This may sound funny, but history is not confined to the past. Just over a week ago I was at my childhood home on the reserve when I heard the news that my father and uncles Fred, Tootoons and John were likely part of one of these "nutritional experiments" you have probably read about, and one with clearly adverse side-effects at that. I felt as though a little piece of history reached out and punched me in the gut.
I struggle to understand what my uncle Fred Kelly must feel like. He is the surviving member of that group of brothers who were at St. Mary's Residential School. As he told an online audience on Monday night "to regurgitate the stories is to relive the horrors, the traumas and the indignities of Residential Schools."
Yet I know the hurt from these recent revelations is not limited to the Indigenous community. I know many Canadians from other walks of life who have been upset by the news and and are contemplating what it says about this country's history. For me, the more important question is "what will our response say about what Canada is today?"
Some friends and I have put out a call to Canadians to shed some of this negativity by uniting across cultural and religious lines. We are calling our gatherings (to be held today at noon) "Honour The Apology," in reference to Prime Minister Harper's 2008 apology to Residential School survivors. The idea is that we can each honour the apology on an individual level by commemorating or praying for the survivors.
Beyond being upset however, many people are asking questions like "How many more disturbing incidents are there from the Residential School era that we haven't yet heard about?"
Which brings us to the documents.
The Government of Canada still has millions of documents in its possession about Residential Schools. Meanwhile, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is quickly approaching the end of its mandate, which will come in about a year. While the Federal government says it will follow a court order telling it to turn over all relevant documents to the TRC, it is not clear when that will happen.
Some researchers predict a document dump a week or so before the TRC's mandate runs out. Others say there is no way all the documents can be handed over in time. In either scenario, the final report will be incomplete, and we will all be poorer for it. We will not have a clear answer to the "how many more?" question, nor will we have a complete picture of Canadian history.
To be clear, the Residential School era is not just "Native history." It is Canadian history. It is OUR history.
Do we want to be a nation that shied away from the truth? Do we want to be a country that avoided reconciling with our past because we avoided acknowledging it?
I think not. The integrity we display when facing up to our most challenging transgressions reveals our character. This is true of individuals and of nations.
Therefore we are also asking all Canadians to call on our government to honour the apology by turning over the documents to the TRC now, while there is still time for them included in the final report. Write the Prime Minister, write Members of Parliament of all parties. Show that you honour the apology. Lead and let the politicians follow.
Facing up to the truth will likely be painful. There may be further revelations which will hurt survivors, their descendants and to all Canadians. Yet, dealing with the Residential School era in its entirety will make us stronger. I have seen living proof.
After a lifelong healing journey, one in which he confronted every aspect of his Residential School experience along with his own demons, I watched my Father extend a hand of fellowship to the Catholic church following the 2008 apology. When I pressed him on how he could embrace his former tormentors with love, he told me "I don't have the luxury of anger or prejudice. I am going to meet my creator soon and I don't want to carry this pain with me." He traveled to the spirit world last year, after having gained so much by learning to let go. Many survivors have shown similar grace. I see that many non-Indigenous people are committed to grappling with the legacy of Residential Schools as well.
National Chief Shawn Atleo says in a statement released today "This is how we as individual citizens of nations can begin together our long walk to reconciliation and healing."
So no, history is not confined to the past. Someday, our descendants will look back at today and consider this day to be "history." What then, will our words and actions today tell our children, grandchildren and generations unborn tomorrow?
I hope to make them proud.
So today I will fast to honour my father, my uncles and all the survivors of Residential Schools and those subjected to the "nutritional experiments." At 12 noon I will join with Canadians from all walks of life at events in Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Toronto, Ottawa, Moose Cree, Opaskwayak and Whitehorse to "honour the apology." And I will embrace whoever is near me to send a message that today Canada is a nation unified in its celebration of all peoples, including its first peoples.
What message will you send today?