When Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered the residential school apology in the Canadian parliament on June 11, 2008 he stated the reason for doing so was that the lack of one was a barrier to the healing and wellness of survivors. I, though, thought his rhetoric was nothing but a pile of nonsense in that it was void of any real practical value.
As an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe who has spent a lot time looking at the history of the Algonquin land claims and self-government process at the doctoral level, I know full well that the contemporary process offers, for the most part nothing. The amount of land and resources Indigenous Nations gain in the contemporary land claims and self-government process is so miniscule that viable self-government is not possible. Let’s face it, 1.3% of our land base and three hundred million dollars will not cut it. Clearly the process is not a negotiation between equal nations leading to genuine self-government for Indigenous Nations. Rather, it is a perpetuation of a colonial and patriarchal relationship.
In the Anishinaabe tradition knowledge is located in both oratory and the associated practices and rituals that accompany and follow. Oratory and practices/rituals inform and re-enforce one another. As such, Stephen Harper’s words were meaningless to me because at the level of practice the contemporary land claims and self-government process continues to set huge limitations on Indigenous self-government.
Thinking through my Anishinaabeg worldview as I do I found Indigenous leader and cultural icon Elijah Harper’s more recent discussion of Stephen Harper’s oral apology of the residential school history and the accompanying practices and rituals interesting and affirming. Elijah, himself a survivor of the residential school system, was a keynote speaker at the “From Indian Residential Schools to Truth and Reconciliation Conference” in Peterborough, Ontario that took place on May 5th and 6th, 2012. This community driven conference was organized by the Kawartha Truth and Reconciliation Support Group which consisted of Indigenous peoples and descendants of settler allies and it was chaired by Alice Olsen Williams. The Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) as most know emerged from the apology that Stephen Harper offered.
During his quietly spoken keynote address Elijah Harper relied on his knowledge of parliamentary procedures explaining that the practices/rituals accompanying Stephen Harper’s apology did not match the oratory. Elijah explained that during the reading of the apology parliament was in session in that the Speaker of the House of Commons was in his rightful location – in the Speaker’s chair, and the House of Commons' Mace was in its rightful location – on the Clerk’s table. Elijah explained that these two practices/rituals symbolize that parliament is in official proceedings. These practices/rituals are always in place when foreign dignitaries or heads of state speak in the House of Commons.
While these two practices/rituals were adhered to during Harper’s oral reading of the apology, Elijah further explained that when the Indigenous leaders spoke the Speaker of the House left his chair, returning to the floor, and the House of Commons Mace was moved to a non-official location, indicating that parliament was no longer in formal session. It is clear to me that in explaining this lack of harmonization between oratory and practices/rituals Elijah was asking listeners to appreciate that Indigenous peoples were not respected and recognized as the Nations that they are.
Elijah, myself, and many others agree on the importance of land and resources in Indigenous self-determination. While talking with him after his keynote he pointed out that during 2010 the Canadian national domestic product was a whopping $600 billion. It was clear to me that Elijah was arguing Indigenous Nations are entitled to our rightful share of the wealth of our resources of our land. Interestingly, during Alice Olsen Williams’ workshop session, where she was show-casing a community quilting project, she began with offering the same position stating, “Give us our land and resources”. It was clear to me that Alice was arguing that this is where genuine reconciliation will be played out. Jan Longboat agreed with the importance of land and resources. This became apparent when Jan stood up and thanked Alice for her wise words.
After Elijah finished his keynote address I also had a conversation with the attending Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner, Marie Wilson, a non-Indigenous person. I blatantly informed the commissioner that as an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe I find the entire TRC process, meaning the apology and the events that are presently unfolding in Canada, to be patronizing. Of course she defended her position. Regardless, I did not budge; after all, I carry first-hand knowledge about the current land claims and self-government process where Indigenous Nations continue to be denied our land and resources – again the two resources where viable self-government is manifested.
Appreciating that I was not going to budge on my position about feeling patronized, the commissioner added that she is doing what the people want and feel is needed. My response to her, though, was “Yes, I understand that people need to feel that their grief has been heard before they can move on, that is if they can move on.” Regardless, I explained “After these people are heard, many may turn their attention to the practices [again where knowledge is] inherent in the contemporary land claims and self-government process, as I and others have, and they may come to realize they were duped by the oral apology”. What I meant by this is that they may come to realize, as I have in my thinking and knowing process, that the practices on the ground fail to meet the oratory of the apology. “Once they find themselves in this place, many may return to a place of feeling manipulated, denied, and lied to. And this new place may be a place of greater disenfranchised grief” I added.
In sum, oratory and practices/rituals did not harmonize and inform one another as they should have during Stephen Harper’s apology and in this way fork tongue discourse is alive and well in the Harper government, rather than being a colonial strategy of the past.
All this said, some people may wonder, “If I know that the contemporary land claims and self-government process is rooted in colonial practice and the oral apology lacks real substance, why did I bother to attend the TRC conference?” My response is layered. First, I attended the conference because I wanted the opportunity to listen to Elijah Harper’s thoughts on the apology and the TRC process. I wanted to learn if he felt the same way that I do. Second, I attended the conference because I realize that some residential school survivors do need a venue to voice what Elijah himself suggested during his keynote. That being “We need to forgive them”. When I listened to Elijah’s words I interpreted them to mean, not that we forgive them, move past our grief and move on, but rather that there is the need to forgive what the settlers and colonizers have done, and for that matter continue to do, in that they are indeed pitiful human beings versus beings that bear the intelligence, voice, and practices that members of the Tree or Deer Nations hold.
Dr. Lynn Gehl is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, she is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process, and she recently published a book titled Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts. In her spare time she carves nickel-sized turtles. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.