What reconciliation feels like to people 'locked in the bathroom' for a century

Writer Niigaan Sinclair compares reconciliation to asking to share the house you owned with its invaders after being locked in the bathroom for a century.

'I live here, you say. — No you don't. This is my house'

Indigenous rights activists hold a sign after the Unsettle Canada Day 150 Picnic in Toronto last July. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Imagine someone knocks on your door.

It's a group, led by a man with a crown.

You invite them in, offer them a cup of tea and to sit down.

The man with the crown gives you a piece of paper. Then he tells you and your family to move into the bathroom.

Startled, you say no. This is my home, you say, a place my family has lived longer than anyone can remember. We are this place.

But you consent, the man says, shoving you into the bathroom.

Before you can argue, the door shuts. It is locked.

Forcing it open slightly you see that there is another man standing in the doorway now. He has a weapon.

Where do you think you're going, he asks.

Home, you say.

This is your home now, he says, brandishing a weapon and closing the door.

You ask politely to leave. You scream. You kick. You call for help.

No one is coming to help, says the man with the crown, and we have some new rules.

A piece of paper is slid under the door. On it are rules surrounding what clothes are to be worn in the bathroom. What activities are forbidden. What happens to those who resist.

Just then the man with the weapon — now calling himself "The Bathroom Agent" — comes in and asks why you aren't following the rules.

You tell him the rules are stupid.

So he hurts you. In front of your family. Then, he hurts them.

Life in the bathroom

For a long time the door stays locked and closed. You try your best to make a life though it is cramped and unsuitable. Not a place people can thrive.

Still, you succeed in ways you didn't imagine you could. You find ways to resist and continue your "old ways" by hiding them from sight. Wearing what you want. You even fight the rules even if the punishment is severe.

One day the Agent and some people come and take your children. You're told it's for the best. For years your children disappear and only some return. Some are never seen again.

When some children do return many are unhappy. When you ask why they tell you that they have been taught to hate life in the bathroom.

One day the Agent says you can leave for 15 minutes and grab some food. You have to carry a pass with his permission, though.

Travelling downstairs you see the house is different. It's flooded with people you've never seen before. New wings have been built. There's new paint and all the pictures you hung are gone. There's almost no evidence of you left. You barely recognize your home.

Returning, you ask the Agent how much longer this has to go on. He says the new rule is you can write questions on a piece of paper and he will present it to his leaders.

The door opens

For a long time life is like this. Your family endures and resists and continues while a huge, constant, never-ending ruckus goes on downstairs. People are having an amazing time, and you're locked in the bathroom.

Until one day the door opens. The Agent says you can leave if you want.

You walk throughout your home. Everywhere are occupiers. Your home is barely recognizable. The food, the walls, the floors are all different.

All you recognize is the foundation.

A woman comes up to you.

Who are you, she asks.

I live here, you say.

No you don't. This is my house.

You tell her the story of inviting people in for tea. Of over a century in the bathroom. Of resistance to the Agent. Of lost children. Of lost relationships. Of violence. Of genocide. Of the struggles.

Well, she responds, you have the bathroom – why aren't you happy with that?

Angry, you tell this story to others.

One asks you why don't you just get over it and stop complaining.

One listens intently and a single tear falls down his cheek.

One tells you that her people suffered too and everyone should suffer a little bit.

And still you speak, telling the story of your dispossession. Over and over and over again. You convince some. Win some small victories.

But there is always more work and more and more people.

Then, one day, a well-dressed man who looks like the one with the crown comes up to you.

He says sorry for everything. That he regrets things have turned out this way. That he hopes your people and his people can reconcile. That a new relationship is possible.

You ask for your home back. To share at the very least.

"I'm not that sorry," he says, walking away.

Turning to the door, you remember the knock.

And refuse to go away.

This column is part of our project Beyond 94: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Read more stories in the series and look for further coverage this week.


Niigaan Sinclair is an associate professor and graduate program director in the department of Native studies at the University of Manitoba. He is one of the editors of The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement. He's a regular commentator on CBC and international media outlets like the Guardian.