This is the fourth in a series of blogs I'm writing on my experience attending the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria last weekend. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Canada addresses the Indian Residential School system that existed between 1840 - 1996 (see their website for more information). If you haven't read my introductory blog entry, you can read it here first. Here is the second post on being a witness. Here is the third post, with stories from survivors.
I've been pondering the reactions of friends and my own reaction to the quotes I posted in my last blog entry. Seeing them all listed together was rather overwhelming.
Here's my main thought... insofar as they separated kids from their families to try to make
them less Indian, the residential schools represented an unjust system, a program of cultural genocide. But over and above this cultural genocide, there was also an extremely disturbing amount of child abuse at the schools. And why was that? That's the question one of my best friends asked me - why was there so much abuse, particularly sexual abuse? It wasn't a few isolated cases, and it wasn't only the celibate Catholic priests - it happened in multiple schools run by different denominations. The abuse was systemic; it was endemic to the school system. I think the prevalence of abuse had something to do with the fact that these children were generally seen as uncivilized savages. They were lesser humans, in a separate category from white children. It was this faulty belief that somehow legitimized the abuse for the many of the teachers, and by perpetually abusing the kids, they sustained and reinforced their belief that the kids were worth very little. It was a twisted, self-reinforcing system, an "institutionalized pedophilia," as one of the judges in the settlement put it.
As a Christian white person listening to all these survivor stories, I had the overwhelming urge to do something or say something to express my horror and remorse. I was tentatively hoping that this kind of thing might happen during the "Expressions of Reconciliation." This was the time in the weekend when representatives of churches and other organizations gave speeches in front of the whole gathering. Some were apologizing, and some were not. (One thing I learned that weekend is that the word "apologize" is a legal term, and carries the responsibility to make reparations, as opposed to a word like "regret.") Yes, words alone can be cheap, but words can also be very powerful and healing, so I knew it would be important for these representatives to choose their words carefully.
Honestly, I will humbly admit that I have no idea how to properly apologize (or even "express regret") for something as vast and complex and systemic as the residential schools. I realize that it makes things much harder when you're apologizing on behalf of a group, and you do not have free rein over what you say. But I've got to admit that I learned more during these speeches about what I would not say than I did about what I would say, if given the chance. So without further ado, I will categorize these observations for you in a little section I'd like to call...
How NOT to Apologize
- Come with self-serving goals (other than reconciliation). By far one of the strangest "expressions of reconciliation" was from BC Hydro (our province's electricity provider). BC Hydro did not participate in any way in the Indian Residential Schools. With nothing to apologize for, the guy in the suit ended up bragging about how BC Hydro brought twenty of their top employees to this Victoria event to volunteer, and how they want to understand what happened so they can better do business with First Nations people. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for listening and learning, but the whole thing came off not as an expression of reconciliation, but as a promotional spot, a weird advertisement for BC Hydro. My friend Laurel leaned over to me and said, "I wonder if most people hear the church apologies with the same cynicism we hear this one with, asking 'what's in it for them?'"
- Encourage the people you hurt to "focus on remembering the good times." Yes, someone did say this, and yes, I almost left the room. This particular priest's version of an "expression of reconciliation" was to spend most of his time talking about the residential school he worked at, and how it was a wonderful, loving home for the majority of the students. His words were met by shouts of protest from the survivors in the crowd. One woman sobbed loudly and uncontrollably through his speech. I don't doubt that there were good experiences at residential schools. But reconciliation depends on the church's and government's ability to humbly acknowledge and take responsibility for the horrible experiences, even if they feel they were the exception to the rule. It is definitely not the offender's role to determine on what experiences the victims should focus.
- Don't show any emotion. After all the tears that flowed during the survivor statements, the lack of emotion during the apologies was particularly evident. The apologizers often used emotion-laden language, but there was not a single tear, not a single embodied expression of remorse. One denominational representative said "I hang my head in shame," but he was not, in fact, hanging his head! Not that I would have wanted these speakers to force emotions that weren't there... but why weren't the emotions there? Were the speakers having trouble identifying with the actual perpetrators? Were they too distant from what had happened? Or do we North Americans just suck at embodying remorse? We don't have a lot of culturally appropriate expressions of sorrow - we don't rip our clothing or sit in ashes, like the Jews did. All I know is that as I sat listening to these "apologies," my heart started beating quickly and I felt like I had to do something drastic with my whole body, with my entire being, to show the depth of what I felt. I wanted to lay face down on the ground in the aisle. But I didn't even know what that would communicate.
- Draw connections between their pain and your own. One religious leader began his speech by saying that during his time listening to the survivors' stories, he was struck especially by the parts about losing and being separated from family members, because his own mother had just passed away. I know that he was trying to personalize his apology and was seeking some common ground with the survivors, but because he didn't adequately qualify what he said, he seemed to equate the very disparate experiences of being stolen as a young child from your parents' home, and having your mother die of old age. It's always dangerous to say (or imply) "I know how you felt."
- Congratulate yourself for how far you've come. This was one of the more subtle things that happened. A couple "expressions of reconciliation" were dominated by "expressions of how good we've already been doing at reconciling." One church showed a news report about a reconciliation event they attempted with local First Nations bands. Another denominational rep talked about the Aboriginal programs and bursaries they'd been offering at their seminary, and gave two gifts to the Commission - a mug and a brochure from the seminary. It was good to hear these hopeful stories of progress, just like it was good to hear stories of healing from survivors. But like the survivors, the churches have to spend the majority of their airtime at these events courageously telling the truth about what happened, rather than rushing into the healing part. And come on... a mug and a brochure? Really?
- Shift the focus to another offending party. One church representative said he wanted to finish his speech with an important question. We were all on the edges of our seats, wondering what question he would leave us with - would it be "What can we do now to encourage reconciliation?" or perhaps "Do you accept our apology?" No. His closing question was... "Where is the government?" He was pointing out the fact that all the church representatives had given speeches, but no one from the government had come to the Victoria event to say anything. Valid point, but this constant blame-shifting has already driven residential school survivors crazy. The church and government sound like children trying to convince their mother that not they, but their sibling, who is the real culprit. It's time to grow up and own what's ours.
- Act like all the bad stuff is over now. This was the most consistent problem with the speeches. Every speaker talked about looking forward to walking together with First Nations people into a bright future. But no one acknowledged that systemic injustice against First Nations people continues to this day in Canada, and that all of us, especially we Church people, have a responsibility to stand up and do something about it.
I'll talk more about this last concept in my next post... but I have to think about it some more first!