Opinion

Reconciling Canada's 150th: Why 2017 should start with tears

What could our future look like if we listen to the original inhabitants of this land? Ry Moran, the first Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, walks us through his vision.

If we’re brave, our sesquicentennial could be a break in the continuum of this country’s story.

Residential School survivor Lorna Standingready is comforted by a fellow survivor during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada closing ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, 2015. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

At Gord Downie's recent performance of Secret Path in Halifax, I stood on the side of the stage, eyes fixed on the crowd in the hall. I watched as the room shed a collective tear — glasses pushed aside, furtive eye wipes by burly looking men, bodies slumped low in their seats.

They were feeling our untold national history, awakening to 150 years of supposed greatness. Canada exposed.

As we look to the future and this era of reconciliation, we should not be afraid of those tears.

To the contrary, we need to seek them out.

Crying at a party

In less than two weeks, the clock will tick over from 2016 to 2017 and Canada will begin to celebrate its 150th birthday. Candles will be lit on novelty-sized cakes. Fireworks will grace the sky.

But as those candles are lit, my mind will be on a different birthday celebration: the celebrations we held at the end of the National Events during the course of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work. At the close of these events, we lit candles and sang happy birthday in rooms full of survivors and their families.

We remembered all of those children who grew up without birthdays in the residential schools. We tried to give them back something stolen from them in their childhoods.

How will this celebration of Canada's history reconcile with the history experienced by Indigenous peoples in this coming year?- Ry Moran

At the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, millions of records document Canada's violence towards Indigenous peoples. It is a history filled with unimaginable pain and sorrow; abuse and rape; neglect and the attack on love.  It is a history of state-sanctioned child abduction and the steady, deliberate and ever-so-patient destruction of Indigenous nations across this country.

If it sounds bleak, it's because it is. If it sounds horrifying, it's because that is also true. If it sounds like an exaggeration, it's not.

This history is only now starting to emerge from the shadows and remains largely misunderstood — that is, unless you are an Indigenous person on the receiving end of it.

A group of students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba in February 1940. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996. (Reuters/Library and Archives Canada)

How will this celebration of Canada's history reconcile with the history experienced by Indigenous peoples in this coming year? Will this be a turning point in our national journey towards reconciliation or will this be a celebration of the status quo?  

Sharing the land

Indigenous peoples have long called this place called Canada home. The names fill our maps — Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Esquimalt, Keewatin, Wetaskiwin to name but a few. Even the name "Canada" comes from the Iroquoian peoples — Kanata.

This land was also shared for millennia. It was shared with millions of buffalo, billions of birds and seas that teemed with what once seemed to be limitless fish, whales and sea life. Forests grew rich and strong while along our coasts 800-year-old cedars that celebrated multiple 150th anniversaries towered over the landscape.

In the creation of Canada we signed treaties of peace and friendship; agreements to continue the sharing of this land as we had for so long.

But we as a nation have not shared well. For Canada, "sharing" equated to the destruction of Indigenous languages and the disavowal of the wisdom and knowledge of generations. It meant the destruction of Indigenous families and communities, ceremonial lodges set on fire, sacred pipes passed through generations destroyed, ceremonies outlawed.

If it sounds bleak, it's because it is. If it sounds horrifying, it's because that is also true. If it sounds like an exaggeration, it's not.- Ry Moran

We also have not shared this land well with all other forms of life.  In my own short life I have witnessed the collapse of fisheries on the East and West Coast and forests that have been stripped of life. We now only see buffalo behind fences and in protected areas.

The Ancient Forest/Chun T'oh Whudujut hiking trail, between Prince George and McBride, B.C., is home to some of the largest old-growth cedar stands in the province. (Government of British Columbia/Provided)

The path that we have walked upon for the last 150 years of Canadian history is not sustainable. Changing rights frameworks, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, demand we change our actions. And the environment will collapse around us if we do not take bold and immediate action.

So what is the alternative?

Looking to the future

Looking hard to the future demands we explore some very fundamental questions about how we have carried ourselves as a nation.

This is the time to be thinking long term: an opportunity to project forward and dream of a better future for our country.

What would our future look like if we finally start listening hard to the original inhabitants of this land? To date, we have been quick to throw this wisdom aside. 

More Indigenous men, like Frank Antoine and his son, are choosing to grow their hair as a reclamation of their identity. "My hair symbolizes the start of a new healing journey I started seven years ago." (Frank Antoine, Facebook)

Many Indigenous peoples speak of the seven generations — the idea that we exist within a continuum of action — where we are at once accountable for the actions of our ancestors who walked before us while also being accountable to those generations that will inherit the earth.

It is time for this idea to permeate Canadian society. We need to move beyond short-sighted four-year mandates and start thinking about how we can pull together as a society to make visionary changes. We need to start thinking about 100-year plans for reconciliation and the future of our country — and we need to create the structures that will help us stay on track. The recent Federal announcement of a process to establish a National Council on Reconciliation is a positive step in this direction.

Somehow, we as a country need to feel the weight of the harms we have inflicted if we are truly going to have a shot at celebrating Canada's 300th.- Ry Moran

But herein lies the danger: if we are not fully aware of what we need to move away from — the treatment of Indigenous peoples and the destruction of our natural environment — then we risk repeating the mistakes of the past.

That's precisely why Canada 150 needs to be a break in the continuum of this country's story. Somehow, we as a country need to feel the weight of the harms we have inflicted if we are truly going to have a shot at celebrating Canada's 300th.

Tears that wash

This is why, as we approach 2017, we need to seek out tears. These are not the sobs that reduce us to paralysis. They are the kind of tears that show us we are human — that at our core we can be guided by a common sense of humanity.

These are the tears the elders speak of — the tears that wash away pain and help move us forward. These are the tears that rise to the sky and fall as rain to wash our streets, clean the air, replenish our rivers and fill our glasses. These are the tears that bring life to the young buds that push from the ground each spring and guard babies inside the mother's womb.

Until we each shed a tear for our history, we will not know who we are as a nation.

Residential school survivor Joe George, right, of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, and elder Marie George embrace during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada British Columbia National Event in Vancouver, B.C. in 2015. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

About the Author

Ry Moran

Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation

Ry Moran is the first Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Through the Truth and Reconciliation commission he helped gather thousands statements from residential school survivors and millions of documents. Moran is a proud member of the Metis Nation.