September 30th marked the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation which was created as a federal statutory holiday. At the heart of this day was a chance to acknowledge, remember and engage in dialogues about the tragic legacy of the Residential schools. Like many other organizations in the Province, the Hamilton Literacy Council staff were given the day off to observe, listen and reflect.
The day coincided with the Indigenous grassroots movement, Orange Shirt Day which was inspired by Phyllis Webstad’s book about her first day of school, when at age six, she had her new orange shirt taken away from her. Phyllis is Northern Secwepemc from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation and a Residential school survivor. There are many stories like this one from other members of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people of Canada. Her story has become a symbol of the loss of culture, freedom, pride and a way to reclaim their voice. In recognition and support, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Hamilton and across the country, wore an orange shirt.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton held an event in the evening of September 30th, National Day for Truth and Reconciliation: Be a Better Ally. The guest panelists were Indigenous community members: Jordan Carrier, Board member of the Niwasa Aboriginal Education Program, working in Indigenous student support at McMaster University and a Plains Cree Woman; Rebecca Hammond, Policy Counsel – Aboriginal Justice Strategy -Legal Aid Ontario, First Nations on her mother’s side (although her mother had been taken from her home in Manatoulin Island and adopted by a Polish family); and Michael Blashkoand, Métis and the great, great nephew of Louis Riel, and supporter of LGBTQ2S+. Rather than taking the day off to spend with their families, they graciously donated their time to share their personal stories and experiences of growing up in the Prairies and Ontario. Discussed their connections as well as lack of connections, to the Indigenous community and culture. They spoke of their feelings about what this day meant to them, and how non-indigenous people could support the Indigenous community and the healing process. This was not a celebratory holiday for them but part of a journey which at times is traumatic, exhausting, frustrating, disappointing and at times hopeful. It was an emotional and enlightening evening and all who attended were better for it.
Due to the atrocities of the Residential school system and its generational impacts as well as the ongoing racism, mistreatment and displacement of many Indigenous peoples, poverty, homelessness, and drug and alcohol addictions, continue to be part of their communities’ struggles. There is also a disproportionate number of incarcerations of First Nations and Métis people compared to overall population and a significant number of High School dropouts. Sadly, these circumstances have also impacted the literacy skills of those living on and off reserves, with just over a third scoring above Level 3 of the Adult Literacy Skills. Poor reading, writing, numeracy and digital skills also cause their daily life to be more challenging, making programs such as ours and other LBS programs in the city, invaluable for these adult learners. Recently we purchased new resources for all our students and volunteer tutors, which inform the reader about Indigenous experiences, culture, and the history of Residential schools.
During the AGH evening’s conversation, the guest speakers were asked what “call to actions” those of us in the community who are non-indigenous, could take. One of the suggestions was to read books by Indigenous authors. Below is a list of some examples of Indigenous literature which are inspirational, poignant, and informative. One of our Small Group Coordinators, Chris, also provided this suggestion: “Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese, exquisitely renders the story of an Indigenous youth raised by a white farmer in Alberta whose dying father seeks him out so he will know his heritage.”
Five Little Indians, Michelle Good (Cree writer and lawyer) – Governor General’s Literacy Award for Fiction, the portrayal of five young residential school survivors and their resiliency against all odds.
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer (scientist, professor, member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, U.S.) – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.
From the Ashes, Jesse Thistle (Assistant Professor at U. of T., Métis-Cree) – a powerful memoir about abandonment, addiction, survival, education and acceptance.
A National Crime, John S. Milloy (Professor emeritus of Native Studies and History, Trent University – non-indigenous writer however, this book was recommended by several First Nation members including the above author, Michelle Good) – a comprehensive look at the Residential School System and the role of the Canadian Government.
If you should read any of these, we would love to hear your feedback, we also welcome any recommendations you may wish to pass along.
Also check out the link below for more suggestions.
10 Pieces of Culture to help you engage with Truth and Reconciliation