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

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen
January, 2018

Forum

Opening the debate

Responding

I’ll begin with a short story. In 2012-2015 I challenged the students in my oral history course to study one of the most important streets of my native city: 20th Street. This particular street has weathered many historical twists and turns; yet, as with the city of Saskatoon, it did not first appear on the map until the eve of the 20th century. Different ethnic groups—among them Poles, Ukrainians, Chinese, Germans and others—first began to settle and reside 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 then 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 society, then marked by new economic developments by which the street again became the heart of the city. However, much later, in the early 1990s, the street’s popularity among city dwellers began to decline rapidly. Shops, banks, and restaurants changed their façades, as did their customers. There was also a stark shift in the ethnic and social composition of the neighborhood: the number of seniors and the poor increased. By the early 2000s the average city dweller began to avoid 20th Street. The reputation of the neighborhood collapsed, while crime – both real and imagined – rose significantly.

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. On the one hand, among those interviewed were successful restaurant owners, business people, politicians with national profiles, priests, and shop-owners; while on the other, our demographics also included former prostitutes, homeless people, drug dealers, and other socially vulnerable populations. 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 treated 20th Street with great prejudice. Yet due to these interviews with the marginalized residents of this street, the students substantially changed their attitude both to their interlocutors and their life choices.

The life story of one of our interlocutors – let’s call him Archie – was markedly different from the others. At the time of the interview in 2012 Archie was 55. Today he works part-time as an assistant manager for the NGO called “Friendship,” whose primary aim is to support and provide for the socially vulnerable residents in this neighborhood. Archie is a Cree by descent, a member of one of Canada’s first nations. He was born on a reservation located a mere 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 the social welfare service forcefully sent him to a residential school for indigenous children—as a result, he was raised outside of his family, within the walls of the boarding school. Having enrolled in the residential school at such a young age, Archie faced numerous difficulties. He was forced to speak only English, a language he barely knew, and nearly no adult treated him with warmth and care, in contrast to his life at home, where he was surrounded with the love of his family members. At the time of his childhood, it was normal practice for the social welfare service that collected children from reservations to separate sisters and brothers and to place them in separate residential 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 escaped 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 boarding school, Archie grew up totally 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 as much as he could. My students recalled in their interviews that Archie did not complain about the residential school or about his supervisors there; and that when he had found a baby left in the woods, he picked her up and raised her as his own daughter, having surrounded her with fatherly love and care. He suffered from alcoholism for a long time, and he was homeless at some point, but he nonetheless managed to overcome the obstacles that he faced in life due to an (insufficient) institutional upbringing that had been forced upon him. Despite all, he was able to turn his life around. Today Archie is actively helping others, who, for various reasons, have found themselves in the dregs of society.

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

Archie’s story is by no means a unique example of how indigenous Canadians have participated in nation-building processes. His story especially impressed my students who mostly came from the socially well-to-do segments of Canadian society, 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 can be found in the fact that the life experiences and life stories of indigenous Canadians have, for a long time, mostly taken place outside of the context of the life experiences of “average Canadians.” A common Canadian historical experience has been shaped by cultural values constructed from a principally different historical memory. This memory once totally excluded the experiences of indigenous, or now officially termed First Nations Peoples, and their historical developments within the vortex of diverse and complex colonial encounters over the past few centuries.

Until the 1970s the dominant understanding of Canadian history was limited to that of the progress and development of an Anglo-Saxon, and to a smaller degree, French majority, which presupposed a history of successful conquest of the so-called “virgin lands” of the British and French empires. For a long time, the ideas of “progress” and “success” (of Anglo-Saxons and the French) served all major metaphors and concepts in scholarly, popular, and ideological reflections on the “building” and development of Canada as a state and nation. Two majorities – Anglo-Saxon and French – positioned themselves as the two principal Canadian nations.

In the 1970s Canada reoriented itself towards a new course in its self-understanding as a nation, that is, by inventing a policy of multiculturalism. As the emphasis in the historiography of Canadian nation-building quite rapidly shifted from biculturalism towards multiculturalism, a renewed narrative of national history, despite offering a new multicultural vision of the Canadian nation, also continued to advance the concepts of “progress” and “success” as the ideal formulas for Canadian self-representation.

Thanks to several political initiatives in the 1970s, various Canadian minorities, often referred to as ethnic communities, have since acquired wide opportunities for active self-expression. The most influential and established communities, among them Ukrainians, began to formulate their own versions of the history of Canadian progress and success. Ukrainian Canadians successfully lobbied federal government to declare a policy of multiculturalism in 1971, and were especially active in the process of its creation. In my province of Saskatchewan, the main national organization – the Ukrainian Canadian Congress – conducts an annual awards ceremony entitled, “The Builders of the Nation,” which honors the most active members of the Ukrainian community. Certainly the nation in question here is not Ukrainians but Canadians. And yet, minorities that had experienced political persecution under previous rule in Canada, among them not only Ukrainians, but also Chinese and Japanese, began to demand from government an official apology for moral and material damages.

While trying to convince the state to admit fault for past persecutions based on the principle of ethnicity, these minorities constructed their own historical narratives (which obviously ran counter to Canada’s own constitution, as well as the legal frameworks then in international organizations). They framed their own vision of their participation in the process of Canadian nation building around the motif of the “builder,” thus insisting on their own cultural and economic contributions to the progress and success of the Canadian state. Therefore, without ceasing to criticize the former policies of the Canadian government, and as a part of the renewed vision of Canada as a multicultural rather than bicultural country, ethnic minorities actively supported already-established ideas on the progress and development of the Canadian nation, which had for so long served as the basis for imperial thinking and historical memory, and which continue as myth in the memory of today’s Canadians.

What was lacking in this historical narrative about progress and success was any explanation for how Canada obtained the rights to its infamous, “boundless” territories. It is only fairly recently that this centuries-old myth has begun to collapse under new political pressure. Canada once again has found itself at a historical crossroads, so that its story is being radically rewritten and a new historical memory is emerging: this is the life story of Archie and of many other members of Canada’s First Nations Peoples that have been placed at the center of the most crucial, in my opinion, contemporary battle for the historical memory of Canada and its nation-building narratives.

But how have these stories about life on the fringes of Canadian society, as well as about cultural difference more generally, become so radically incomprehensible to many people? How is it that they are suddenly not only being heard by society, but are also being recognized as worthy of attention? And why now?

Again we must return to the 1970s and 1980s. These years saw a particular increase in the number of lawsuits against provincial governments filed by various First Nations Peoples. Many cases attempted a formal review of the conditions in prior treaties concerning the transfer of indigenous territories to the state, including the reappropriation of land. Here it is worth mentioning the process by which the Canadian government acquired its territories. The Canadian government began to actively enforce treaties concerning land and landownership beginning in the 18th century, each signed individually by a particular First Nation. Yet at the time of signing such agreements, many of the First Nations were already economically dependent upon imperial overlords. In addition, many indigenous peoples were not immune to European viruses and diseases, which led to high mortality rates. Centuries-old social relations, ways of life, and the political status quo were completely disrupted. Direct political struggle or armed revolt against the colonizers were both impossible, and so, one by one, each agreed to transfer the titles to their lands in exchange for certain privileges and promises of tax exemptions. The terms of these taxes were hardly discussed at all. Among other promises that were extended, were what we might call today humanitarian assistance, then noted as the right to hunt and fish, which was at the time the main means of survival.

Today there are quite a few territories which were once under indigenous control, and which were never fully transferred to the state due to the lack of signed treaties regarding land transfers (particularly in British Columbia, Québec, and in Canada’s eastern provinces). Lawsuits on such lands are often settled by way of negotiations between the state and a particular First Nation. Yet some lawsuits do reach the courts. The problem is that in order to prove the right to landownership one needs adequate resources. Due to centuries of systemic discrimination, many indigenous communities do not possess thorough understanding of the court process, or the means to access oftentimes very costly legal expertise. According to the Canadian legal system, in order to prove property rights, a plaintiff must submit in court legitimate evidence of continuous and traditional use of tribal lands. But how can the indigenous residents of a particular territory achieve such a task if, prior to their contact with Europeans, they did not possess a written language, and consequently had no formal Western style of documentation or archival process?

In the 1980s indigenous plaintiffs began to introduce oral-historical narratives in court as evidence to confirm the linkage to their contested lands. Such attempts were initially met with little success, but over the course of several decades Canada’s legal system, and along with it the ordinary readership of local newspapers (not yet national ones), began to actively consume, if not oral history per se (as the historiographic tradition of illiterate peoples), then at least the information about the fact that oral history had social significance and political value, and was more than 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, calling them a “garbled source” of non-historical information, rejecting the traditional storyteller from the right to a continuous oral history as an official witness—accusing such tales 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 first nation of Delgamuukw 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 suit 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 with this decision. Centuries of tense relations between peoples discriminated against by the “bearers of progress and promoters of success,” as “others” not marked as the heirs to imperial cultures (Europeans) entered a new stage of development in Canada.

Building on their success in gaining back the title to their traditional lands, indigenous peoples also 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 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, we have learned many details about the blatantly degrading conditions of those schools: it has been proven that some children were used as guinea pigs, 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 and homes, 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 residents 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, yet this time not the history of one particular nation (which might be referred to more generally as “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 majority and First Nation Peoples.

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 and public 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. The central aim 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 we trace any influence of this project on the social attitudes of the Canadian majority?

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 in order to address the negative aspects of the residential school system and its former students, yet only by celebrating 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 revealing the experiences of former students, but not on the persecution of the people, 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 15 years of work 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 oral evidence 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 collecting funds to build a new research center dedicated to reconciliation and native 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 older generations of Canadians, especially in Western Canada, who grew up on stories about largely European settlers and their achievements, bravery, and perseverance, today’s students learn not just of the settlers and their experiences in the West, but on the native peoples and on 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. Historians will, no doubt, be interested to learn that oral history continues to play a crucial role in these developments as a method, theory, and practice.

Originally presented at a panel discussion 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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