Natalie A. Chambers

Un-settling ourselves

In Chinese, the pictogram for the word crisis is’dangerous opportunity.’ The two words are joined, ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’
In sometimes mysterious ways, a crisis creates the tension point from which we act. The purpose of a crisis is to point us in a direction, to show us the danger and to point us to an opportunity. There are actions we would not take unless faced with a problem … If a crisis represents a specific event, a certain dangerous opportunity, chaos is the non-specific accumulation of crises … We are being called upon to re-make our consciousness … Our consciousness creates our culture, it creates the way that we see the world. Our world view, our values and beliefs combine to create our institutions, our political, economic and social systems.1

As non-Indigenous peoples—descendants of the early colonialists to the most recent newcomers—like myself, what is our emotional investment in the truth and reconciliation process with the Indigenous peoples whose homeland we call Canada? What does truth and reconciliation mean to you, your families, your communities, your children, and your grandchildren? For those of you who have no knowledge of, no daily interactions with, and no personal connections to the Indigenous peoples on whose territory you have made your homes, truth and reconciliation may lack value and meaning to you, your families, and your communities.

I address this paper largely to non-Indigenous peoples in Canada because, as a newcomer, a white immigrant woman from England, over the last twelve years I have sensed that many non-Indigenous peoples regard the issues facing Indigenous peoples to be largely irrelevant to the lives, health, and happiness of themselves and their children. On many occasions I have encountered a deep resistance among non-Indigenous peoples to engage in discussions on the struggles that face Indigenous peoples—daily realities of oppression and systemic racism that our ancestors created and that we, sometimes passively, sometimes actively, accept and reproduce. For this reason, I ask Indigenous readers to bear with me while I demand non-Indigenous readers to look deep within ourselves and to reflect on Youngblood Henderson’s critical question: “why [has] Eurocentric thought … devoted so few resources to studying the violence inflicted on Aboriginal people after 400 years of colonization”? One must consider his theory that obviously we in the dominant society “remain anxious about the possibility of impending chaos.”2

Fred Kelly, an Indigenous man and member of the Anishinaabe Nation, describes truth and reconciliation as a process of regaining peace with oneself and a collective process “that brings adversaries to rebuild peaceful relations and a new future together.”3 However, for settler peoples and their descendants to authentically participate and respond to the call for truth and reconciliation, we need to look, in all honesty, at our complicity in maintaining the status quo—the hegemonic colonial paradigms that historically, and in the present day, perpetrate unequal power relationships through the systemic privileging of settler peoples’ knowledge, languages, and values.

Has the subjugation of Indigenous peoples become so intrinsic in maintaining the values and beliefs that support the economic, religious, and cultural institutions and systems that give meaning to our lives that we are unable to imagine how things could have been different? Truth and reconciliation, then, offers a dangerous opportunity to settler peoples to examine our values and beliefs in which colonizing Indigenous peoples plays such a significant role. In so doing, we may then begin to authentically respond to the painful legacy of Indian residential schools.

Many non-Indigenous peoples know very little or almost nothing about the Original Peoples of this land. It is important for us to acknowledge this so that we may begin to examine our own cultural and social positioning, risk feelings of discomfort and unease by participating in Indigenous peoples lives and communities, (for example, by attending local First Nations events that are open to the public), and opening our hearts and minds to truly listen to and learn from the experiences of Indigenous peoples. The process of unsettling ourselves in truth and reconciliation may stir up powerful negative emotions such as resistance, defensiveness, and denial and feelings of paralysis. However, by practicing self-acceptance and being patient with the process, these emotions may shift to feelings of anger, then grief and sadness, as we come to understand and see for ourselves how colonization is experienced as cultural genocide by Indigenous peoples. When we feel a sense of profound loss, then, and only then, our hearts may be at a place where we can authentically participate in truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

As an immigrant to Canada and from a number of years doing research and interviewing many immigrant and refugee peoples, I have observed that thoughts of our displacement from our original homelands often evoke powerful and painful emotions. Whether we or our ancestors immigrated with the hope of creating a better life or out of necessity for survival (as with refugees), burying fond memories of our homelands and the loved ones we have left behind often becomes a survival strategy necessary to our adaptation to the new society and environment around us. However, as immigrant peoples strive to forget our original displacement and our original fear of the unknown, a societal collective amnesia develops to protect us from chaos—created by guilt, grief, insecurity, and dislocation.

As an Indigenous woman living on the land of her ancestors, Okanagan activist and traditional knowledge keeper Jeanette Armstrong has described us, the settler peoples, in her father’s words, as “dangerous; they are all insane … It’s because they are wild and scatter anywhere.”4 She speaks about discord in the community, within hers and elsewhere globally, caused by growing technology in our daily lives to create depersonalization and disorder—“people without hearts.” She further explains:

Translation is difficult, but an interpretation in English might be ‘people without hearts’ – people who have lost the capacity to experience the deep generational bond to other humans and to their surroundings. It refers to collective disharmony and alienation from land. It refers to those whose emotion is narrowly focused on their individual sense of well-being without regard to the well-being of others in the collective.5

For the health and happiness of my children, my stepchildren, and my future grandchildren, I am emotionally deeply invested in the process of creating, restoring, and nurturing meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples based on our shared humanness and compassion. Living in a Sqilxw reserve community as a mother and stepmother to Sqilxw children and as a wife to a Sqilxw community educator and artist, I write from cultural borderlands as an “outsider within”6 the First Nations reserve community that I call home. In attempting to share what truth and reconciliation looks like through the eyes of an immigrant newcomer who is forever tied to an Indigenous family and community, I will describe my views from the two worlds in which I live and work, worlds that at times seem vastly disconnected. I will also share some insights that I gained when I conducted research with First Nations intergenerational Survivors and Indian residential school staff in the hope of encouraging other non-Indigenous peoples to examine themselves, their own location and positioning in Canadian society, and to reconsider their own relationships (or lack of) with Indigenous peoples.

A View from Cultural Borderlands

I grew up in the crowded, at times, chaotic and dirty metropolis of London, England. When I left for Canada in the 1990s, the population of Greater London had reached seven million people. I was raised in a small nuclear family that spent little time with extended family members. My mother’s parents, both from the working classes in the East End of London, had been raised in an orphanage where they had met one another as children. According to family myth, my great grandmother and her sisters would socialize with the Chinese dockworkers near her home in the slums, which is how she met my great grandfather, a Chinese sailor who came to England with the East India Company.

When my great grandmother passed away shortly afterwards, my great grandfather remarried and gave the children up to the orphanage. (The orphanage was actually an industrial school model.) My grandfather was just five years old. My grandmother’s story is similar. At the tender age of three, she was given up to the orphanage by her father after her mother passed away as a young woman. No other extended family members were able or offered to keep the children with their own families. My grandparents’ family relationships were fragmented; sisters and brothers had been separated into different houses at the school and had little time to bond and develop nurturing relationships. This is all I have gleaned about my mother’s family history.

As a child I was fascinated with learning more about my ancestry, perhaps because we knew so very little and no one ever really wanted to talk about what we did know. However, growing up I always wanted to know more about the industrial school my grandparents attended. I found it so strange to think that I would never know anything about the adults that raised my grandparents. Time and time again I would ask about the strangers—the school staff—that raised them, and usually my incessant child’s questioning would be met with awkward silence. Even as a child I sensed that the past seemed to carry too much hurt and shame.

I know even less about my father’s family simply because he never showed much interest in talking about them, and we spent very little time in their company. As far as I can recall, my father’s parents were also from the working classes in London. I believe that my grandfather was a carpenter and my grandmother was a seamstress. Consequently, my family tree has very short branches.

As a child, I promised my mother that I would live with her forever, but throughout my teen years I yearned for a cleaner, more rural setting in which to live my life. I intensely disliked the gray skies and dirty, littered gray sidewalks, and I felt trapped inside what I experienced as a busy, overcrowded, concrete, artificial world. As a young woman, I felt profoundly separate, alienated, and therefore vulnerable within my own society and on my own land. So, at age 21, I came to Canada by myself, looking for a sense of community.

In my first four years here as an international exchange student and then as a young master’s student, I spent most of my time living in artificially constructed communities on university campuses. During the last eight years, I have lived within reserve communities. Consequently, I have never really experienced immersion into mainstream Euro-Canadian society.

As a newcomer to Canada, I found it very challenging to develop friendships when, as I and other immigrants quickly discovered, it seemed you need to book an appointment to simply get together. This was a little unusual for me and, in fact, after I met my husband and began living in reserve communities, I found social relationships a lot more relaxed, and it was easy to develop genuine friendships. By contrast, non-Indigenous peoples seemed to lack a sense of community. Abdullah states that the “dominant consciousness paradigm of our [Western] society is ‘I Am Separate,’”7 and this was evident in the lay out of the communities, towns, and cities. Never before had I been so dependent on a vehicle to get everywhere—to connect with other people or simply purchase basic groceries.

As an exchange student, I selected classes where I could learn more about colonization. Within a year of coming to Canada I had learned about the Indian Act and the long history of legislation enacted to appropriate Indigenous peoples’ lands and resources, remove children from their families, reduce the number of individuals qualifying for official Indian status, and many other oppressive forms of public policy.

As an Englishwoman who was raised in London, the imperial centre, I felt a sense of obligation to learn about the actions and attitudes of the many British explorers, merchants, missionaries, and settlers that had come to Canada before me. From my perspective as an immigrant coming from the imperial centre, there was no disputing that Indigenous peoples all over Canada had been subjected to the outright theft of their lands and resources. I found this shameful, and my sense of indignation motivated me to learn as much as I could about Canada’s colonial history.

I made a conscious effort to find books and articles written by Indigenous scholars and I began attending events that were hosted by local Aboriginal organizations and the First Nations Student Centre at the university, including conferences, forums, urban powwows. I also signed up as a volunteer to help cook dinner and serve at a local Community Action Program for Aboriginal children and their families. In these social settings, I was usually a minority. With my strong English accent, I stood out like a sore thumb, but I was always made to feel welcome. People seemed surprised that I did not seem to have any preconceived ideas and that I was interested to listen to their stories and experiences of living in Canada as Indigenous peoples. I often did not say too much as it soon became apparent that I did not know very much, had a lot to learn, and would gain more from listening. In these settings, I experienced a sense of authentically connecting to people that seemed to be lacking at the university and other non-Indigenous social settings.

These early experiences as a newcomer motivated me to enroll as a graduate student in a master’s program, as I wanted to learn more about the Indian residential schools that so many of the First Nations people I had come to know had described attending as children. Perhaps because my own grandparents were raised by strangers in positions of authority at an industrial school in England, I grew up with some level of emotional sensitivity regarding the institutionalization of infants and children and the profound intergenerational consequences of the separation and alienation of sibling relationships, the loss of parenting role models, and the lack of emotional support and unconditional love and acceptance.

Maybe for these reasons I listened attentively when I heard the testimonies of the many Indigenous peoples in Canada who courageously tell of their experiences of compulsory attendance at Indian residential schools and of their families and communities who, reeling from the devastating effects of whole generations of children, tell of losing the opportunity to love, nurture, and educate their own children.

When First Nations Survivors would talk about their experiences in the Indian residential schools, I wondered, “Who were the people who raised these little children? Where are they now? As they look back in the present day, what do they now think of the schools? How do they process present day critiques of the schools, and what ways do these critiques impact on their lives and sense of self? Do they understand these critiques? These are the kind of questions that motivated me to initiate a research project that would involve interviewing Anglo-Canadian former school staff.

I was struck by how distinctly Indian residential school policies violated the UN Convention on Genocide.8; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the General Asssembly of the United Nations on 9 December 1948. Retrieved 17 April 2009 from:] Notwithstanding even the violent, physically abusive character that was an integral part of the culture of the schools, the prohibition of language, culture, and Indigenous identity profoundly struck me as practices of cultural genocide. Yet, the government, the public-at-large and even the media that has extensively reported the testimonies of First Nations Survivors appear resolute in avoiding discussions of cultural genocide.

As the standard response was to stonewall First Nations peoples demands for public inquiries and concrete responses to accusations of cultural genocide, I wondered where all the retired Indian agents, church and government bureaucrats, missionaries, school teachers, dormitory supervisors, and other colonial employees with living memories were and whether they talked to their children and grandchildren about their experiences. What stories would they tell? I also wondered how First Nations Survivors, their families, and their communities would feel if former colonial agents began sharing their perspectives and telling their stories. Would a project proposing to interview former staff be experienced and perceived as furthering injustice?

With these thoughts in mind, I developed a participatory research project that included interviews with six Aboriginal people to elicit their views on why we might ask former Indian residential school staff about their experiences of working in the schools and how these stories may further Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples’ understandings of the Indian residential school system and colonialism in the present day. I questioned as to what extent an opportunity to develop interview questions for former staff might be welcomed by Indigenous peoples, and would this be perceived and experienced as a potentially beneficial method of addressing social injustice and of initiating new relationships founded upon dialogue and respect.

Exploring ethical spaces in
Indian Residential School Research

History has attested to the usefulness of dialogue between oppressed individuals and their oppressor groups as a continuing effort towards achieving social justice. My research approach parallels extensive dialogues that have taken place between the children of former Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators, written in several books that have explored these interpersonal and textual dialogues. These research studies explore issues of social justice (including interpersonal and intergenerational justice) and, in doing this kind of research, ask critical questions that are of significance to discussions on the roles of colonial actors in facilitating injustice through the support of Indian residential schools. Some of these critical questions include:

  • How are we to understand the mechanisms that lead ordinary people to be complicit in facilitating social injustice on a grand scale?
  • Who are those people exactly?
  • Do they feel accountable for the wrong they have done?
  • Can good or ordinary people pursue heinous acts?
  • Can individuals belonging to oppressor groups understand and acknowledge the roots of pain that are experienced by survivors of oppression?
  • Can (children of) survivors understand and acknowledge the viewpoints of the (children of) perpetrators?
  • To what extent may resentment and indignation stand as fatal obstacles to restoring equal, moral relationships between an oppressor and the oppressed social groups?9

These studies also emphasize the profound impact of genocide on the descendants of survivors and perpetrators as they struggle to understand how to live their lives “in the shadow” of genocide and make sense of their present-day roles in relation to the burdens of history that they have inherited.10

The issues that face present-day Germans, including the children of Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, and the passive bystanders of genocide could provide great insights to non-Indigenous Canadians who are struggling to reconcile their national image with a violent history of oppression and cultural genocide. In post-war Germany and post-apartheid South Africa, silence and denial characterized the responses of perpetrators of oppression, as well as the responses of bystanders.

In similar ways, colonial societies such as in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have been characterized by an active resistance to acknowledging the oppression of Indigenous peoples. “Settlement as forgetting,” Stephen Turner explains, is “a condition of [and intrinsic to colonial] culture” and enables settler societies “to live ahistorically.”11 Everett Worthington notes that “the perpetrators in atrocities almost never apologize to the victims,” and if they do “admit to their deeds, they usually do not express regret and remorse, but rather justify and excuse their acts.” He adds, “In genocide and mass killing, both victim and perpetrator are wounded. However, they are wounded in different ways … Even though victims and perpetrators are wounded in different ways and pass those wounds on to subsequent generations, it is difficult for the perpetrators to admit that they are wounded.”12

As Canadians, we may be vaguely aware of these kinds of dialogues between oppressed and oppressor groups within the context of the Holocaust or the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is only recently, with the establishment of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we have had to consider how we might facilitate these kinds of dialogues between Indigenous peoples and the descendents of colonial peoples here in Canada. The Commission is resolved to include all Canadians in a process of truth-telling and healing. From their work with second generation Holocaust survivors and the Nazi perpetrators, Alan and Naomi Berger’s definition of “working through” may assist non-Indigenous peoples with this process. They suggest that in working through,

one revisits the source of pain by speaking about it, analyzing its impact on an individual’s perception of psychosocial life, his/her religious perspective, and his/her view of the ‘other.’ In the process, one seeks to detoxify the issues involved so that further exploration and understanding can occur without the various psychic barriers that can block self-understanding … this way of working through enables one to be in touch with the past without being paralyzed by its legacy.13

The six Aboriginal participants14 who guided the development of my project on former Indian residential school staff emphasized the necessity for non-Indigenous peoples to begin working through the history and present-day colonization of Indigenous peoples. They showed great insight into the complex and painful process of listening to the experiences of former staff, individuals who may tell stories and hold onto truths that greatly contrast with the realities and truths of First Nations Survivors. Henry, an educator from the Secwepemec Nation, described how the perceptions of non-Indigenous peoples often fall dramatically short of the reality of Indigenous peoples lived experiences.

The work that needs to happen is to understand what the process is… the colonizer must see themselves doing different work than colonizing. For example, the Minister of Indian Affairs believes that he’s doing good work, but ask anyone else [Indigenous peoples] and they see them as the bad guys. So the colonizer needs to look at this.

Gord was a younger Aboriginal participant who had been removed from his Cree birth family and placed into the home of a white foster family during his childhood. His experiences of cultural alienation as a survivor of the Children’s Aid Society and as a life skills counsellor working with First Nations Indian residential school Survivors led him to reflect on the experience of childhood trauma. He envisioned that former staff might have a role in healing relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples by:

Decycling it [the abuse] by unravelling it, by putting it in front of you and looking at it … I think a part of what the teachers themselves … need to understand is that … they need to come to an understanding within themselves and those who have decided to seek help on what they did, I think that’s the only time there is going to be an opportunity to be healing for themselves, and to ask themselves their own questions, ‘As a teacher, why did I do that? Who taught me that?’ All these things, there are so many isolated individual situations that I think they need to face up to, to take responsibility for your actions … It’s even better when they come forwards and say, ‘Oh yeah, I did make a mistake and I want to come forwards and I want to do something to help heal.

Gord anticipated that former staff would have to undergo a healing journey because “trying to assimilate a human being and make them something that they are not [is a very] dysfunctional way of looking at life.” He had many questions for former staff such as: “Do you feel that what you did during the residential school era made a change? Is that a healthy change for another human being? Does it contribute to another person’s quality of life?”

During her life, Virginia, from the Okanagan Nation, was an outspoken Survivor of the Indian residential school system. She encouraged me to interview former staff as a means toward continued dialogue and raising awareness of the schools among the larger society. She repeatedly expressed her concern that the history of the residential schools will one day be forgotten. She felt strongly that most non-Indigenous peoples “say that us natives are just making stuff up.” She shared with me painful memories of attending the Indian residential school in Cranbrook so that “people should know the truth and not hearsay.” While she encouraged me to interview former staff, she felt strongly that they would be unable to, “tell you the truth. I believe deep down they won’t because they themselves did a lot of harm to us. How else can they justify it? They can’t. To tell you the truth I wouldn’t believe their stories because I think they’ll only tell you what they think you want to hear.”

Many of the participants considered that it may be useful to learn about the experiences of former staff who worked in Indian residential schools and that it may also be useful to integrate these accounts into the history of the schools. However, I was advised by Erma, a teacher-in-training from the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation, to handle the perspectives and stories of colonial actors with care because “it is another perspective that hasn’t been looked at. And to have the whole story, you do need other and all perspectives.” All of the Aboriginal participants stressed the need for me to critically examine the values and beliefs underlying the Indian residential school stories of former employees. As Bobby and Alvin from the provincial Indian Residential School Society explained:

Canadians cannot be persuaded that all these things could happen. We can use some of the staff members to see how people’s perspectives can become so skewed. If we can persuade former employees who were there, then maybe others will also recognize.

What can we learn from engaging
in dialogue with colonial actors?

My interviews with former staff started in 2001, a full two years into my master’s program. Between 1999 and 2001, I had taken a leave from my studies to accept a graduate co-op position, which coincidentally was at the En’owkin Centre, an Indigenous post-secondary institute on the Penticton Indian Band reserve that is partnered with University of British Columbia Okanagan’s Indigenous Studies program. While working at the En’owkin Centre, I developed many long-lasting friendships. I also met my husband.

Consequently, by the time I began my interviews with former staff, my socio-cultural positioning had shifted considerably. Even within a short time period of living in Okanagan communities, I had heard countless painful stories told by elders, their children, and their grandchildren in which Indian residential schools seemed like prisons where children learned to live in fear of expressing themselves culturally, emotionally, and spiritually in case of punishments meted out by powerful staff members. I also, for the first time, witnessed individuals of all ages struggle to re-learn or to learn from scratch their own languages following the lasting impact of language prohibition policies in the schools. In my relationship with my husband, I also became an instant stepmother, a caretaker to three infants, and began to see the world through the eyes of children.

Before my first interviews with staff, I experienced feeling both intensely nervous and angry. It was difficult to imagine meeting individuals who had worked in the residential schools and hearing their stories from the perspective of adults in authority, when for so long I had been listening to Survivors tell their stories of how these schools and the staff looked through the eyes of vulnerable children.

I found myself experiencing alternating feelings of sadness and anger throughout the long process of doing two sets of interviews with four former staff. I also felt some anxiety and tension about going into these homes, opening my heart to experience the uniqueness of individual former staff, and taking an empathetic approach while making space for the stories of staff. I felt this would make me something of a traitor to the many First Nations Survivors and their descendants whose negative stories of schooling I had listened to over the years. Contradictorily, I also acknowledged to myself that former staff would likely assume by looking at me that this young white woman would listen without prejudging or silencing them. My dual roles offered a utility to carry out the project successfully, but created considerable inner turmoil and confusion.

The one man and three women were church-going senior citizens in their sixties and seventies. They opened their homes to me, serving me tea and cookies and, in one instance, a full meal at the dinner table. Their attitudes were welcoming, and our encounters seemed somewhat formal, with an unspoken acknowledgement that I was in their home to gather information.

While our initial encounters were a little awkward, all four of the participants appeared to open up, and they expressed a sense of relief at being offered an opportunity to work through years of silence on their perspectives and experiences at Indian residential schools. Several of the staff presented themselves as victims of silence. Beverley, a former girls’ dormitory supervisor at Alberni Indian Residential School, shared “hearing about these abuses and these things that happened that were so dreadful, that I just closed up and would not speak about it, having been there or anything else.”

After hearing about the court cases, Christine, a former teacher at Norway House, also, “stopped talking about having worked as a teacher for two years in an Indian residential school because I got quite uncomfortable about it. Right away the stereotype and people’s minds jumped to conclusions and I thought, ‘I don’t need this’.” Sharing their experiences at the schools seemed to be a process of seeking validation for the four former staff.

As Jack, a former boys’ dormitory supervisor at Alberni Indian residential school, stated that staff were most likely motivated to share their stories, “I guess a part of it would be to ease our conscience … These things did happen, the schools did happen.” In a separate interview, Beverley also stated, “I couldn’t say, ‘It didn’t happen.’ It happened.”

Talking to former staff and hearing their stories of working in the schools was an extremely challenging process for me emotionally. I had started the project with some hope that through the process of participating in the interviews and receiving feedback on their interviews from the First Nations participants (communicated through me), would create possibilities for former staff to question their commonsensical beliefs and ideas about the cultural superiority of non-Indigenous peoples. I had hoped that the sharing of stories would help to “forge a common story that could serve as a basis for a different kind of reconstructed memory … [an] exceptionally difficult”15 challenge. These hopes were only partially realized. Only Christine, a former teacher, seemed deeply emotionally invested in the process of examining the values and beliefs that had led her to work in the schools, as well as her actions during her period of employment. As she shared a painful memory of slapping the face of a child, she seemed full of shame and regret. She recalled:

Oh, you could see the anger in his eyes. And really he had every right to have hit me, when I think back, but he did not. But I knew that the hatred was there, and I lost that with him. There is no way you could ever reconnect after you’ve gone over that line. And I knew that was the wrong thing to do for him and for me. I’ve regretted that all my life.

I completed my project with former Indian residential school staff in 2003 but I am still struggling to share my work with a wider audience so that people may learn from these dialogical encounters between Indigenous peoples and colonial actors, because I am still not entirely sure what we may learn from talking with and listening to former staff and other colonial actors. Christine’s emotional journey seemed to suggest that further textual dialogues between First Nations Survivors and former staff may contribute to a shift in colonial consciousness in the larger society. However, as the interviewer responsible for facilitating the process, it was difficult to consider the emotional turmoil that Christine, as a compassionate and self-critical human being, may have experienced as a result of her participation:

I think … see, sometimes I think I don’t want to question … Yes, I wished I hadn’t started [the interviews] because I don’t think I’m that useful, number one. And number two, I found it really unsettling … First of all, I was angry at myself. Not at you, I don’t think. It was at me. I thought, “Why did I ever think that I could do this?” Then I thought, “Well, I have to think about this and not get … what is this issue?” So after that, I sort of calmed. When I get angry I don’t bawl or swear or anything. I just get turmoil inside. Then I have dreams. I didn’t dream about that issue.

Observing the absence of critical self-reflection experienced by former staff was even more difficult, because it challenged me to reconsider my own ideas about how to create space for humanizing perceptions of both non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples between both groups. Upon reading my final project, Jack’s simple response evokes the paradox and ambiguity of being confronted with competing realities: “On the whole, Natalie, I feel that you have read too much into what we said. We were all just young people trying to do a job with very little support.”

Textual dialogues between individuals in oppressed and oppressor groups open up space to examine the challenges that individuals in dominating groups face as they attempt to comprehend their roles in perpetuating the oppression of others in society within the complexity of creating dialogues based on mutual compassion, humanness, and respect. In my final telephone conversation with Christine, she shared having thought about the idea of setting up a workshop where dialogue might take place between First Nations Survivors and former staff. However, she concluded that she would have to “avoid this kind of situation because I’m not emotionally stable enough to do that … I feel sad when I listen to them [Survivors], and I feel real empathy that they have that anger and sadness in them.”

Many of these kinds of workshops have been utilized in facilitating dialogue between the children of Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators, and perhaps these approaches would be possible with the descendants of colonial actors and First Nations Survivors. I hope that the preliminary textual dialogues shared here may offer some insights into the challenges and opportunities offered by truth and reconciliation.

What can we offer our children?

You didn’t do it, so why are you defending it? You don’t have to because you can oppose it just as easily as you can embrace it … You can separate yourself from what has been done—and what’s being done. But first you have to be willing to call what’s being done by its right name.16

I approached the study of the accounts of former staff of Indian residential schools with the belief that the prohibition of Indigenous cultures and languages at Indian residential schools in the past will continue to be perpetuated into the present day unless the non-Indigenous population can turn our gaze and look into the mirror to examine the colonial images of ourselves and our ancestors.

In the present day, my family and I are involved in a revitalization movement that is sweeping through the Okanagan Nation. Two of my stepchildren attend a small band-operated elementary school for elementary grades kindergarten to six that focuses on Sqilxw culture and language immersion. Most of the children in attendance at the school are cousins. They learn Nxsilcen from 9 to 12 a.m., and in the afternoons, they learn a modified version of the provincial curriculum. My toddler, goes to the daycare on-reserve and participates in a Language Nest program. Every morning, he is greeted in Nxsilcen by a fluent Elder and an apprentice language assistant who work in the infant toddler room.

Over the last three years, our whole family have attended (sometimes irregularly) a weekly three-hour evening language class, which is also taught by an Elder and language apprentice. Since these programs began, the desire to see our children grow up as fluent Nxsilcen speakers with a secure sense of their cultural identity now absorbs almost every aspect of our family’s daily lives.

The responsibilities of family, the children’s education, and community life leave me with little time to spend outside of the community, and I know few non-Indigenous people in the neighbouring towns. Consequently, graduate school offers a different view of the world that contrasts greatly with my everyday reality of life at home on the reserve. My unique standpoint as a white woman on the margins of an Aboriginal community provides me with an interesting view of non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples relations. It also raises many difficult questions about how non-Indigenous peoples perceive their roles in defining and re-defining relationships with Indigenous peoples and moving towards truth and reconciliation.

In the present day, Aboriginal peoples across Canada are struggling to develop and maintain elementary and secondary schools to revitalize critically endangered languages and cultural knowledge for their children with very little awareness or support within mainstream society. The per capita allocation to operate band schools is less than the monies provided to operate public schools, even though band schools face enormous challenges in taking control of their own education and overcoming the negative historical experiences of education in Indian residential schools.17 These challenges speak loudly to the continued lack of value placed on Indigenous languages, knowledge, and culture by the dominant society.

How may non-Indigenous peoples move towards reversing the pattern of prejudice that is entrenched in the master narrative of Canadian history and acknowledge past colonial projects as acts of cultural genocide and abuses of Indigenous people’s human (and community) rights? The recent official federal government apology and appeal for forgiveness from Indigenous peoples, including demands by other government leaders of Canada to sign the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adds new weight to the necessity for non-Indigenous peoples to examine ourselves. What shift in consciousness will it take for the Canadian public to discover themselves as oppressors in the past and present day and to demonstrate solidarity with First Nations by demanding the government to provide support for Indigenous communities to revitalize their languages and cultures for future generations?

When will non-Indigenous peoples find the courage to face their own discomfort and lack of knowledge of Indigenous peoples and cultures? When will we, with open hearts and minds, initiate dialogues with Indigenous peoples and be ready and willing to listen and learn about the lived experiences and harsh realities of colonization from those whose lives continue to be shaped by oppression? When will we, the newcomers on this land, finally understand all we have taken, and continue to take, of Indigenous peoples lands, resources, languages, and knowledge? When will we open our hearts and minds so that our consciousness of colonization may grow and that we may feel some of the pain of all that has been lost to future generations? When will we look beyond ourselves to fully see how disconnected we are from this living land, recognize our lack of knowledge, and grieve?

Only when we look beyond our own limited views of ourselves that are fostered by our narrow social and cultural experiences will we be able to see and accept that not so long ago it was our own ancestors who were the Indian agents, residential school staff, church employees, and colonial bureaucrats and that, even today, ourselves, our families, and our communities are colonizers who continue to benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples’ lands and resources. When we see Canadian society through these new eyes, we will then begin to experience anger as we witness continued social injustice, feel resistance towards our prescribed roles as oppressors, break the silence of colonization as forgetting, and initiate new relationships with Indigenous peoples as allies, activists, and caring fellow human beings. We must continually ask ourselves: “What can I do? How can I learn more? Who and what can I influence?” In challenging ourselves in these ways, we may begin to engage in an emotional shift.

As we begin to accept our roles in perpetuating colonization and oppression, a new paradigm may begin to emerge that is based on compassion and relationships and where diversity may be embraced and cherished. My husband, Okanagan educator Bill Cohen contemplates this new paradigm where truth and reconciliation is actualized and, “perhaps generations from now, our children can eat salmon together at a feast, and peoples from diverse cultures can meet and share in the spirit of generosity and cooperation.”18

As a parent and step-parent of children engaged in Okanagan language and cultural revitalization projects, I find my life increasingly shaped by community processes that emphasize the sharing of special skills and knowledge for the benefit of the collective. In the reserve community in which I call home, I am first and foremost a mother and a parent with responsibilities toward my children. It is from this place that I must explore possible ways to engage others through caring, sharing, respect, reciprocity, and reflexivity and, hopefully, insights into how, as a researcher, I can best contribute in the future may follow.


Natalie A. Chambers is an English immigrant who has lived in Canada for twelve years. She currently lives with her Sqilxw husband, two children, and three stepchildren on the Okanagan Indian Band reserve in Vernon, British Columbia. Her children and stepchildren attend the Band language nest and language and cultural immersion elementary school, which are transformative community projects active in revitalizing the Nsxilcen language.

Natalie is currently working on a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. She conducted her master’s research on Indian residential schooling, which engaged six intergenerational Survivors of Indian residential schools and First Nations educators, counsellors, and advocates to reflect on the implications of a textual dialogue with former Indian residential school staff and then analyze staff stories. In her work, Natalie draws parallels between dialogues that have taken place between former Holocaust survivors and their perpetrators to explore possibilities for similar dialogues that may engage Indigenous and colonial peoples in Canada in the examination of cultural genocide.

As a researcher, Natalie has also worked extensively with immigrants and refugees, particularly in the area of cross-cultural caring. She co-edited a manual in this area entitled, Cross-Cross-Cultural Caring: A Handbook for Health Professionals (2005).

Note: The term Sqilx[w. ] refers to Okanagan peoples in the Nsxilcen language.

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  7. Abdullah (1995:14), see note #1.
  8. Article II, includes: “a) Killing members of the group [a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such
  9. Weissmark, Mona Sue (2004). Justice Matters: Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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  11. Turner, Stephen (1999:21). Settlement as forgetting. In Klaus Neumann, Nicholas Thomas, and Hilary Ericksen (eds.), Quicksands: Foundational Histories in Australia & Aotearoa New Zealand. Sydney, AU: University of New South Wales Press: 20–38.
  12. Worthington, Everett L., Jr. (2006:261). Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. New York, NY: Routledge.
  13. Berger and Berger (2001:6), see note #10.
  14. The following participants are indicated by first name only, and the interviews were conducted from October 2001 to July 2003.
  15. Worthington (2006:260), see note #14.
  16. Churchill, Ward (2002, 2004:163). Ward Churchill. In Derrick Jensen (ed.), Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature, Culture and Eros. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company: 153–163.
  17. Personal correspondence with Bill Cohen, April 2009.
  18. Cohen (2009).