The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wants Canadians to educate themselves on “residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada.” My friend Pauline Le Bel has started the Knowing Our Place Book Club to that end. She explained her choice of name to the group who met at our local library.
“As I see it,” she told us, “We’re not at the reconciliation phase yet, we’re still soaking in the truth, and also, I think it’s our job as settlers to know our place.”
Lee Maracle doesn’t much like the word “reconciliation” either, at least not the way it’s being thrown around lately. Maracle is the author of My Conversations with Canadians, the book that kicked off my participation in the Knowing Our Place Book Club. Her response to the question, What is reconciliation to you? Goes like this:
Well stop killing us, that would be a good place to begin… then maybe stop plundering our resources, end colonial domination–return our lands, and then we can have a talk about being friends.
I can imagine this woman, this voice in my head for the past 137 pages standing up on stage and taking a breath before offering up the answer. Her answer is so straightforward it is awkward-making, and there is an edge of humour in it too. Yet I can see this response being received like an exploding bomb, as an imagined attack on a well-meaning, wide-eyed innocent.
This passage mirrors the tone of Maracle’s book, and several book club members seemed put-off by it, stating their sense that she was being “divisive.”
Of course I noticed Maracle’s bite, but was too eager to keep reading to let it bother me. By the end of the book, I wanted to become friends with Maracle. I say this, though, realizing that if it ever happened she would probably mock me relentlessly, on good days. On bad days, she’d tear me into tiny shreds for my ignorance. I would like to envision myself persevering in this relationship, but truthfully I am pretty fragile. How far would I really get?
I’m not sure I would have felt this way a few years ago but I’m also not entirely sure what’s changed for me. As I contemplate this, my friend Chris Corrigan walks into the coffee shop where I sit with my computer. Chris spends his days thinking and talking about this kind of thing, so we dive into the topic.
“It’s the job of settlers to feel unsettled,” he says. “Being unsettled, if you can admit to that, it makes you vulnerable. It is through that vulnerability that you can start to build relationship with the people that you’ve unsettled.”
Chris describes Maracle’s anger as “authentic rage.” He says he’s felt the blunt force of that kind of rage more than a few times, and then brings up a moment last summer when a CBC reporter named Julie Van Dusen got hammered with it during a press conference on missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The reporter asked the group of women on stage whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a better track record on Indigenous affairs than Stephen Harper. Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, from Attawapiskat First Nation, quickly informed Van Dusen that the question itself was inappropriate, and disrespectful. After several re-iterations of the question (despite pleas from the press conference hosts to “just stop”) one of Van Dusen’s male colleagues stepped in to defend her, repeating the question, escalating the conflict. Here’s how Wabano-lahtail wrapped things up:
As far as how Justin Trudeau is doing, one of the things we have to keep in mind is we’re asking the United Nations to help us … Because your Liberal party was also responsible – every party, your every government that has been in power, there’s been a war conflict… Look how many people came to bat for you, white lady. And you’re a guest here. Without us, you’d be homeless. This is over.”
Chris describes the escalation, the defence made by the male reporter, as pure patriarchy. This may be so, but my first instinct is to side with Van Dusen. It’s easy for me to see the world through her eyes. I’ve been a reporter and made plenty of mistakes that I’ve been called out on, it feels terrible. The idea of being called out so harshly, so publicly, well it’s my nightmare.
Standing at my safe distance, I toy with perspective and suddenly Wabano-Iahtail’s rage makes sense to me. The women standing up at the press conference that day were brought to the stage by a nightmare more real, and a thousand times more devastating than my own: their sisters and mothers and daughters have been going missing and turning up dead for decades. The women who organized the press conference did so because they had something to say and needed to be heard, not because they wanted to play politics. Were the reporters gathered around them that day actually listening? If they were, they were too focused on their own agenda, too entrenched in their own perspective, to consider the problematic nature of the question they insisted be answered.
I doubt Lee Maracle was surprised to hear about this conversation gone awry. Her book, after all, is an attempt to push her own conversations with Canadians forward to a place of improved understanding. She could’ve spared us her rage and allowed us a more comfortable read, but that would have denied us her truths. Her rage explained is a gift, and if that makes us uncomfortable, maybe we need to face, explore and even explain our own feelings.
Maracle’s anger and sometimes harsh retorts may leave some feeling hopeless, but I find hope in the fact that this book was written at all. While Maracle may have rejected “reconciliation” outright, she clearly has not abandoned the idea of progress, of healing and the potential for human connection. How could she? There’s too much at stake for indigenous people in this country. She sees the pathway to that strengthened humanity in art, and by delving in and sharing, we all stand to benefit – and our conversations do, too.