By: Robert-Falcon Ouellette
Winnipeg Free Press
While many Manitobans were planning at the end of March to take the kids on well-deserved vacation in the sun, I was driving a car-full of kids north -- to Edmonton where they would hear, first-hand, testimony of survivors of Canada's residential schools. Not the typical break from school, but I wanted them to be able to say one day they witnessed the final event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
I and my children are victims, indirectly, of those schools, and the devastating legacy of a federal policy that had long, generational impact on First Nations people. My father, my aunts and uncles and my grandparents went to Indian residential schools. My father was a "stereotypical Indian," down on his luck, the quintessential violent alcoholic. He had failed out of his dream of law school and, in the process, failed his family and children.
Life was hard.
In Edmonton, I heard testimony that would make your hair stand on end of sexual, physical, and mental abuse suffered by children as young as five, those now referred to as survivors.
In its five-year mandate, the commission travelled to every province and heard from survivors and other Canadians. While the federal government made an apology in 2008, it seems that little has changed in the relations between aboriginal peoples, Canadians, and their government.
A better question may be "does anyone really care?"
The era, though, is a living history with effects that are being felt today in every city and province of Canada with the children and grandchildren of survivors suffering the trickle-down effects.
Many people say "just get on with it and get over it." However, unless one has walked in a survivor's moccasins and experienced the pain, it's too easy to say this without looking for real solutions.
The epicentre of the long-term effects of residential schools is in Winnipeg. Winnipeg has the largest concentration of aboriginal peoples in Canada, numbering 68,000, and suffers many social ills that not only disproportionately affect the aboriginal population but also affect the standard of living of all citizens.
The big question in Edmonton was "has it been worth the effort?"
There has been great success in determining truth of the residential schools but the reconciliation has yet to be truly understood or defined. In my conversations with non-aboriginal people, they are aware that these crimes against children were committed in our country and that it was perpetuated by our federal government in their name, but many wonder what they can do as simple citizens.
In the TRC's five years, I never heard any politician talk about practical solutions, referring instead to more understanding and working together.
The issue is far deeper in Winnipeg; it concerns how we live together.
Many, but not all, view the aboriginal population as crime-ridden, poor, uneducated, involved in CFS, bad parents, and the list could go on. But indigenous peoples in Winnipeg also view the non-aboriginal population in an equally harsh manner: privileged, overbearing, not understanding and as having obtained their positions in society on the backs and lands of indigenous peoples. Reconciliation is tough when viewed at these extremes.
Our city is a very divided city, separated by railway tracks, by rivers, by languages and cultures, by poverty, and by wealth. We have created mutually exclusive spaces we share only during Jets games.
Winnipeg needs strong civic leadership to rethink our city and how it is designed, to determine how we can live together so reconciliation is not about empty words but rather about slowly changing how we interact with each other. We need to destroy the ghettos of the suburbs and the inner city that have created large pockets of poverty, unemployment, fear of the other and feelings of hopelessness.
People are looking for civic leadership in politicians; it's not about the lowest common denominator or buzzwords, but about who is willing to risk their political careers in the ideals of service, the common good and getting buy-in on bridging the great divide, from all Winnipeg citizens.
This is my vision of truth and reconciliation for our Winnipeg.
Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a program director of the Aboriginal Focus Programs at the University of Manitoba, earned his PhD from Laval University in 2011. He is married with five beautiful children.