What is reconciliation: the burden of proof

A narrative I hear again and again, spoken in anger:

Nowadays, everybody thinks they should get special treatment. Immigrants want to keep their religion and speak all these different languages—I mean, isn’t French bad enough? And young people! They don’t even know if they’re male or female. And they expect to get everything without working for it. To have their cake and eat it too. Who doesn’t want that? It’s the same with the Natives. They want to bulldoze peoples’ homes so they can make their reserves bigger. What with their houses falling apart and not one of them willing lift a hammer to fix anything. Why don’t they pay taxes like everyone else? Did you know, they have healing circles for criminals? Why should Natives get sentenced to a healing circle? Wouldn’t we all like to get off easy? Those drunk kids who overran that hard-working farmer’s land and threatened his family probably think they’ll get a healing circle. So one of them gets shot. What do they expect? You can’t go breaking into private property. They act like the land belongs to them. Like we should take down all the fences. Change the laws and have different ones for Natives. Give them a free ride. There is only one set of laws, one set of rules. They apply to everyone.

 

On the trial of Colten Boushie, the boy from Red Pheasant First Nation:

At the trial for the boy who was shot by the farmer, everyone obeyed one set of laws. They all laboured under the burden of proof – some hoping for evidence strong enough to withstand that burden, and others hoping for collapse. Hard evidence was presented, but some of it never got to court: blood spatter and gun powder residue were left to wash away in a summer downpour. No police officer even threw a tarp over the truck where the victim died. But the farmer’s Tokarev pistol, a cold war collector’s item, and photos of blood spilling out of the SUV were presented. Images of the boy shot in the head. And then testimony: a defendant admitting to shooting the young man, Colten Boushie, but by accident, a freak accident. Hard evidence that survived—difficult pictures of blood, a cold steel pistol—did not withstand the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt. Certain facts of the case were presented to a jury of 12 Canadians, none of them (apparently) Indigenous, each carrying the weight of their own histories and responsibilities. Like each of us, they were able to see only so far in a world obscured by assumptions and blind spots, gaps in knowledge. These citizens were asked to pass judgement based on three possibilities: second-degree murder, manslaughter or not guilty. Gerald Stanley, the farmer, the shooter, was acquitted and walks free. Colten Boushie, the boy who trespassed, is dead and buried. One set of laws, one set of rules, applied to everyone.

 

 

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/rcmp-sloppy-and-negligent-in-investigating-colten-boushie-s-death-say-independent-experts-1.4564050

What is reconciliation: Introduce yourself

Reconciliation is so far away. Now is not the right time. We are miles and miles apart, even though we live next door. How do we move closer? How to begin at the beginning? Hello, my name is. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?

An RCMP officer banged on the door of a trailer to tell Colten Boushie’s mom that her son had been killed. “He is deceased,” the officer said. Officers came into her trailer and searched it. Opened all the doors and cupboards. Meanwhile, Colten’s mother collapsed on the floor. “Ma’am, get yourself together,” the officer said. “Ma’am, have you been drinking?” He smelled her breath. Asked Colten’s brothers, “Have you been drinking?”

Gerald Stanley, the farmer who shot Colten, didn’t know him. He used a Russian semi-automatic handgun, a relic from the Cold War, in the conflict between settlers and first peoples. Stanely seems to have felt only coldness and fear. He didn’t ask, “Where are you from? How do you do?” The kids in the pickup truck didn’t ask either. No one sat down and introduced themselves.

Almost 200 years ago my mother’s family settled in the bush north of Quebec City. They survived by raising chickens and growing vegetables. Cutting wood. Earning a few dollars here and there.

Margaret McKeown, my grandmother, kept a rifle in her bedroom. When drunk fishermen came to the house to steal farming equipment, tools – anything not nailed down – she filled the gun with rock salt, opened the window, shot them in their behinds and watched them run away.

Would the RCMP officer have helped Colten’s mother up, made her tea and held her hand if he could have seen her as a mom? If we don’t know each other, there is nothing to reconcile, only hard words and stony ground. Walls with no doorways leading through. No garden on the other side, where we could walk together.

I know of a town and a reserve. The mayor and his son went on a canoe trip with the chief and his son. They travelled together on a rushing river, adventuring to a place they had never been. It was part of their process of creating. Building a community centre, a hockey rink. Something that wasn’t there before. Making a place where strangers can sit side by side and ask, “How are you?”

Rock salt may hurt like hell. But a Tokarev semi-automatic kills (or maims). The absence of knowing each other brings the bullet through the window of the truck. The problem is always the same and keeps repeating: Gerald Stanley’s wife says “That’s what you get for trespassing on private property.” Colten’s family says “We share the land. To say they killed him for trespassing means they violated the Treaty. Nobody owns the land.”

We are side by side in this place of stories – some shared, some growing out of this old land, belonging to no one. It is not the right time. It is the only time. How do we get close enough to hear the stories, be claimed by them and find ourselves changed?

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Details taken from the following Globe and Mail article: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/colten-boushie/article32451940/

What is reconciliation? Purple and white

Sometimes in this life, I’ve felt a touch, soft and faint against my skin; the quiet whisper of cloth. I look up, and there it is: an endless blanket of twinkling lights rippling above; big sky flowing over; the round white moon floating there, caught in a tangle of branches and clouds. At the height of summer, in a tiny Mohawk place, I have walked at night in a stand of pines that I love; the forest is small, but its trees become tall and endless in darkness, and I wander there. During a pow wow, I once found a clearing where Seminole women danced, their dresses swaying and jingling; the bells on their skirts gleaming silver in pearly light. I’ve always wanted to dance like them, to circle round and round under the branches of the jack pines, ground covered with their soft, scented needles; round and round, to the distant sound of drums.

Specks of light flow in my blood, like tiny clouds of silvery fish, flickering, sending me back and back, far into the past, until the constellations change and my head swims in the humid night, and my fingers drip with sweat from holding hands in endless rounds of dances, circles within circles. Sweat mingling and steps crossing over onto each other’s paths, until our way is one. My way and your way, at unexpected times, one foot on asphalt, one foot on pine needles; soft, bronze needles, smooth under me.

I’d be willing to give up this Canadian life, the small world of cities clinging to the southern border, full of houses huddled for safety; the friendly faces, the order and good government, the satisfaction. I’d give it up and cross over, just to follow the silver current in my blood. I’d extend my hands, feel the weight of wampum beads pressing onto them, white and purple, row upon row, a sea of peace and friendship. I’m wandering each day further away from my old home and into the forest; out of Canada and into the world, a wide open land, shimmering with stories, overgrown with relations.

What is reconciliation? What the man says

Once a man said, “Indigenous people should not have to endure the labour of educating you.” He said, “I’m here to help you understand that you were culturally insensitive.” He mentioned my creativity to shove in the knife and twist it. But he’s a politically correct man; used to saying the right things to the right people. Helping to lift the world up through his righteousness. He’s not quiet and doesn’t seem soft.

Each year, delicate creatures migrate across the hemisphere to arrive here. They know how to find safe places to rest. They avoid his hands and shoulders; never land on the top of his head. Too much risk to their paper-thin wings.

I meet men who say the wrong things and don’t know it, but still, try to make offerings. Open themselves to being on the wrong side of the argument, though they are baffled by this world. In their uncertainty, they stop and notice. Something light and hesitant has landed, just for a moment before flying away.

What is reconciliation? The ricochet

His words have a ricochet. They go out, hit their literal meaning and halfway back to you, they start to make sense. By the time they arrive, you have a picture in your mind’s eye and feeling in your heart, that’s all about living here, in this landscape, this city, with your feet on the asphalt of your street, under a tree, under a streetlamp, beneath a satellite that circles around the world and back to you.

His words have a ricochet. He throws them as hard as he can into the air and he fears they will make no sense. But then you catch them in mid-sentence and save the words as you save goose feathers drifting in the field behind your house, or strands of milkweed that flutter in the sun.

This is a job for the artist. To open his hands and blow softly, releasing a butterfly of many wings and meanings. And this is a job for you: to hold out your hand and let wings brush softly on your palm as the butterfly alights.

This is the job of the reconcilers. To make themselves soft and quiet, so that like a dragonfly, an idea might emerge or alight. So that words and songs, when they take flight through the atmosphere, making no sense, encounter the listeners, who hear and speak them back.

What is reconciliation? The pendant

I got a pendant from a silversmith and I wear it every day. Because of Gord. He writes the names of people he loves on his hands so he can remember. His memory for things close to the surface is bad. Like names of friends or his favourite place to meet for a coffee. He speaks slowly, leaving lots of space to breathe between words. You could break into his thoughts then, or you could wait and see what comes next. It takes a while for his ideas to form, each one unfolding like a flower. On the pendant, there is a heart, and inside the heart, Gord’s name. I could write it on my hand, but it would wash away, and what I’ve learned from him stays with me: how I have always been on an adventure. Tinged with the lightness of having returned from a trip where I did not worry or work too hard, where I found new things each day. I’m sure it’s sentimental, this circle of silver. But sentimentality and gentleness get confused. Anyway, Gord. This jewel is a shimmering reminder. He lost memories but still finds and keeps words: on his skin, on sheets of paper folded in his pockets, in recordings of his voice. He uses them to map all the new days of his adventure.

What is reconciliation? The chasm

For such a long time, Canadians and our government have been doing the same things over and over. By now, the patterns we repeat seem like our only choices, and our way of life the best one possible: we are one of the wealthiest nations, perceived as peacemakers, the envy of the world – perceived as being so nice and polite, especially when we travel overseas. Yet consider how we arrived where we are. We made this way of life by refusing to share the land. We signed treaties with our predecessors, and then we broke them, or misunderstood on purpose the agreements we signed. We also took a great deal of land without offering even the promise of compensation – much of this is now called “Crown land.” This land makes up most of Canada and is considered to be “un-ceded traditional lands” by those who lived here first.

In any case, we created and maintain our way of life by keeping almost all the land for ourselves. We parcel this land into lots for houses, roads and industry. We declared vast regions to be Crown land, where we have clear-cut, mined and drilled for oil. What little is left over we turned into national parks, where we manage the wildlife – counting the species of fish, birds and other animals. In parks, we dictate to visitors where they may walk or swim or pitch a tent. [But even today if you go far enough into the wilderness of these parks, you will be too far from human contact to be governed. And then, you travel at your own risk, among bears and other predators, across cold, deep lakes that no one has measured. There, you are far from Canadian “civilization” and also far from help.] After all of this, whatever is left over is for Indigenous peoples. They make up roughly 5% of the population but only 0.2% of Canada’s land base is allotted for reserves.  (https://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100034846/1100100034847)

And so we hear the voices demanding the Canadian government acknowledge that most of the land is un-ceded Indigenous territory. Places with histories and lifeways that have existed for as long as anyone can remember. Lands and waterways that defy our management and cannot be accounted for by our science and technologies. We try to dismiss these voices by discrediting them – these other nations in our borders. We continue to build our houses in disputed territories, in places such as Kanehsatà:ke and on the Haldimand land tract at Six Nations, Ontario.

In the past, we hid the evidence of how we tried to wipe out the old cultures. Or if the truth comes out, we blame our behaviour on the ignorance of the times – we did not know better than to separate children from their parents; we thought starving and beating them would make them more like us. Our ancestors lived in a harder, crueller world. We had not yet achieved our current state of peacefulness and kindness – we were not yet fully Canadian. Nowadays, we sometimes allow the old songs and stories of this place to be told, but often we still try to orchestrate them. We want everyone to know how kind and accepting we are, and how it is much better for these people who want our land to settle their differences our way, under the power of the Crown and through our justice system that tips most often in our favour.

As we repeat the same mistakes, we create a dystopia. The lakes and rivers, mountains and forests become places where we are lost and drown. Our maps blow away on the wind, swept out of our hands into the wild. Animals turn from us, and predators attack. This is the chasm between us. It’s spreading: the place full of thorns and dead ground.

But still, we repeat broken stories of how we triumphed; how it was all for the best, while we stand on the ground of other nations. We think, how ridiculous: Indians having countries. The Indians who could have ruled countries are long dead and gone. There are no real Indians anymore.

We think this place could never seep in and grow through us, green and alive. It could never be so vast. Starlight doesn’t sing in valleys and light up the highest leaves or turn deep green pine needles to shades of blue. If we dream in our beds of open rooms where a starry sky appears each night, then it is only dreaming. If we wake from sleep and sit by the window to smell wet earth and the perfume of summer flowers. If we hear someone else singing in a soft voice from their yard. If we see the golden square of another window lighting up. Hear the coyote breathing as he searches through our garbage. We are not the only ones awake. If we could know these things. If we wake from dreaming; if we could know what would be.

 

 

 

 

What is reconciliation? Visiting Waswanipi

I left my country and entered another. After driving a long time on winter roads, we crossed the border. Slowly, the language began to change, until iiyiyuu ayimuun, James Bay Cree, took over completely. When I looked out the window at endless snow, it was all familiar, roads and rooftops covered in white, but it belonged to another land. When we finished driving and stepped onto the ground, my feet sank into white snow and we were encircled by a village of snug houses. We followed behind a woman wearing snowshoes until the path led us to an outdoor shelter, where we sat on a bed of cedar branches and warmed ourselves by the heat of an oil barrel stove. We ate beaver, goose and ptarmigan. Beaver roasting and crackling on a spit and bannock turning golden in a cast iron pan. The language of the Eeyou Istchee was the lingua franca, with English or French difficult to speak. Outside, winter was fierce and my coat from down south was like a sweater. I sat close to the hot barrel stove and smelled the wood smoke and fat of roasting meat; listened to the hum of people talking; felt the softness of cedar; the roar of a snowmobile in the distance. Outside, I knew the sky would be pure blue and the pines and firs, dark green. Elsewhere it was February, but there it was another country.

 

What is reconciliation: The open door

When you say you are sorry, a door opens and something new begins. The door may open to a different place where sad stories and tragedies fill only a few rooms in a great, sprawling house. A house also filled with laughter and the smells of supper cooking, the quiet murmur of voices in prayer. Someone’s fingers tapping on a keyboard, writing a story; someone else singing, another sewing. Listen to the sounds of children practicing their language. Hear them running in and out of the house, playing hide and seek in a field, gathering wood for the bonfire. They remember and dream as you do, memories and dreams of their own; mysteries falling from the stars, sparks of light shimmering among trees in summer. This house has always been here. But you belonged to a people that painted over the door. A whole other life. You never saw it until now.

What is reconciliation? Memory of stones

Dusk was coming to the balcony of our Montreal apartment. We could see lights flickering in the windows of the city below the cliff. We lit cigarettes using the gas ring on the stove and I singed my hair. Standing way up high, I saw smoke and lights; streetlamps, flickering neon signs and high-beams of cars; my friend and her brother. He was visiting from his cabin in the woods near Peterborough. A small cabin with a wood stove that never gave enough heat; where one night, an owl swooped down and startled him, just after he had put the campfire out. A cabin near a place called Silent Lake; a little place not far from Curve Lake and the petroglyphs. The air is fresh up there and feels gentle and warm because summer is coming.

Back then, just after the Good Friday agreement, Ireland was on our minds; the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Mohawks from Kanehsatake invited the Nothern Irish to speak of troubles and struggles, so much like home: disputed borders and broken promises, guns threatening to fire; soldiers and police guarding all rights of way; armed checkpoints on the roads. Gerry Adams spoke in Montreal and people gave him a standing ovation, but I stayed in my seat. I knew he lived in a house surrounded by a fortress. How could he be a man of peace? I suspected him. Afterwards, we had a beer at the nearby pub, in a private room, with Gerry Adams a few tables away. The whole time I waited for an explosion.

Years later, I visited Saskatchewan and a different friend, who took me walking on a flat, silent expanse of land covered in sage and short grasses. He showed me a tipi ring he had found near his home, and I stood in the circle. After dark, we sat by the campfire in the backyard, such a long way from the Ontario woods. No trees blocked the night sky; it went on and on forever. Near his home, so many medicine wheels and stones mark a year’s passing. They reminded us that we were sitting under a slowly spinning night as we listened to the crackling fire. Under a wheeling sky, our thoughts turned around and around the memory of stones.

What is reconciliation? Skelep speaks

“Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society…” – Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

Imagine a little boy or girl walking a gravel road on the reserve near home. In your mind’s eye, the Indian agent swoops down, snatches the child and spirits him away over a thousand miles to residential school. The train conductor drives the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of children crying for their mothers and grandmothers. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into the moonless sky. He remembers them always.

If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. It would be a red alert. Search parties sent out. Lights shining in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communications lines glowing red with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high scouring the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.

In the image above, you can see skelep howling. I can’t tell if he is howling in rage or joy. I think his fierceness includes both. At night, he still visits the place where they kept the children. It’s been closed 40 years, but his sensitive ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.

Skelep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at pow wows. As fires that went underground rise to the surface, crackling with tobacco and cedar. The shadows of eagles’ wings brush the darkness, bringing clean, cold air to these abandoned rooms of mould and fear.

The train whistle is gone but skelep has always howled at night. He passes through backyards and across suburban streets, sending his voice over the neighbourhoods, waking people from sleep. He walks the broken railroad tracks that come down from the north, and he remembers.

Artwork above by Chris Bose of the Nlaka’pamux nation. The image includes a photograph of the Kamloops residential school building. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1894 to 1977.

What is reconciliation? The circle

They pull and they paw me
They’re seeking to draw me
Away from the roundness
of the life

-I Pity the Country, Willie Dunn

I picture a fine, interwoven web that begins and ends inside of a spider. The spider begins and ends in a web of life that has no beginning or end because it is a circle. Our social and blood relationships are intertwined webs, beginning and ending in each of us, who in turn begin and end in webs of life.

To our simple minds, a circle is a mystery – we can’t find its beginning or end. Circles don’t stretch out across the land as straight lines do, pinning down life with sharp edges. The circle curls up into itself and spreads out, getting in the way of our complicated systems: electrical grids, roads and bridges, telecommunications lines – strung out over the earth. Our straight lines are hard and flat as a sheet of glass pressed down onto a mystery and disturbance; freezing in place tracks of wild animals weaving through forests, running through backyards in the middle of the night; stopping in mid-air all the wings that ride the wind above our houses at dusk. We would pin it all down.

This is the place we call Canada, but this place sees Canada and laughs. The very idea. As if. This place stretches out endlessly, and I am small in it and can’t see the beginning or the end. We have drawn our lines, but we’re lost inside the circle. It’s outside of our outer world, beyond our imagination. It makes up the sky that holds our sky; all our rivers and oceans flow within its firmament of waves. It keeps spreading out every time we think we’ve touched it, taking us further into the wild.