By James MacDougall
On Saturday June 6, I had the opportunity of hearing acclaimed authours Lee Maracle and John Ralston Saul speak at the Harmony Centre in Owen Sound. The event, Wasa Nabin 2015: We Are All Treaty People was put on by the M’wikweedong Native Cultural Resource Centre with financial support from the United Church Justice and Reconciliation Fund and the Community Foundation of Grey Bruce. Introductions to the event were made by Seven Star Dancing Woman with an opening prayer by Strong White Buffalo Woman. The Circle of Indian Women Drummers performed the Bear Song.
Serendipity prevailed as this event occurred immediately following the release of the summary of the final report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission‘s investigation into the Residential School System. This served as a focal point around which issues of Canadian history and the relationship between native and non-natives were discussed.
Lee Maracle spoke first. She is an award-winning poet, novelist, performance storyteller, script-writer, actor and keeper/mythmaker among the Stó:lō people. She recounted her years growing up as a child and the chaotic famiy structure that she lived within. She explained how her own parents experiences with the Residential Schools contributed to her own upbringing and fractured family dynamics. She also countered many myths and stereotypes that are attributed to First Nations people through a lack of knowledge from many non-natives.
Her central message was that “all of humanity is one great circle” meaning that the walls we put up between us are from a lack of awareness and that what we all need to do is make an effort to “discover each other.” We are all on this planet together and ultimately we should be working together . Lee Maracle’s message was one of unity, respect, love, co-operation and sharing.
She finished by saying that for Canada reconciliation involves two steps. The first is to “face the truth”, of history, of the present and of the relationship between natives and non-natives. The second step is to “respect all 94 recommendations” of the TRC report. Her last words were those of the importance of unconditional love in all our relationships both personal and in broader social circumstances.
John Ralston Saul spoke next. Saul is a celebrated author and essayist, president of PEN International, and co-founder and co-chair of the non-profit Institute for Canadian Citizenship. He is a highly regarded philosopher of the relationship between power and identity.
Saul began by pointing out that Canada is unique in the world in the way our society and government function which he said is because of the historical influence of Aboriginal peoples on Canadian government and social structures. He then said “You noticed how generous she (Lee Maracle) was to you?” stating this was the same generous tone that the TRC report took even though it concerned matters of grave consequence. He referred to the report as “an elegant document, not legalistic or obscure.” and without hyperbole.
He went on to define what he saw reconciliation to mean and require: Respect, an awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm done to native peoples, that the residential schools were part and parcel of a project of cultural genocide, atonement through acknowledgement of non-natives role in wrongs done, and finally real change as per the recommendations made in the report.
He spoke of the role that education had to play in all of this; that there is a need to usurp the old mythologies and narratives about “Indians” and replace it with truth and knowledge.
John Ralston Saul sees the TRC as a turning point for Canada. It is an opportunity and a necessity to rebuild our country into an ethically sound nation-state. He said our global reputation was on the line and our ability to speak as a voice of fairness and ethical soundness was at stake.
He concluded by saying that just as we encompass Aboriginal identity into our visual mythology and literature through the contributions of native artists and writers, we need to acknowledge the very substantial Aboriginal contributions to our social and government realities and the origins of this country. he concluded with the observation that Canada has always been shaped by Aboriginal contributions even if we have not acknowledged these openly or properly.
It is not often that speakers such as Lee Maracle and John Ralston Saul make it to this neck of the woods. It was an opportunity that I and the hundreds of others in attendance did not forego.