indigenous scholars, who do not necessarily have a connection to community, we are part of the community, and know that things are a complicated mix of good and bad rather than some black and white morality tale. Indeed, when the scandal surrounding Carrie Bourassa hit the news, one thing that struck me in talking to Indigenous colleagues from across Canada was that no one could remember Carrie ever saying anything positive about her life as an Indigenous person. It was all trauma and generally seemed intended to make people feel bad for her or themselves.
This all-trauma approach is a common complaint made against Indigenous studies. It is said we are a grievance studies program. Not helping the situation is that in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission many well-meaning teachers decided to include content about Indian residential schools in their curriculum and nothing else. Rather than ignoring this criticism though, it is actually the driving force behind the call to abandon the deficit approach when it comes to studying Indigenous peoples. To put it bluntly, we already know about the problems facing Indigenous peoples in Canada. The next step is to work with Indigenous peoples to fix these problems and very rarely is the solution just telling people about it. Or to reference my current research project, the question is not just why did numerous proposed economic developments fail in the Finlay-Parsnip watershed, but also what did Kwadacha, McLeod Lake, and Tsay Keh Dene learn from it given their current involvement in the two industries that saw success: forestry and mining. Of course, even this statement should be qualified since as far as I know Finlay Forks never became the Trail of the North, with a smelter powered by a dam on the Black Canyon, connected to Fort St. James by the Turgeon Highway, and surrounded by numerous farms up and down the Finlay and Parsnip rivers.
September 30th is set aside to remember the past and is in many ways a success story from the TRC. But it is important to remember that the TRC was just as much about truth as it was about reconciliation, and the latter is about making things better, which means dealing with trauma, past and present, in a positive way.
It also means recognizing that Indigenous peoples are more than just their trauma. Success stories need to be recognized and celebrated even as the horrors of the past are acknowledged. A failure to do so reduces Indigenous peoples to the ‘other’.
Daniel Sims is the chair of the First Nations Studies department at UNBC and a member of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation.