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By Alannah MacGregor, Programs & Exhibition Co-ordinator

In late May I found myself faced with a very random question “Mum, what does monumental mean?”. It took me a minute to decide how to answer this out of the blue question. On the fly I came up with “it’s a way to describe an event, thing, or idea that’s large enough or significant enough to be paradigm shifting.” The conversation branched off first to get a definition for the word ‘paradigm’ which is even harder to explain to a 9 year old. He interrupted that branch of his own conversation to tell me that he thought monumental had something to do with how many legs an animal has; I’ve been mulling that one over for a while now and I’m still scratching my head. However, I was reminded of this conversation less than a week later as I returned home from the Indigenous History and Heritage Gathering, in Ottawa. Sitting with the experience the most accurate word I could find for it was indeed ‘monumental’. It had certainly shifted a paradigm in me.

 

One of my first thoughts when arriving in the main conference room of the hotel was that I had not understood the scope of the conference going in to it. Weaving my way through hundreds of people seated around dozens of large tables. Eventually finding a seat I pulled out my tablet and got ready to take notes, I didn’t want to miss a thing. One of my goals for 2024 within my position as the Programs and Exhibitions Co-ordinator was to increase my awareness of how to respectfully program regarding Indigenous histories and culture. This goal was particularly important to me as I felt there was a gaping hole in my knowledge and in my ability to create programs that were truly for everyone. I wanted the programming roster I created to be inclusive and to do that I needed to start somewhere. Replacing ignorance with understanding can be uncomfortable no matter what the topic so like any good bookworm my first strategy was to find an academic text about decolonizing engagement. The book gave me a basis from which to grow in my understanding. As I got further into the book I was forwarded an email about this gathering taking place in Ottawa. I had never been to any kind of gathering/conference before but this one stood out to me, I knew this was an opportunity to further my understanding, I couldn’t miss it.

 

The day started off with a hiccup with the first key speaker running into travel difficulties. We were lucky enough to hear from Kim Murray the Independent Special Interlocutor for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools as a last minute step in. It’s hard to describe how Kim spoke to a room of hundreds of people. It was both completely independent of the audience, yet intensely personal to everyone listening. Kim’s genuine and raw passion for what she was sharing with us transcended differences and touched everyone in that room. Kim spoke about the right to truth and that there is a duty to remember. She spoke about her role as the special interlocutor, tracking down these children who did not survive the residential schools, that what happened to these communities, families, and children: violated human rights. She shared with us stories of children that at the age of 15 were transferred from residential schools to sanitariums where they would die short years later.

My greatest shock of the day was to hear from Kim about how these children were forcibly transferred to different facilities (where many died) and even today the Government of Canada does not offer any assistance to families wanting to repatriate the remains of loved ones that aren’t buried on residential school grounds. From there she spoke about why records are important, especially those that sit restricted or untouched. These records are key to dispelling the denialism that allows colonial descendants to ignore what happened. I believe that Kim would have been able to give a similar talk at any gathering and touched the audience just as intensely. Standing ovations that well deserved are few and far between. 

I was able to attend two additional panel talks, a part of these that really caught my attention was that three speakers with three different languages all agreed that they were primarily oral languages. Another attendee asked the question: considering that many Indigenous languages are oral traditions, what role do reading and writing have in preserving the languages? The three panelist had slightly different interpretations but elder Norm Fleury Special Advisor to the University of Saskatchewan, and Gloria Wells Director of the Ninastako Cultural Center (NCC), both agreed that reading and writing had to have some role but more than that it was technology that needed to prevail in revitalizing languages. The NCC teaches in person language classes but also helped create an app to teach not only the Blackfoot language but how to pronounce it. Listening to the speakers further it became clear that how their languages were pronounced held great significance. A concept mentioned many times throughout the day was that of resilience, especially as it connected to those who had survived the horror of residential schools. However, listening to this panel speak about the role of technology in preserving their languages and the very active approach they were taking; I was in awe of the adaptability and persistence. So many people refusing to give up on their languages and identities and who were working so hard to preserve them using whatever tools necessary.

The third speaker in the panel was Aluki Kotierk, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated President. Aluki is a force, and that is the only way I can describe her, she speaks with so much confidence, passion, and righteousness that her 15 minute talk will stand out to me no matter how many speakers I will ever listen to. Aluki laid out plainly how Inuktitut was spoken less and less every year despite the fact that by 2019 Inuktitut was supposed to be the main language of the public government, as well as universal option for schooling in Nunavut. Near the end  of her talk Aluki spoke as to what we can do and the first answer was quite simple: keep talking about it, keep bringing it up, but there was also a bigger takeaway, that Indigenous people have a right to their languages and to be serviced in their languages. This was a really new idea for me that I had never considered previously. I had been assuming that it would be offensive to have someone not of that Indigenous culture learn to speak that language, this panel was hugely eye opening. These languages aren’t just something for those that speak them to bring out on certain occasions, no they need to be revitalized by everyone, like what Nunavut had planned for 2019 these languages need to be part of what Canada is planning for its future. I left this panel knowing that if I am to accomplish my aforementioned 2024 goal, then language would need to be a part of that.

 

I attended a second panel that afternoon with a similar theme of preserving Language and Culture in Museums. One of the panelists was Minaachimo-Kwe/Alice Williams, an Anishinaabe artist who created the Living Healing Quilt Project. Alice asked Indigenous people to submit quilt squares telling stories of the residential schools. So many submissions came in that four quilts were made. A message came from so many of the squares that Alice felt it important to highlight. That her thoughts went out not only to those children who were prisoners in the residential school but to the family members of those children. They suffered the loss of their children so intensely and many did not have the opportunity to speak about it. This reminded me of one other message from the keynote speaker Kim Murray; calling the children of residential schools “missing children” is not the truth. The truth is found in calling them “disappeared children” as it was systematic enforced disappearance. It became very clear the power and importance of language with just one word change. 

There were so many other incredible and awe inspiring moments from this gathering, but at the end of the day I think the take away is a crucial part. So what did I take away? What personal paradigm shifts were there? The first one I already mentioned about the key stone role that language needs to play not only for the future programs I hope to include, but in the way Canada offers services to all people. The second is that empathy, humanity, and action, are key parts to reconciliation. Going into this conference I was in a place where I felt I couldn’t participate in any discussion because my background knowledge had too many holes and gaps. The ongoing history of the residential schools was part of almost every discussion that day and I began to see that I didn’t need to know the entirety of colonial history and wrongdoings to bring my humanity to the table and be part of a wider conversation. Listening to Kim Murray and so many others I was struck by the fact that they didn’t present figures, places, or even many names, instead I saw survivors stand up, their pain, loss, and resilience all acknowledged with a roar of powerful applause. The impassioned presenters told stories, they highlighted the collective and individual humanity of each and every one of those children who survived what the church and our government did to them, and those children who did not. Differences in beliefs, lifestyle, and languages seemed to fade away with every story told. I am still at the very beginning stages of replacing my ignorance with knowledge, but I have tried to write this blog from a place of beginning, with kindness, and with empathy. I went into the gathering hoping to broaden my knowledge, and that did happen but I think more than that I gained a very different type of understanding.

 

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