Q&A: Why this Indigenous advocate says Canadians needs to acknowledge our violent past

Vanessa Ambtman-Smith says Canadians are going to encounter some really unsettling truths because 'we're not used to framing our past as violent."

Indigenous advocate and health researcher Vanessa Ambtman-Smith will speak at the Turtle Island Healing Walk

Vanessa Ambtman-Smith is speaking at Thursday's Turtle Island Healing Walk at Victoria Park (Red Works Photography)

When people gather at Victoria Park in London, Ont. Thursday for the Turtle Island Healing Walk to remember those who died and who suffered abuse at Canada's residential schools, they will hear from Vanessa Ambtman-Smith.

The Nehiyaw-Metis Métis from Treaty 6 is an Indigenous health researcher and a current PhD student at Western University's Department of Geographyand Environment.

She spoke earlier with London Morning's Rebecca Zandbergen ahead of Thursday's walk.

Listen to the whole interview here:

RZ: The news has certainly been relentless. How have you been getting through these last few weeks? 

VAS: It has been difficult. I've been mourning. I've been going through the different stages of grief. My initial reaction to hearing the news was just that it was grief. I thought about my own story as a 60s scooper, somebody who was taken out of my homeland, out of my family of origin, and I thought about all of my relatives that are likely among those who are being found today. The fact that I'm still here is, in some ways, wasn't the design. I mourn the fact that my children are now learning about what could have happened. 

RZ: What will be your main message tomorrow? 

VAS: I think part of what I hope to do is talk about who I am and where I come from. Part of that story is recognizing that while we are talking about events that have taken place over 100 years within residential schools, we are still experiencing harm within institutions like hospitals today as a result of the structures of indifference that have been created to support and to assimilate Indigenous people. 

I'd like to really be hopeful and helpful. So I'd like to continue to support all Londoners to take action because words without action don't lead to change. I'd like to support our collective healing. Showing the survivors and families that we see you, we mourn with you, we believe what you experienced is wrong. And then finally, we want to demonstrate that we acknowledge that the harms done through residential school were an act of genocide. 

RZ: You are a mom to two kids. How much of your work is dedicated to them, to the hopes that their lives will look different? 

VAS: Everything is. Everything I do and have done has led up to this point in time where I am supporting Indigenous people and addressing those harmful environments. However, at the end of the day, I can't help but think that my goal is to build strong and healthy relationships, but my vision is to see a day when my children will not need to fight for their human rights in places like hospitals. 

RZ: Tell me a little bit more about the kinds of things that we are still seeing today. 

VAS: The foundation of my research is really acknowledging that Indigenous people are not safe in hospital settings. This is a huge paradox because people go to these places for care. And yet what we're seeing is that there is this environment full of structural violence and racism and there are policies and systemic discrimination embedded into health care. I reflect on people who have had traumatic experiences in the hospital. This is life and death. So people are dying when they don't need to die. And so I think about people like Brian Sinclair and Joyce Echaquan

There's an attitude that is associated with a long standing belief that Indigenous people are less than human. And as a result, there is often delays in care, withholding of care, and in some case, people experience significant malpractice. And so I think it's our job and our journey to continue to reeducate ourselves, to relearn our full and honest history. And through this process Canadians are going to encounter some really unsettling truth because we're not used to framing our past as violent and ongoing. These are things that were hidden from us. 

RZ: What do you hope people walk away with tomorrow? And how do you keep that going?

VAS: I think the number one thing we can do is recognize that awareness inspires action. So this is part of an ongoing movement that has been going on. And we are looking for more people to continue to understand why they should be joining us. And I think the evidence now has come to a point in time where it's impossible to ignore. And so we are hopeful that this is a moment in time that will continue to remind people why reconciliation is so important. I really encourage people to come out, to show their support, to be here and present so that we can engage as Indigenous people in our healing, but then that all Canadians can join in because this is collective healing and that we need to continue to work together to move that forward. 

This interview has been edited for lengthy and clarity

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.