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From the admin chair

Truth and reconciliation in 2022

As an academic community, we have a responsibility to teach this country’s history and invite cordial debate on Indigenous realities.

BY CYNTHIA WESLEY-ESQUIMAUX | SEP 01 2022

University systems around the world have begun to embrace Indigenous knowledges and peoples, and to incorporate their teachings. One example is the 13 principles of academic engagement with Indigenous peoples, which have been endorsed by the presidents of Canada’s universities. Most colleges and universities across this country now provide space for Indigenous students and have embedded appropriate historic and contemporary curriculum.

I have learned without a doubt that it is imperative we tell our own stories. My own story demonstrates the ability to conquer fear and loss, and rise above societal discrimination. A child of residential school survivors, a high school dropout, a lost soul, who, driven by a powerful need to know, found her way into the hallowed halls of academia. I learned to embrace excellence, to strive for more, and to stand tall as an Indigenous woman. My strength comes from embracing and sharing my own truth.

We must tell stories that demonstrate a history of powerful survivance and knowingness, stories that speak to our true value, ring with the depth and beauty of our ceremonies, our dances, our songs, and that we remember the power of our drum. As we move this country toward the possibility of reconciliation, internally and externally, we must remember to ask ourselves, who is telling the story of truth? Is it a story that will provide resolution of historic grievances, or push Canadians further apart? There are those who have declared reconciliation a failure that must be fixed, and those who have embraced micro-reconciliation because this approach includes families, diverse communities, and is building strength out of humility and acceptance.

We must all speak courageously to the love of our natural world and each other because we are tasked to live and walk the reality of our connection for good or bad, to embrace the beauty of our diversity, and strive for a powerful unity of humanity. This is where we will find the true source of life and purpose.

Over the past 15 years, Indigenous truth-telling has prompted a regenerative process for Indigenous peoples. The light of knowing is shining on internal challenges and possibilities, and this has become the focus of our nations. The non-Indigenous community is being asked to do some soul searching and change making as well. However, their process is very different – their work is about understanding and embracing humility. Indigenous peoples already understand humility to be an important teaching that must be mastered to build good relations.

The history of this country is being revealed and non-Indigenous peoples whose ancestors were a part of the removal of Indigenous peoples from their territories, who sanctioned land theft and displacement, Indian residential schools, Indian hospitals, the ’60s Scoop, and numerous other impacts are being asked to reflect on the outcomes experienced by Indigenous peoples and make some hard (social and political) choices.

The task of colonists is to accept and live “vulnerability,” and find humility for their own healing and acceptance of the truth. The task of Indigenous peoples is to conquer what writer Gerald Vizenor called “surplus powerlessness” and ask themselves, “are we being good ancestors and perpetuating our languages and cultures?”

The historian Isaiah Lorado Wilner describes culture as a process rather than a product. In other words, Indigenous peoples are not static peoples or communities frozen in time. We are incredibly diverse and dynamic. And our blood remembers this, even if our minds have been forced to focus on intergenerational trauma, leaving us to do constant battle with internal demons. Despite this ongoing inner personal and community battle, Dr. Wilner’s research and that of others confirms an incredible influence on western thought and practice. Dr. Wilner shares how anthropologist Franz Boas came to understand “the global population as a single, varied, and changing community – a dynamic humanity with no frontiers” through his work with the Kwakiutl people in British Columbia.

Indigenous peoples recognize unity within diversity, diversity within unity, and we continue to dance and sing this truism. Indeed, the phrase, “all my relations” means exactly that, human and otherwise. This is the vision of truth and reconciliation Canada must embrace. And as an academic community, we have a responsibility to teach the truth, tell the story of this country’s history, and invite cordial debate on Indigenous realities.

ABOUT CYNTHIA WESLEY-ESQUIMAUX
Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux is the inaugural chair on truth and reconciliation at Lakehead University.
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  1. Stuart Stuart Chambers / September 1, 2022 at 20:08

    I have no issue with teaching all of the crucial issues identified by the author, but there is a temptation of becoming an advocate for a cause. To teach Indigenous Studies, one must teach ALL the history–the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is bound to include contradictions. Indigenous peoples may recognize “unity within diversity, diversity within unity,” but was this always the case? Did tribal warfare exist? Were slaves ever taken? Were the motives behind armed clashes–wealth acquisition, territorial aspirations, and control over trade–similar to those of other ethnic groups? The author is correct: “as an academic community, we have a responsibility to teach the truth, tell the story of this country’s history, and invite cordial debate on Indigenous realities,” but that includes “critical debate” too. Some of it is bound to make Indigenous students uncomfortable. There are no “good guys” in history.