Maggie Hodgson

“It is up to you!” –Elder Abe Burnstick

Reconciliation is a Western concept that describes a process of bringing one’s spirit to a place of peace. The long-term goal of reconciliation is to prepare ourselves for the time we go to the other side in peace. Peace is a state of spirit. We get there through hard work on our part or a willingness to ask the Creator to help us find peace in our hearts. The process of reconciliation is embodied in our mind, flesh, spirit, and attitude. We either choose to stay in pain and in anger or we are willing to do the work to effect change for ourselves. This does not necessarily mean the person or the government or the church that hurt us has to be sorry before we come to a place of peace. Coming to a place of peace and setting our spirits free from pain is a long-term process for most people and communities. Finding that place in our spirits is a lifelong journey. The reward for doing our work is being a people of hope, spirit, and commitment. We do this to ensure that our grandchildren will not have to live with our spiritual, emotional pain.

Many former residential school students experienced trauma from being disconnected from their family. Those who have moved forward understand that in order to heal from our pain we have to speak our truth and take responsibility for change. We have chosen to reverse the central pillars of the intent of residential schools and surrounding legislation that drove a spike into the hearts of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples. The chilling language surrounding the “Indian question” clearly defined the legislators’ intent, which was to assimilate Aboriginal peoples by outlawing traditional ceremonies, removing children from families, and cutting off access to language and sense of identity. In 1920, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott told Parliament that the object of assimilation was to continue “until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.”1 One cannot separate residential schools from those policies because they decreed that our children should not live with their parents and should not have access to ceremony while they were being trained to believe our cultural beliefs and ceremonies were of the devil.

When the Canadian government declared illegal the practice of Native ceremonies such as the Potlatch and the Sun Dance, the result was a focused attack on the spirit of our peoples. It was a genocidal attack on our spirit that would impact up to five generations (or one hundred years) of our peoples who attended residential schools. Taking away these and other ceremonies meant taking away the ideas, values, and principles basic to community mental health. With the ceremonies went security, identity, ideology, rituals, belonging, reciprocity, and beliefs along with responsibility for actions, access to resources, time together, healing, and justice. The destruction of ceremonies was the core of the Canadian government’s genocidal policies. It served as a knife cutting into the heart of our culture. These policies were reinforced by the four main churches’ position within the residential schools. They believed that ceremonies were pagan and of the devil. Because the majority of Canadians were of Christian origin, they supported anything that would ensure the extinguishment of pagan ways. While they believed what they were doing was right, the disrespect for our spiritual beliefs was a big mistake.

Assimilation efforts served to confuse the sense of identity and the sense of personal worth of those affected. Ceremony teaches personal responsibility for one’s words and actions and reciprocity, or giving and taking. When ceremony was outlawed,2 they removed the very resource needed to heal from the abuse experienced by some of the people who attended residential schools. Individuals who have a spiritual foundation or who live the values and principles of the ceremonies we participate in have been most successful in reconciling with the effects of these social policies. While this sounds like a quick fix, it is not: there are many valleys and hills in our journey toward accepting that it is our choice if we stay in that pain or do the work necessary to move forward. In my case, it has been a thirty-seven-year journey and I still need to reflect on my choices when I become angry, scared, or hurt. In the words of Elder Abe Burnstick, “It’s up to you! We don’t get something … for nothing, we gotta earn it!”

The people and communities who have continued to move toward a place of spiritual peace—or reconciliation—have understood that while Canada took these things away from us, it is our personal responsibility to strengthen ceremony within our families, communities, and society. Traditional and/or Christian ceremony is critical to reconciliation. The Bible and traditional ceremony each teaches with different words and rituals, but with similar living principles. The core of those two ways teaches us “To love your neighbour as yourself.” Or in our way, it is the well-being of the collective that is core, and we must work to co-exist with others in a good way.

One teaching included in ceremony is the power of wind spirit. The wind spirit brings us to a place of change—change in seasons, in our lives, and in our daily choices. Our wind spirit is one of the strongest because it gives us the capacity to speak when we use our breath or wind spirit. When we speak, we have a responsibility to pay attention to our voice tone, the words we use, the names we call people, and whether we build people up or tear them down. Wind spirit is heard in sweat lodges, in Christian hymns, and in traditional singing. Western therapists in bioenergetics encourage the use of wind spirit to release feelings through song or giving voice to one’s pain, except when we use it in ceremony, and we don’t have to pay one hundred dollars an hour for therapy. It is our therapy.

Do we use our wind spirit to sing our joy? Or do we use our wind spirit to yell at government lawyers? This occurred at a residential school meeting a couple of years ago. A very dedicated IRSRC3 lawyer who works hard to ensure he listens to ways the system can work more effectively for former students was yelled at by three Elders. Later, an angry participant walked toward him punching into the air with clenched fists while the crowd of former students clapped and cheered him on. Afterwards, many of the participants laughed about how frightened the lawyer was. My heart went out to him. Is this what was learned in residential school? How to bully? Is this what gangs in our streets do? Is this where our kids are learning this use of the wind spirit, from our very own role models, the parents and Elders in our community? How many of these people were even aware of the teachings of the ceremony that speaks to the gift of wind spirit and how we have to respect this gift? The flip side of that picture was when I was at a Saskatchewan Chiefs’ meeting and a Senator of the FSIN4 spoke before the meeting. He said we have to treat these people with respect because they do not make the rules, they are just messengers sent to tell us something. Is it only Canada that needs to apologize?

Let she who is without mistake cast the first stone!

Or should we also apologize for our treatment of government messengers? I say this as a person who has done these things at times in my past. I am ashamed of my behaviour and my words. I was told years later about something I said to a public person at a public meeting, and I immediately took the opportunity to ask forgiveness for my disrespect. I gave him a gift as is taught in my ceremony as a way to correct mistakes that affect the spirit of others. When reflecting upon the disrespect sometimes directed at government officials, some community members have responded with a defensive “Now they know how we felt!” It is our choice how we use our gift of wind spirit within the context of our daily lives and in our personal journey toward reconciliation. As Abe Burnstick said, “It’s up to you!”

Another gift that can be used to heal ourselves is water spirit. Water is one of our medicines. Water spirit keeps us alive. Our eyes have water. Our body is made up of water. Our tears are water. Tom Badger, an Elder from Beaver Lake, said, “Rain cleanses the earth and our tears cleanse our souls.”5

Water spirit is a gift we use when we cry. In residential school, many people learned not to cry. When children cried in residential school and there was no response except, “I’ll give you something to cry for!” they learned to shut down sadness. Over time, they built such a wall around their sadness that when they cry now, they say, “I broke down.” When children cried themselves to sleep because they missed their parents so much, they eventually learned they could cry all they wanted but they were still not going home. This is one of the roots of poor mental health. The sense of abandonment was experienced by many children. They wondered why their parents did not come to visit them. After one hundred years, there was not much water spirit left; in its place was hopelessness, a deep sense of abandonment, and anger. This proved to be fertilizer for suicide and addictions.

In the mid-1800s, French sociologist Emile Durkheim spoke about the result of attempts to replace the values and beliefs of one group of people with those of another.6 When those attempts are unsuccessful, the result is anomie, a sense of hopelessness and alienation from traditional values and beliefs that can result in social problems such as addictions and suicide. A recent publication, Suicide Among Aboriginal People in Canada, notes that Durkheim’s theory “still provides a useful way to understand some of the harmful effects of social breakdown and disruption in Aboriginal communities that have come from colonization, forced assimilation, and relocation.”7 Reversing the effects of hundreds of years of social disruption and alienation will take time. Reconciliation for the collective is a long-term process. Thank the Creator we are in that process in many people’s lives.

Collective Reconciliation

The road to addressing trauma and reconciliation did not just start with the current litigation.8 Our community had to first deal with the impact of the removal of ceremony—the community dysfunction that resulted from the removal of ceremony as well as the disruption of family support systems and loss of loved ones.

Most people who attended residential school focus on their experience of the abuse they suffered there; however, they usually only speak in private about the abuse and neglect they may have suffered within their own family or society. The years of alcoholism and violence experienced within families and communities from about the 1950s to the 1970s has not been addressed in the same public way as the residential school experience. Many people prefer to see these issues as being the result of colonization. That is a political world view. The therapeutic view is that regardless of where the abuse began, we have to acknowledge that in some cases it continued within our own families. The drinking was a direct response to the state of hopelessness and loss of identity caused by genocidal policies. However, beginning in the early 1970s, our families and communities dealt with the rampant drinking and violence with the support of provincial and federal funding. The very governments that structured the legislation outlawing our ceremonies supported the development of community-based, community-designed treatment programs managed and staffed by Aboriginal people under the direction of Elders. These centres embodied the very elements that were previously outlawed as pagan. Many of the people attending these programs were not only treated for their alcoholism, they also learned about ceremony. They learned through teachings that held ideas, values, and principles basic to individual and community mental health. Treatment built the understanding necessary so we could restore our spirits and take responsibility for preparing the way for our grandchildren.

After three generations of involvement in treatment and recovery programs, our people started to return to post-secondary institutions, in part, to ensure our community professionals were from our communities. We were moving forward with our willingness to take responsibility to offset the genocidal acts on our spirit. The results are reflected in the number of Aboriginal people attending post-secondary institutions. Aboriginal enrolment in post-secondary institutions paralleled the huge increase in sobriety during those same years.9 The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC) and the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP10) funded about one hundred treatment programs across Canada.11 These programs were staffed and managed by Aboriginal people and ceremony was a centre post to treatment. We were on the move with passion!

Individuals and families continued in our process of healing and reconciliation. This became the foundation of the treatment centre movement, and it strengthened ceremony as a centre post to being at a place where trauma could more readily be put on the table. It was put on the table by social activists like Eric Shirt in treatment development and Charlene Belleau in community healing. There were other courageous people who came forward with criminal charges dealing with residential school abuse, and there were many others who worked to strengthen community. Charlene Belleau hosted the first National Residential School Conference with nine hundred people attending in 1990. I was part of a national television show about residential schools in the late 1980s. I was afraid there might be backlash because not only did we talk about the residential school experience, but also about community violence. There was no fallout from the show. Georges Erasmus was the first National Chief to have a motion passed by the Assembly of Chiefs requesting that the issue of residential schools be addressed. National Chief Fontaine broke the silence from leadership when he spoke about his own abuse in residential school. Our communities were ready to deal with historic trauma now that so many of our people had attended recovery programs and many more were pursuing post-secondary education.

The process of reconciliation relies on the foundation laid by the person, the group, and the community to bring our spirits to a place of readiness to be willing to reconcile. Readiness of the wounded and timing are both critical to the success of reconciliation. The healthier we are, the more we are willing to understand the other group’s perspective. To say we understand does not mean we agree with the historic offender’s world view of our relationship. It simply means that we understand where they come from. Based on the foundation laid by the addictions recovery movement, along with the strengthening of ceremony and the increased participation in education and therapy, we were ready to deal with trauma. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s program evaluation clearly stated that the majority of former students accessed traditional ceremony holders and Elders in their treatment for trauma.12 Some clients selected both traditional and Western therapy modes to deal with their trauma. An estimated total of 111,170 participants attended AHF-funded healing activites, and well over half of those participants accessed services to engage in healing for the very first time.13

The common experience payment provided for in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (2006) is to acknowledge the trauma of residential schools, the policy of outlawing ceremony, the loss of language, and the impacts on students of being removed from their family. The term “common experience payment” covertly talks about the results of legislation to outlaw ceremony and the impact of removing generations of children from their parents. I am always amazed at how the English language can sanitize the most horrific experiences. Regardless of the words used, it is a just settlement. For some, the payment will be a form of reconciliation because it will be seen as a public acknowledgement that they cried themselves to sleep without their parents and suffered because of their removal from ceremony to heal themselves.

An alternative dispute resolution process (ADR) to resolve claims of injury was established in 2002. Deputy Minister Mario Dion of IRSRC had the choice of either following the usual government process of appointing a chief adjudicator from within the government’s political circles or choosing to listen to the Aboriginal Working Caucus’s recommendation; he chose to listen to the working caucus.14 The caucus recommended that the selection for the chief adjudicator and for all the adjudicators be made by all of the stakeholders, including Survivors, Church entities, plaintiffs’ legal counsel, and Canada. There was a traditional ceremony along with an Anglican blessing for the ADR process and the chief adjudicator. People from all the stakeholder groups participated in the blessing. Everyone either prayed or sang a song to celebrate the occasion along with holding the usual feast. This is a traditional process for choosing leaders. Within tradition, there is an agreement from the whole group as to who is the best person to do the job; it is not a process based on political patronage. One more step toward shared decision making. This is collaborative law and an act of reconciliation and sharing of power.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”15

— Nelson Mandella

The freedom that Nelson Mandela speaks about was manifested when government, the Assembly of First Nations, plaintiffs’ lawyers, and the churches worked together to deal with the legal response to residential schools. He could also have been speaking about the foundation we laid with the increase in post-secondary enrolment and the creation of community-driven alcohol and drug treatment. These are examples of how we brought our strengths together to take responsibility for individual and collective change.

The thirty years of work to prepare for this time of settlement has borne fruit, and there has been excellent work done in reconciliation over that time. This reconciliation embodies the traditional justice processes that have been incorporated into government policies and practices. For example, if a former student wants to have a traditional ceremony within their hearing, they are supported to have the Elder of their choice present to conduct ceremony. Elders are compensated for counselling and crisis support as any other professionals are compensated. This took five years to achieve; however, it was finally included within the structure of the hearings. One more step in reconciliation and the work required to reverse the outlawing of ceremonies.

Family and Community Choices in Reconciliation: A Case Example

An Elder received his compensation, paid off his bills, and invested the rest of his money into adding on to his home so his son and his family could live with him. The family shared in the cost of the renovations. The Elder is in a wheelchair and has many health challenges. He now has the benefit of having family with him to ensure he is safe if he faces a health crisis. He has a new investment in life with his grandchildren who show him love every day. Paying off his credit cards was a very big relief for the Elder and his wife because the old age pension is their only income. They also accessed the treatment planning money for extra counselling and traditional healing ceremonies for their family.

The family is active in ceremony throughout the year. They have invested in restoring balance within the family. In their case, this was not a response to receiving money, it has been a twenty-year investment. The Elder had been an active drinker but he has been sober for about twenty-plus years. During his drinking years, he manifested many of the behaviours many drinkers follow. His parenting and his relationship with his spouse were challenging during this time. Since his recovery, he has been an active participant and ceremony holder. He has been involved with his family in dealing with his lifestyle choices during those drinking years. He has had many one-to-one times with his children about their unmet needs during those years.

He had held fasting ceremonies on his land, and in one four-year period, he hosted a group of priests and nuns who chose to fast with the Aboriginal people. This provided a place for dialogue in the days before the fast and an opportunity for the nuns and priests to deal with their pain of hearing the experiences from all the former students in their parishes. A place of understanding unfolded. All of the parties opened themselves to hearing the other group’s perspectives and experiences. Each person faced their own pain and found a new connection toward building respect, acceptance, and shared relationship.

Now, his son carries on ceremonies for the community to come together to share in the process of rebuilding community through ceremony. This is one more step in Nelson Mandela’s statement of “freedom” and its meaning in our lives. The Elder’s son, two daughters, and his wife are all abstainers, not because they were ever alcoholics, but because they live a lifestyle that does not need that source of stimulation. They have ceremonies and their family to provide pure stimulation. The family has hosted local National Day of Healing and Reconciliation ceremonies held each year on May 26th.

At one time, there was a boycott of the local town by the reserve because of remarks made by a town councillor. Local businesses, school board trustees, and townspeople were invited to attend a reconciliation walk with about seven hundred First Nation people. They walked with the former residential school students and their families, listened to Survivors’ speeches, visited the grave site of the students who died while in the school, and ended the walk with a feast to enjoy good company. Their action of inviting the town’s business people and others resulted in the boycott changing to a place of choosing education as a way of resolving differences, along with building relationship based on mutual respect.

An adjudicator drove until two in the morning to get to the intensive care unit where the Elder was recovering after a critical health crisis to mediate an emergency ADR hearing to resolve his claim. The Elder indicated that the hearing was very sensitive to his medical condition. The very government that made the policy to outlaw his ceremonies now valued him enough to bring an adjudicator out across the border to conduct his hearing in a hospital room where medical people could help him because he had suffered a heart attack the day before. He said he experienced the adjudicator to be kind, gentle, compassionate, supportive, and sensitive to his fragile health. Being treated with respect by the system that previously treated you unkindly is an act of reconciliation.

Sometimes people apologize because they have to, and sometimes they do not apologize but their behaviour changes. That is an act of reconciliation in itself. As Elder Wolfleg said it, “Don’t tell me! Show me!”

The Elder’s daughter came to his hearing along with friends and a resolution health support worker. This provided the daughter with an opportunity to hear his pain and to better understand why he had acted the way he did for many years. However, he had a difficult emotional time for a few days after talking about what he had experienced. He has been able to return home because his family is there to take care of him. Even in his frail health he opens his home to government people so they might dialogue with him to build understanding about our shared history. Sometimes, building understanding takes us one more step toward manifesting reconciliation in our lives. It heals the soul murder16 that happened when he was called names, humiliated, and beaten until he lost his hearing in residential school. He says no matter what happens he will never forget what was done to him; however, he is peaceful when looking back to the healing and reconciliation that has happened within his family circle. Together they participate in ceremonies and they share a commitment to educating others about Aboriginal approaches to management, healing, and education processes.

At the last fasting ceremony, there was a local farmer who attended the berry ceremony as part of their “good neighbour practice,” and a local doctor and his wife came to the berry ceremony to participate in the drumming, singing, and feasting. Those neighbours stand as witnesses to the richness of the practices that were outlawed and now stand restored. These neighbours stand in a place of mutual respect and now understand why those historic laws were so devastating to this family and how they have taken the responsibility to restore ritual, ceremony, belonging, and compassion in their hearts.

Long-Term Community Investment in Wellness: A Case Example

In another community, a woman took her compensation and paid off her car, helped her son with the cost of a couple of courses to upgrade his marks, paid off her credit cards, and invested the balance of the money into an RRSP. She has accessed years of therapy to assist her in dealing with the criminal charges she laid against the person she had been abused by. She had a five-year civil court battle in order to reach a settlement on the abuse she suffered. Her family is involved in learning about and participating in ceremony and attends church with a focus of maintaining their addictions-free lifestyle. She is a former leader of her community and maintains her leadership through informal role modelling in lifestyle choices. She is a post-secondary graduate. She obtained her post-secondary education as the court processes were going on.

She participated in a community reconciliation ceremony with other Survivors of abuse suffered at the hands of a member of a religious order. It was a very difficult process because all the people did not accept the concept of community-based reconciliation ceremonies, and there were many bitter people there, including some of the victims of abuse. However, for some of the people, the ceremony was one more step toward healing. Not everybody was in the same place in terms of forgiving.

She has participated in community commemoration ceremonies that include Survivors who have settled their claims, family members, IRSRC staff who offered apologies on behalf of Canada, and representatives from the RCMP, the church entity, surrounding municipalities, local service agencies, and non-Aboriginal neighbours. They held a feast, a tobacco-burning ceremony, and a grieving ceremony in memory of family members who died in the schools or passed on since being in the school. Daily sweat lodges were available during their hearings. They had a balloon ceremony where they released a balloon that had their residential school number on it, and they let the balloon with the number go into the wind to be carried away. They had all of this along with a community dance with former students who played in the residential school band entertaining. One man who was a big-looking cowboy with big shoulders, big belt buckle, and a big hat said to himself when he released his balloon, “If I never get a penny out of this it will have been worth it to go through this today!”

One gentleman, who had chosen not to return to the community after his school experience, lived in the inner city of Vancouver. They went to pick him up to come home for the ceremony. He had left a community that suffered from huge amounts of addiction and came home to a community of people who were largely sober and moving forward and were welcoming. They had gone through a healing process of getting treatment for the majority of the people abusing alcohol and drugs, gambling, and dealing with trauma long before the residential school settlement was on the table. When the Elders came into the hall for their welcome home ceremony, their grandchildren were yelling, “Welcome home Grandma!” Welcome home Grandpa!” “Welcome home Mom, Dad, and Uncle!” Tears were flowing down the faces of the former students and family members. However, they understood that the commemoration ceremony was not necessarily closure for many people. It was one more step in the process leading toward balance.

This community had a public inquiry on residential schools. This was long before the ADR process was fully developed. The community funded and recorded its own “Public Inquiry” into residential schools. It was set up to ensure that the old people’s experience would be recorded prior to their death. This was the only community that chose to host its own inquiry with a judge, a therapist/healer, and a respected leader in their region of Canada as their commissioners. Ceremony was an intricate part of the inquiry.

A community-based justice process was initiated to address the intergenerational impacts of community violence. Community-based violence had never been dealt with because people did not want community members to go to jail. A protocol was developed that had the support of the attorney general, the RCMP, and the community. They provided therapy for intergenerational sexual abuse after there was enough sobriety to deal with living relationships. Some of their community members were charged with sexual abuse, and the community supported them to get the therapy they needed. Community members took responsibility for community change. This process was underway long before residential school issues came to the forefront. Ceremony and treatment were integral to the process of community change. Activities expanded to include awareness of addiction to gambling. They clearly understood that the key treatment issue for gamblers is unresolved grief.

A number of victims and their extended families participated in a reconciliation process with a priest who had abused them. They attended a ceremony, which also dealt with all of the priest’s victims who had died. They did this through a tobacco ceremony, pipe ceremony, and a sweat lodge ceremony. The priest attended with his therapist and the former students’ therapists. The process was ceremony from beginning to end along with reconciliation words and actions. One of the Survivors used his compensation money to repair the church roof and to pay his bills off.

This community pioneered and participated in the most focused research project on residential school impacts in Canada. They did this to take one more step toward taking responsibility. They brought the residential trauma program into their community for their Elders and also to facilitate family participation in the program. They started having annual fasting ceremonies which young people attend with their families. They hosted a sweat lodge every day during their ADR pilot project, and they had the rosary in the church every night for those people who still attended church. They continue to have an annual celebration of sobriety and wellness. They have annual fasting ceremonies which the elderly, children, and families participate in. This helps to strengthen relationships, and it helps with their learning about taking responsibility. They have an annual “Unity Ride,” which has the participation of community members, cowboys, non-Aboriginal neighbours, government staff, children, RCMP, and Survivors. This event lasts a couple of days. It is part of moving forward in healing from the residential school experience.

The lady, spoken of earlier, and her community have made excellent choices along the road to wellness. There is a growing understanding of what reconciliation is on a daily basis. This is a good example of a community working together to deal with residential school issues through personal, family, and community reconciliation and healing. The process has encompassed traditional ceremony, Western therapy, alcohol and drug treatment, trauma treatment, gambling treatment, and a lot of hard work collectively.

Challenges and Opportunities for Reconciliation

There is reconciliation for historic acts that have affected our people, and there are the current day-to-day events that have historic beginnings. I work on interchange with Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada as a Special Advisor to the Deputy Minister. I also provide advice on pending policy where I am asked to participate. My community is my advisor.

When the adjudicator selection process was initially being developed, there was a policy that said adjudicators had to have five-plus years experience in adjudicating. This did not sit well with me. I believed that policy set the bar to omit the majority of Aboriginal lawyers because few, if any, Aboriginal lawyers ever sit on adjudication boards, as these are often politically appointed positions. I was having a difficult discussion with another policy person about this requirement. My argument was that even judges do not have to have five years’ previous experience in being a judge before they are appointed.

Things became heated and I said to her, “You would have made a good Indian Agent in the 1950s!” On thinking about my cruel statement later, I realized how I had abused her as I and many of our people had been abused historically. In my traditional ceremony of the Potlatch, when we wrong people, we have to gift them, along with all of our clan members who have to gift them as well. It is intended to teach about respect, and it also teaches that abuse not only hurts the person but also the collective. I had affected her spirit so, at the next staff meeting, I brought a blanket to give to her and I asked her to forgive me for being so unkind with my words. Coming from a different culture, she thought it was not necessary for me to give her a gift since I had apologized. In fact, I had not apologized in the Western way of doing things, I had acknowledged that my words had affected her spirit. The gift was to acknowledge the spiritual effect of the unkindness. While I do not live within my region where Potlatches are held, I bring my potlatch with me and I work at ensuring that I acknowledge it when I am disrespectful of my co-workers. You know, when you have to buy enough blankets and quilts, it brings to mind to keep yourself in a more respectful way and to treat others with the respect that you expect from them.

Large systems do not encourage people to take responsibility. When the upset takes place within a large forum, most often, if people apologize, they do it in a small corner where no one else can hear them. Taking responsibility within ceremony has taught me to embrace the teachings of those important ceremonies that were outlawed by Canada at one time. It has also taught me that I need to teach my grandchildren with my words.

Often in the Western Christian world when people make a poor choice that affects other people, they refer to it as sin. In our community, the old people refer to it as “Mistake.” Mistake is less laden with guilt and more conducive to owning responsibility for one’s actions. This attitudinal choice of “Mistake” is more of a traditional thought than the Western world view where blame and sin comes from.

I was at a meeting with a residential school Survivors’ group when a person from a political group started to attack me and my co-worker. We were all Aboriginal. He indicated that the only Aboriginal people who worked at IRSRC were apple Indians who sold out our people. He did this with hatred in his eyes, with a loud tone to his voice, and with his finger pointing up and down to emphasize his anger. His words burned into my spirit until my spirit bled with tears that did not show themselves in my eyes. I replied that I had worked on the residential school issue since 1985 when I was trying to get Health Canada to understand why there needed to be more resources to deal with residential school trauma. I had worked on the St. George’s trial supporting the victims behind the criminal charges being brought against the staff member who was convicted for sexual abuse. I had worked with the Survivors of the O’Connor action. I helped to facilitate the first national residential school conference in 1991. I had a stroke after having a blowout with a Justice lawyer about having a mediator in to resolve a group settlement that was going off the rails. I had virtually almost given up my life for my commitment to this work. I was very hurt by his words.

Sometimes, time is what is needed to dissolve pain. There had been no change in behaviour from the person who hurt me. Reconciliation can happen if we just have time to let the pain pass. I invited him to my house recently, along with other friends, to feast after a meeting in our city. There were no words of “I forgive you.” The action of inviting him to my home was my act of reconciliation. Within that reconciliation, within my heart, there is no expectation from him that he is willing to change how he treats people or that he is even aware of his behaviour. I met him at a community function in our work, and he came up to me and gave me a hug with warmth. He was saying I am sorry for what happened. Words were not spoken and reconciliation happened.

Reconciliation as it relates to residential schools does not only rest in the era of when the schools were open. Acts of lateral violence between people working in this field happen. It is a part of the legacy we can either hang onto to excuse our behaviour or we can take responsibility to make other decisions in how we deal with these acts of spiritual abuse. The current day acts of lateral violence that relate to work we do within the field are not separate and apart from our history, they are a manifestation of our history. As Elder Burnstick says, “It is up to you!” It is what you do with current choices of our treatment of each other.

The National Day of Healing and Reconciliation (NDHR) is intended to assist us in focusing our attention on being reflective of when we are unkind to other people and in looking at ways to build understanding when we come from a place of not agreeing. There are ceremonies across Canada in which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community leaders promote NDHR on May 26th of each year. The intent is not to create reconciliation activities for only that day, it is to show that every day is an opportunity to take inventory of what we did that day and to make moves to reconcile. Further, the intent is to strengthen education about our residential school history within Canada by engaging our schools, churches, and communities to build bridges. A good example of this is the berry ceremony referred to earlier where the local medical doctor attended in order to gain a better understanding of the meaning when we talk of ceremony. NDHR’s goal is to strengthen understanding and reconciliation. Reconciliation is not only an Aboriginal people’s issue, it is also a Canadian issue! Elder Burnstick placed the responsibility for change where it belongs. When we all take responsibility for choices in reconciliation, we show that we understand him when he says, “It is up to you!”

Future Challenges in Reconciliation

Our future challenge in reconciliation is the great opportunity to host our National Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Each community can decide if the process will be traditionally rooted and decide on the place where we want to host regional events. Will we choose to have them on the land? Will we choose to have them in big city conference centres? Will we bring pictures that hold our memories of residential schools? Will we collaborate with the people in our region to ensure we are not fighting about which communities will host the hearings? Will we invite local college and university classes to come to hear the testimony of our former students? Will we invite our local churches to work with us on the planning of the commission hearings? This is a huge opportunity to become “FREE” to choose the possibilities of how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will happen. What will we do with the information given at the Truth Commission? Will we take the information to our classrooms and our broader Canadian circles to open the opportunity for a broader dialogue of “Where do we go from here together?” “IT IS UP TO YOU!”


Maggie Hodgson, a member of the Nadleh Whuten Carrier First Nation, works locally, nationally, and internationally on justice and healing initiatives. She was the founder and host for the first “Healing Our Spirit Worldwide” gathering held in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1992. The gathering attracted more than three thousand participants from around the world. Maggie spearheaded the successful national campaign, “Keep the Circle Strong, National Addictions Awareness Week,” which has grown to involve fifteen hundred communities and seven hundred thousand people. She is co-founder and national co-chair of Canada’s National Day of Healing and Reconciliation, celebrated each year on May 26th as part of an international movement that began in Australia. Maggie has also served as an advisor to the World Health Organization on addictions prevention.

Among her many awards for work in community development are the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, United Nations Community Development Award, Canadian Public Health Community Development Award, Alberta Aboriginal Role Model Award, and Alberta Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Commission Award of Excellence. She has two honorary doctorates: one conferred by the University of Alberta and a second by St. Paul’s University in Ottawa. From 1982 to 1997, she served as chief executive officer at the Nechi Institute.

In “Reconciliation: A Spiritual Process,” Maggie addresses the pivotal role of connecting or reconnecting with spirituality in promoting healing and reconciliation. Ironically, it was the combination of laws forbidding participation in ceremonies and the imposition of a residential school system that stripped individuals of their spirituality in the first place: this is at the root of the need for healing today. Maggie recounts how Aboriginal people have taken the initiative to reclaim their spiritual practices and to engage in the hard work of healing. She returns again and again to the words of Abe Burnstick, one of her teachers, who promoted the moral high road of personal choice: “It’s up to you,” Elder Burnstick reminds us. She recounts two stories of Survivors, now Elders, who received compensation for their years in residential school and how they used the money to support ongoing healing. By following these stories, we learn that money can be used for good ends, but it is the lifelong work involved in healing the spirit that leads to true reconciliation. This article is imbued with lessons if we care to look for them.

  1. Leslie, J. and R. Maguire (ed.) (1978:115). The Historical Development of the Indian Act, second edition. Ottawa, ON: Treaties and Historical Research Centre, Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
  2. Amendments to the Indian Act in 1884 prohibited the Potlatch and the Tamanawas dance (see Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), Volume 1: Looking Forward Looking Back, Section 2, chapter 9.5).
  3. IRSRC (Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada).
  4. FSIN (Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations).
  5. Tom Badger spoke these words at a training session for front line workers in 1981 at Nechi Institute. The Elder has since passed on, but is remembered through his oral teachings.
  6. Durkheim, E. (1951). Suicide: A Study in Sociology (J.A. Spaulding and G. Simpson, trans.). New York, NY: The Free Press. (Original work published 1897.)
  7. Kirmayer, Laurence J., Gregory M. Brass, Tara Holton, Ken Paul, Cori Simpson, and Caroline Tait (2007:55). Suicide Among Aboriginal People in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (Text cites Davenport, J.A. and J Davenport III (1987). Native American Suicide: A Durkheimian Analysis. Social Casework 68(9):533–539.)
  8. This began in the early nineties by courageous former students and later moved into the class-action suit that has been agreed to by the courts with the four pillars of commemoration, common experience payment, truth and reconciliation commission, and the independent assessment process.
  9. The exact number of Aboriginal people enrolled in post-secondary institutions over the years is difficult to pin down. The Centre for Social Justice ( reports, “In 1969, only 800 Aboriginal peoples had a post-secondary education. By 1991, the number was 150,000.” The Department of Indian Affairs reported the following: “In the mid-1960s, there were about 200 Status Indian students enrolled at Canadian colleges and universities. By 1999, the number had soared to more than 27,000” (“Post-Secondary Education for Status Indians and Inuit, December 2000, retrieved 1 November 2007 from Factors contributing to this discrepancy likely include whether or not numbers refer to Aboriginal people or “status” Indians and whether or not part-time enrolment numbers are also included.
  10. The original National Native Alcohol Abuse Program (NNAAP) began in 1975 as a pilot project and was run as a joint initiative between the departments of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Health and Welfare Canada ( “The renamed and fully conceptualized, permanent National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP) was established in fiscal year 1982/83. Health Canada assumed full responsibility for the program” ( First Nations and Inuit Health Branch reports the following information: “NNADAP supports a national network of 52 residential treatment centres, with some 700 treatment beds” and “Today, NNADAP provides over 550 prevention programs with over 700 workers – almost all employed by First Nations and Inuit communities “(
  11. I recall that there were sixty treatment programs funded by NNADAP, fifteen AADAC with in situ treatment programs during those years, and mobile community-based treatment programs operating during that time.
  12. Kishk Anaquot Health Research (2006:81). Final Report of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Volume II, Measuring Progress: Program Evaluation. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation. “When considering the types of services used and their perceived efficacy, Elders, ceremony, one-on-one counselling, healing or talking circles, traditional medicine, opportunities to gather, share and bond with other Survivors and their families, as well as Legacy education and land-based activities were considered most effective.”
  13. Kishk Anaquot Health Research (2006).
  14. The Aboriginal Working Caucus was a group of former residential school students, therapists, and Elders who were appointed by the Deputy Minister as advisors to his office on policy changes needed within IRSRC. Further, they followed the direction from the 1999 Exploratory Dialogues that was made up of five hundred former students, church entities, government lawyers, and family members of former students who set out the original principles that became the road map for the Settlement Agreement.
  15. Electronic excerpt from Nelson Mandela (1994). Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Co. Retrieved 15 November 2007 from: Retrieved from:
  16. “Soul murder” can be described as the trauma inflicted on children by adults willfully abusing and neglecting them.