After the Circles:Practicing Solidarity and Living Reconciliation
Mary Kate Dennis, Heather McRae and Maya Simpson
Some non-Indigenous Canadians may struggle with the facts and experiences revealed through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Indigenous people were subject to many forms of colonization and assimilationist policies, characterized as cultural genocide, with the central element of the establishment and operation of residential schools (TRC, 2015). Fortunately, there are Canadians who wish to honour the experiences of the Indigenous survivors of residential schools and are committed to building new relationships with Indigenous people that are based upon respect and reciprocity. In today’s circle, we will look at some ways non-Indigenous people can begin to understand their unique roles and responsibilities in the lifelong journey towards reconciliation.
Illustrative example of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce
Commonly, when talking about residential schools, the following sentiment it is often shared: “They didn’t know back then what we know now. They didn’t realize it was wrong” (CBC Radio, 2017). However, Cindy Blackstock, member of the Gitksan First Nation and the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, challenges this position by sharing the story about Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce. He was a physician whose work helped document the mortality rate of Indigenous children in Canadian Indian residential schools.
In 1904, Dr. Peter Bryce, the chief medical officer for the Department of Indian Affairs and Department of Immigration, was asked to report on the health conditions of children within the Canadian Indian residential school system in Western Canada and the Northwest Territories. When he released the final report in 1907, Bryce exposed the inhuman and unsanitary conditions of residential schools. Bryce revealed: “It suffices for us to know … that of a total of 1,537 pupils reported upon, nearly 25 per cent are dead,” and “of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.” He continued, “We have created a situation so dangerous to health . . . that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse.”
The report was eventually leaked and appeared on the front page of the newspaper that is now the Ottawa Citizen, making the report public knowledge. Despite Bryce’s damning report, none of the report’s recommendations were immediately implemented.
As Cindy Blackstock passionately states, Dr. Bryce’s publicized report “puts a red hot poker stick into this myth that people in the period didn’t know any better back then. And we really need to lift up people like Dr. Bryce, who spoke up and spoke out to save children’s lives at a time that was critical” (CBC Radio, 2017). On Dr. Bryce’s legacy, the First Nations Caring Society states, “The Story of Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce is an important part of our history and demonstrates to us the importance of speaking out for what is right and just, even when it is difficult to do so” (Wattam, 2016, p. 1).
Reconciliation must be grounded in the voices, experiences and aspirations of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people of Canada. Since the release of the TRC’s Final Report, many Indigenous peoples and their allies have started to talk about reconciliAction (Ubokudom, 2017). Truth-telling, empathy and listening are instrumental to reconciliation but without action, reconciliation will gradually lose meaning and become another token response to systemic injustice.
PeerNet BC states that allyship “begins when a person of privilege seeks to support a marginalized individual or group.” Allyship requires a commitment to unlearning and learning about privilege, power and oppression and involves a “life-long process of building relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability with marginalized individuals or group.”
Allyship is hard. Ally is a verb that requires action. Allyship is not an identity, nor is it a performance. Allyship is a practice. Allyship requires an ongoing commitment to working in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. Allies are not self-defined but are recognized and affirmed by Indigenous peoples. To practice solidarity, non-Indigenous people must be accountable and responsive to the voices, needs and political perspectives of Indigenous peoples (Walia, 2012). Allies must recognize how they have participated in and benefited from colonialism while working towards supporting Indigenous self-determination.
Responsibilities while practicing allyship:
- Actively acknowledge your privileges (race, economic class, sexuality, gender, ability, religion, etc.) and openly discuss them
- Listen more and speak less
- Work with integrity and direct communication
- Do your own research: Do not expect to be educated by Indigenous peoples
- Build your capacity to receive criticism
- Embrace the emotions that come out of allyship (discomfort, guilt, shame, etc.)
- Acknowledge that the needs of non-Indigenous allies are secondary to those of Indigenous people with whom you seek to work
- Do not expect awards or special recognition (PeerNetBC)
Pitfalls and Responsibilities for Allies
Two key pitfalls to avoid are taking leadership and self-identifying as an ally. From an anti-oppression perspective, meaningful support for Indigenous struggles cannot be directed by [non-Indigenous peoples] (Walia, 2012). The second principle of self-identifying as an ally highlights the importance of “building long-term relationships of accountability and never assuming or taking for granted the personal and political trust that [non-Indigenous peoples] may earn from Indigenous peoples over time” (Walia, 2012). This speaks to why an ally must be acclaimed or identified as an ally by Indigenous peoples.
Example of Allyship in Action
According to Gaa wii ji’i diyaang (2017), a collective of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples working towards reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, there are five key ways in which non-Indigenous people demonstrate their commitment to building new relationships with Indigenous peoples:
- Awareness: are aware that social inequities exist and are rooted in social, economic, and historical contexts related to colonization
- Recognition: recognize their own position within power relations and structures that uphold or disrupt inequity
- Positionality: work to become fully grounded in their own cultural history and how it relates to colonialism
- Accountability: are willing to engage in the difficult conversations around truth and reconciliation and recognize that their own mistakes and the mistakes of others are part of the learning process; they are, in fact, opportunities to grow
- Embodied acts: practice their active listening skills, learn about past and present colonial structures and actions through self-reflection of allyship
Questions for Dialogue
For Indigenous participants:
- Have you had past experiences of working with an ally?
- In what ways did these people demonstrate allyship?
- What traits does an ally need in order to work with Indigenous people?
- What do you need from allies to work with them in solidarity?
For non-Indigenous participants:
- What are some barriers for you to become an ally?
- In what ways have you benefitted from colonization?
- What skills and strategies have you used to challenge anti-Indigenous racism?
- What are some specific ways that you can work towards being an ally to Indigenous people?
For all participants:
- During our circle talk, we have used the term “non-Indigenous,” what is your definition of a non-Indigenous person? Does it include the term settler? Who is a settler?
- How do Canadians go about righting the historic and ongoing legacy of harms related to Indigenous people?
References and Resources
Bryce, P. H. (1907). Report on the Indian schools of Manitoba and the North West Territories. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau. Retrieved from http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/bibliography/3024.html
CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning. (2017, June 2). Ottawa doctor who sounded alarm on residential schools remembered with exhibit. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/peter-bryce-exhibit-ottawa-church-residential-schools-1.4142766
Gehl, L. (n.d.). Ally Bill of Responsibilities. Retrieved January 18, 2017 from http://www.lynngehl.com/uploads/5/0/0/4/5004954/ally_bill_of_responsibilities_poster.pdf
Gaa wii ji’i diyaang (2017). Terms of Reference. University of Manitoba
Groundwork for Change website: http://www.groundworkforchange.org/
PeerNetBC (n.d). Allyship 101. Retrieved from http://www.peernetbc.com/
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future. Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Walia, H. (2012). Moving Beyond a Politics of Solidarity toward a Practice of Decolonization. Organize!: Building from the Local for Global Justice, 240.
Wattam, J. (July 2016). Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce: A Story of Courage. First Nations Child & Family Caring Society. Retrieved from https://fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/Dr.%20Peter%20Henderson
Ubokudom, D-A. (2017, November 15). UMSU encourages university to develop an Aboriginal language degree program. “ReconciliAction campaign to foster Truth and Reconciliation on campus”. The Manitoban. Retrieved from http://www.themanitoban.com/2017/11/umsu-encourages-university-develop-aboriginal-language-degree-program/32876/
van Dijk, T.A. (1992). Discourse and the denial of racism. Discourse & Society, 3(1), 87-118.