Natalia Khanenko-Friesen
January 2018

Oral History and National Renewal: Politics of “Truth and Reconciliation” in Canada since 2008


Opening the debate


Let me begin with a story. In 2012-2015 together with my students in the oral history course I run the project about one prominent street of my city, 20th Street.  We initiated this research because of the understanding that with an ongoing urban development and rapid gentrification of the neighbourhood, its current social and cultural profile would soon disappear. 20th street is one of the oldest in Saskatoon. Throughout its history, different groups—amongst them Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, East Asians and later indigenous people —resided or worked in the vicinity of what now makes up this street. In the early 20th century the area comprised the commercial and cultural center of Saskatoon: traders and consumers would gather there from throughout the entire province. After World War II the area became home to postwar émigrés from Eastern Europe and other displaced persons. At this time the street’s ethnic flavor and distinct energy changed once again, felt in nearly everything in the community.  Marked by new economic developments the street yet again became the heart of the city. By the early 1990s, the neighbourhood’s popularity among city dwellers began to decline. Shops, banks, and restaurants changed their façades, as did their customers. There was also a shift in the ethnic and social makeup of the neighborhood: previous residents either moved or grew old, new and economically disadgantaged people moved in. By the early 2000s the ordinary city residents began to avoid 20th Street. The reputation of the neighborhood suffered, while crime, both real and imagined, rose.

As part of our project, my students conducted forty in-depth interviews with residents from the neighborhood, as well as others linked to it professionally. Among those interviewed were successful restaurant owners, business people, politicians with national profiles, priests, and shop-owners. At the same time, students also interviewed former prostitutes, homeless people, drug dealers, and other socially vulnerable individuals. Because most of my students were members of the middle class and either belonged to the cultural majority, or to the established cultural minorities of Canada, they initially approached  20th Street with much apprehension. Yet interviewing so many individuals connected to  this street in such diverse ways, and later reflecting on recorded stories and their meanings, made my students better understand, and appreciate, the complex realities of this urban neighbourhood.

The life story of one individual  – I will call him Archie – stood out from the others. At the time of the interview in 2012 Archie was 55. He worked as an assistant manager for a local NGO, whose primary aim is provide support for the economically disadvantaged residents in this neighborhood. Archie is Cree, and, thus, a member of one of Canada’s first nations. He was born on a reserve located some 100 kilometers north of Saskatoon. I would have liked to write here that “he was born and raised there,” but when he was 5 years old he was forcefully removed from his family, as a part of the infamous ‘sixties scoop’ and sent to a residential school for indigenous children. As a result, he was raised outside of his family, within the walls of the residential school. Having enrolled in the residential school at such a young age, Archie faced numerous difficulties. He had to speak English, a language he barely knew. The caregivers and teachers lacked warmth, in contrast to his life at home, where he was surrounded with the love of his family members. In the residential school system, it was normal practice to separate sisters and brothers and to place them in separate schools for boys and girls, with distances between them often extending hundreds of kilometers. Correspondence with parents was nearly impossible, due to the language barrier and various institutional hurdles and practices. Meanwhile, the generally conservative religious atmosphere pervading these segregationist institutions – the residential schools were often run by Christian churches supported by the government – often repressed children who did not identify with the mainstream and could be severely punished for even the smallest offense.

Archie run away the school twice. The first time was when he was 8. While in school he caught typhus, which caused him to experience further health complications throughout his life.

Having spent his entire childhood in residential school, Archie grew up alienated from his family, including his brothers and sisters. He forgot his native language, and as a result, also lost the ability to communicate with his grandparents and other elderly people in his community. Such alienation from his family environment, familiar culture, and language has had an adverse effect on his entire life. He has had difficulty finding a stable job or maintaining stable relationships with people, as well as with the mothers of his children, whom he loved and cared for. The student interviewer recalled that Archie did not really complain about the residential school or about his supervisors there. Another prominent development of Archie’s life was that he had found an abandoned baby left in the woods. Unable to find the baby’s parents, he kept her and raised the girl as his own daughter, having surrounded her with much fatherly love and care. He suffered from alcoholism for some time, and he was homeless at some point. Eventually, he was able to turn his life around. Today Archie is actively helping others, who, for various reasons, have been struggling with various challenges themselves.

Saskatoon, Canada, marks the Aboriginal Day, June 21, 2015

Archie’s story is by no means a unique example of how indigenous Canadians have been systematically excluded from participating in Canada’s nation-building processes. His story deeply touched my students who mostly came from the Canadian ‘mainstream’ and middle class, and who, before they met Archie, had very few opportunities to communicate meaningfully with the indigenous peoples of their country.

The reason for this unawareness for the most lies in the fact that the historical experiences and life stories of indigenous Canadians have, for a long time, been unfolding outside of life experiences of the ‘mainstream’ Canadians. What has been thus far promoted in public discourses as a shared Canadian historical experience, along with cultural values that evolved as a result of it, stems from a particular historical memory, from which the indigenous perspective on a complex colonial encounter between the first nations and the settlers has been systematically exluded.

Throughout history and up to the 1970s, the dominant understanding and interpretation of Canadian history fully promoted the notions of progress, success and development, spearheaded by both colonial powers, an Anglo-Saxon, and French majorities. This vision of the Canadian experience had no difficulty equalling the appropriation of the so-called “free lands” by the British and French empires as progress and development. For a long time, the ideas of “progress” and “success” (of Anglo-Saxons and the French) served as prime metaphors in scholarly, popular, and ideological reflections on the “building” and development of Canada as a state and nation. The Anglo-Saxon and French thus positioned themselves as the two founding Canadian nations.

Starting in the 1970s, Canada began to gradually develop a new sense of what Canada means as a nation, by adopting in 1971 a policy of multiculturalism. Though the emphasis quite rapidly shifted from biculturalism towards multiculturalism, a renewed narrative on national history, despite now offering a new multicultural vision of the Canadian nation, continued to rely on the notions of “progress” and “success” as ideal tropes of self-representation.

The establishment of the policy of multiculturalism accorded various Canadian minorities, referred to as ethnic communities, wide opportunities for active self-expression. The most influential and established communities, among them Ukrainian Canadians, began to reformulate their own versions of the history of Canadian progress and success. In fact, Ukrainian Canadians successfully lobbied federal government to declare a policy of multiculturalism, and were actively involved in its creation. In my province of Saskatchewan, the provincial branch of Canada’s main Ukrainian umbrella organization – the Ukrainian Canadian Congress – annually conducts an important awards ceremony “The Nation Builders’ Award,” honoring the most active members of the Ukrainian community who are seen as the builders of the Canadian nation. In addition, ethnic minorities who were subject to discrimination and repressions in one historical period or another—this concerns Ukrainian Canadians, but also Chinese and Japanese Canadians—started seeking redress demanding from the Canadian government official apologies and compensation for moral and material damages.

Pursuing redress, these minorities engaged in the re-writing of their own historical narratives, Yet, in this pursuit, they continued framing their own participation in Canadian nation-building processes around the motif of the “builder,” insisting on their own cultural and economic contributions to the progress and success of the Canadian state. Therefore, while supporting the vision of Canada as a multicultural rather than bicultural country, ethnic minorities continued to promote the same understanding of the Canadian nation, as based on colonial notions of progress, success and development. Having long served as the basis for imperial thinking about Canada as once a ‘free’ land that was there to be taken and developed.  these notions continue to dominate many Canadians’ understandings of how Canada and the Canadian nation came about.

What was lacking in this historical narrative about progress and success was an explanation of how Canada obtained the rights to its vast territories. It is only recently that the centuries-old historical myth of Canada as the nation of progress and development has begun to collapse under new political pressures. Thus, Canada once again has found itself at a historical crossroads. Currently, the story of what is Canadian nation is being radically rewritten and a new historical memory is rapidly forming. This time, the life story of Archie, and stories of many other indigenous people in Canada come to a foreground. Archie’s story now is at the epicenter of the most crucial, in my opinion, contemporary battle for the historical memory of Canada and its nation-building narrative.

How did it happen that stories, about life outside of the Canadian mainstream society and about cultural and social worlds, so far removed from the ‘mainstream’ one, are not only being told now but suddenly are being listened to? And why now?

Again we must return to the 1970s and 1980s as this period saw an increase in the number of land disputes initiated by various First Nations throughout Canada. Many land claims were brought to a court and all questioned the legitimacy of the transfer of indigenous territories to the Crown, demanding the right for self-governance. Canada’s governments began to actively pursue treaties with indigenous peoples beginning in the 18th century, in the effort to secure full control over their historic territories. Such treaties were each signed on an individual basis, between the government and a particular First Nation. Yet by the time of signing such agreements, many of the First Nations were already economically dependent upon imperial overlords. In addition, many indigenous peoples were severely affected by European viruses and diseases, which led to high mortality rates. Centuries-old social relations, ways of life, and the political status quo of indigenous peoples were disrupted. Direct political struggle or armed revolt against the colonizers was not an option anymore, and so, one by one, each indigenous nation agreed to transfer the titles to their lands in exchange for certain benefits and promises of tax exemption. The meanings and terms of these benefits typically were poorly communicated to the indigenous people. And in the case of tax exemption, this ‘benefit’ was of a questionable value to the indigenous people, as they were never subject to settlers’ taxes nor even familiar with the imperial taxation in the first place. Among other promises that were extended, were the provision of welfare, and the retention of the right to hunt and fish in one’s native territory, fishing and hunting being the main means of subsistence.

There are quite a few territories in Canada today, that, once under indigenous control, were never legitimately transferred under the government’s control, due to the fact that land treaties were never signed (particularly in British Columbia, Québec, and in Canada’s eastern provinces). Land disputes concerning these territories were often settled by way of negotiations between the government and a particular First Nation. Yet some disputes reached the courts. The indigenous claimants faced an enormous challenge in their efforts to regain the control over their own lands. The challenge lied in the fact that they had to prove in the court their right to the land in accordance to the Canadian law and court rules. To succeed with their claims in court, indigenous people needed to possess adequate resources to be able to hire lawyers, to assemble all supporting documentation and so on. Yet, due to centuries of systemic discrimination, historically many indigenous communities not only were dispossessed and had no means to access oftentimes very costly legal expertise, but they typically also did not have thorough understanding of the complex Canadian court process. According to the Canadian legal system, in order to prove the right to the land, a plaintiff must submit to court legitimate evidence of continuous and traditional use of indigenous lands. But how can the indigenous nation of a particular territory achieve such a task if prior to their contact with Europeans they might not have practiced literacy, and consequently did not maintain Western-style record keeping?

In the 1980s, indigenous land claimants began to introduce oral-historical narratives in court insisting oral history needed to be seen as legitimate evidence of their direct and historic connection to the contested lands. Initially, such attempts were met with little success. But over the course of several decades Canada’s legal system, and along with it the Canadians, began to be increasingly reminded of the fact that oral histories were indeed legitimate historiographies of indigenous peoples, and people’s stories about their past had social significance and political value, and were not shared just for entertainment. There have been at least two recent monographs, such as Telling It to the Judge by Arthur J. Ray (2011) and Oral History on Trial by Bruce Granville Miller (2011), which discuss the question of admissibility of oral-historical evidence in Canadian courts. They remind us of the continuous blocking by courts of such evidence, it being called a “garbled source” of non-historical information, discarding traditional storytellers as legitimate witnesses in the court and accusing their accounts of non-historicity and incompatibility with court procedures.

All of this changed radically in 1991, in the context of the watershed legal case that dragged on between the Delgamuukw nation and the government of British Columbia regarding the Aboriginal title and transfer of traditional land back into the community. As before, the judge refused to admit oral-historical data as a source of legitimate court evidence. This time, however, the plaintiffs representing the nation of Delgamuukw did not agree with the judge’s decision and appealed to the federal courts, which meticulously reviewed the case over the following six years. The case ended in the landmark decision of the federal court of Canada in 1997 granting the oral history of Canada’s First Nation Peoples official recognition as potentially legitimate evidence that the courts must acknowledge as such. A new page in rethinking Canadian history and historical memory began indeed with this decision. Once formed and formalized relationship between the European settlers, the 'bearers of progress and promoters of success’ and the indigenous peoples, who were seen more as an obstacle to progress and success, and certainly as Europeans’s cultural and colonial ‘others’   entered a new stage of its development in Canada.

Building on their successes in gaining back the titles to their traditional lands, Canadian indigenous peoples launched legislative campaigns to address the discriminatory policy of assimilation that the Canadian government had been pursuing over the prior 100 years.

The most painful discriminatory practice leading to adverse social consequences was the practice of the compulsory removal of indigenous children from families and their subsequent resettlement, residence, and education in residential schools – segregationist institutions specifically created for indigenous children. This practice began in 1880 when the government permitted churches and its own social welfare services to compulsorily remove and relocate children apart from their families beginning with the age of 5. Along with Archie, around 150,000 indigenous children received such an education.

Thus, Archie’s story resembles many others. In recent years, Canadians have learned many details about the blatantly degrading conditions of those schools: it has been proven that some children were used as guinea pigs for various studies, while many others died of epidemics or vanished without a trace. Sexual assaults, physical, and moral harassment were the norm. Malnutrition due to poor diets also adversely impacted the health of many pupils. As a result, several generations of First Nation Peoples came of age not only alienated from their families, homes, languages and cultures, but also maladapted to navigate mainstream society, many of their early life experiences being nearly identical to Archie’s.

After the closure of the last residential school in 1996, a mass movement began among indigenous peoples in Canada for official recognition of the wrongdoing inherent in policies of assimilation. This stance included demands for compensation for damages. Once again, oral history, this time not the orally transmitted history of a particular nation (i.e. “oral historiography”), but the oral history of lived experience in residential schools, played a critical role in the process of rethinking power relations between the so-called Canadian mainstream and Canada’s First Nations.

Oral history has again become an instrument in the struggle for the human rights of indigenous peoples, and for their rightful place within Canada’s historical record of ‘nation-building processes’ and historic memory. In 2007, on the heels of a very prolonged litigation, the Canadian government issued a formal apology and agreed to provide monetary compensation to all former students of the residential schools. Nearly two billion dollars were allocated to these efforts, with a large portion of the funds dedicated to forming a governmental Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. One of the central goals of the Commission was to collect as much oral evidence as possible about the students’ experiences. And so, an unprecedented national oral history project began. How was the collection of oral data organized across the provinces? What was the actual goal of the Commission? Can one see any impact of this project on the way Canadians conceive these days about their own nation?

Saskatoon, Canada, marks the Aboriginal Day, June 21, 2015

The stated tasks of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada were twofold: 1. To transcribe and document oral evidence of former students’ life and education in residential schools; and 2. To popularize such evidence among the citizens of Canada. The Commission’s mandate also called for convening seven national forums across Canada to share the knowledge about the negative aspects of the residential school system and its former students, and to celebrate the rich cultural legacy of Canada’s native peoples. This approach publicly underwrote the negative experiences created by prior assimilation policies with the commemoration of the cultures that bore those experiences. At the same time, these forums functioned to allow for the oral stories/memories of the former students to be aired publicly, creating opportunities for the official documentation of new evidence. Subcommittees were also formed with the goal to continue the federal commission’s work at the local level.

Thus, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada focused on documenting and popularizing the experiences of former students, but not on the persecution of the individuals, structures, and departments that were responsible for the systemic repression and discrimination of indigenous children. The guiding principles behind the Canadian Commission therefore resemble those of similar national commissions in South Africa, Argentina, and many other countries that have followed this particular model in the policy of reconciliation, in which the focus is on victims, rather than offenders. The approach is known as “victim-centered,” and therefore the noun “victims” is actively introduced by the state into all corresponding discourses, offering both to the Canadian majority and to indigenous peoples themselves a vision of identity as one bound up with the idea of victimhood. This model permits the organization of events of a public character, occluding judicial or academic intervention, which underscores the public content and direction of the Commission’s work, aimed at resuming or simply establishing a dialogue between the once subaltern cultures and the ordinary majority of Canadians to whom, as a rule, these cultures until recently were little-known, inaccessible, and of little interest.

The Commission’s activities have been widely covered in mass media. Canada’s educational institutions at every level – from primary schools to universities – have also been actively involved into the wider discussions taking place. In essence, it is oral history itself as a method and practice that has become the main instrument of the Commission. If we consider that Canada’s First Nations and their cultures have developed through oral tradition, oral culture, oral historiography, and oral cultural and historical memory, then it becomes clear why oral history as a research method has played such a principal role not only in the national project of reconciliation and in the gathering of evidence among the representatives of such cultures, but also, in the overall renewal of the content of what is considered the Canadian nation, its nation-building, and how official versions of Canada’s national memory and historical narrative are legitimized.

Throughout my fifteen years of working at Saskatchewan University, much has changed in the traditionally polarized nature of Canadian society. Archie’s history, recorded by my students in 2012, hardly interested anyone ten years ago. Today, however, his life story has not only been recorded, but has also acquired a new social, cultural, and political meaning. Archie has continued to actively share his experiences, he was even recently the protagonist of a documentary film; along with his story, the oral tales and life stories of other indigenous peoples have swiftly moved from the once cultural and ideological margins to the center stage of Canadian society.

These days, many formal events at my own and other universities across Canada begin with an acknowledging statement declaring the fact that all present are physically located on the traditional territory of any given First Nation, and that each participant must thereby honor the treaty that was once signed between the government and an indigenous people. The leaders of First Nations are invited to such events, which are often also attended by community elders. Depending on the event, the participants may also take part in certain traditional ceremonies that function somewhat similarly to those of short Christian prayers opening the proceedings of a meeting. My College is also actively fundraising to build a new research center dedicated to reconciliation and indigenous spirituality.

Similar developments are underway in other parts of Canada. A recent conference held at the University of Alberta on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (in 2016) began in a similar format. Primary and secondary schools are also changing their curricula to accommodate this new political emphasis. In contrast to previous generations of Canadians, especially in Western Canada, who grew up on stories about, largely European, settlers and their achievements, bravery, and perseverance, today’s school students learn not just of the settlers and their experiences in the West, but of the indigenous peoples and what they had to endure as a result of Canada’s expansionist policy, the colonization of the Canadian West, and its peopling by “proper” (meaning “white”) settlers from Europe.

Today, anyone who studies attentively the inner developments of Canadian society can clearly observe that, over the past few years, not only have there been a few changes, but that the issues discussed here are now at the threshold of a radical sociopolitical shift leading to yet another renewal of the historical narratives driving nation-building processes in Canada. Among the key metaphors in this renewal of history and national belonging are the concepts of truth, reconciliation, and decolonization. Oral historians will, no doubt, be interested in hearing that oral history continues to play a crucial role in these developments as a method, theory, and practice.

Originally presented as a keynote address at the International Symposium on Oral History, Kharkiv, December 1, 2016.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Jessica Zychowicz and Serhiy Bilenky.

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