Like many Canadians I don’t know what to do about reconciliation. But as a writer I know ‘doing nothing’ constitutes a dereliction of duty.
As I said to a First Nations acquaintance over coffee last week, there are many people of European descent who are as troubled and perplexed as me when it comes to reconciliation: people who acknowledge the devastating assimilation that was perpetrated against aboriginal peoples in North America; and the unchecked occupation and pillaging of indigenous territories and cultures that had been established over thousands of years.
Acknowledging those atrocities is an important first step, but it doesn’t bring us much closer to an understanding of what is expected of us, and what we as individuals can do to help set things right. So I decided to go see Carey Newman’s Witness Blanket, on exhibit at Vancouver Island University’s View Gallery in Nanaimo until Nov. 30, thinking I might discover something in the 40′ display of residential school artifacts that would give me insights.
I wasn’t expecting any sort of revelation, rather, I wanted to quietly examine my thoughts and feelings in response to this work – I wanted to discover in the human scale of Witness Blanket, if what I already knew might coalesce into possibilities for meaningful action on my part. While I can’t say I’ve found a personal road-map, I have come away from the exhibit with a collection of ideas that might help me find a way.
As I studied the fragments of residential school history compiled in the Witness Blanket, I thought “I did not do this.” And asked, “Why should I apologize?”
It’s natural to look for a way out when we are confronted with something that looks like ‘blame.’ Then it occurred to me that apologizing is about more than accepting blame, it’s also about taking responsibility for the effects of grave social injustices that are still impacting the lives of tens of thousands of Canadians today.
As a nation, we do inherit the blame for our ancestors’ actions, and if we do not apologize in that sense, who will apologize and begin the work of healing. As importantly, by apologizing, we accept as individuals our responsibility to make right as best we can the wrongs that still weigh heavily on so many people in this land. Both facets of apology must be made and continue to be sincerely offered for as long as it takes to establish trust and achieve reconciliation.
Apology must be more than words, too; a sincere apology emerges out of genuine soul-searching and personal reform. To apologize in that sense means becoming aware of our own prejudices, and correcting them over time. It means respecting the people and cultures of First Nations – of any social or cultural group for that matter – and making room for them not only on the land, but in our hearts.
Guilt will not help us achieve reconciliation, but if we don’t devote ourselves as individuals and as a nation to the task, we will continue to be gnawed by guilt. When you become aware of an injustice, and take action to fix it, you do not need to feel guilty; but guilt becomes unavoidable if you do nothing. The most obvious sign of guilt is prejudice. When we cannot justify ourselves based on integrity and action, we rely on devaluing those we wrong and blaming them for their circumstances. A vicious cycle of scapegoating our victims distorts our perspective and shrivels our own humanity.
I came away from The Witness Blanket with an awakened sense of purpose. As a writer what I contribute to my world is words, strung into sentences, conveying meaning and encouraging action. Words, of course, are just squiggles on a page, ideas that have to be created anew in the minds and souls of the people who read them. I offer these words in that spirit, and will be looking for opportunities to talk, think and write more about reconciliation in the future.