After the TRC – Citizen Engagement An Interview with Commissioner Marie Wilson (part II)
Beth Porter: How has your work as a commissioner over the past 6 years changed you?
Marie Wilson: I have a deepened gratitude for my family of origin and its rich extend-ed family life. Hearing stories of such loss from those who had that taken from them makes me realize even more this incredible blessing in my own life. Also, the stories have made me more acutely conscious of the preciousness of my grand-children, who are the ages of the kids who were taken away to residential schools. I can imagine in a horrible way what it would be like if anybody tried to take them from our lives, what a devastation that would be.
You have mentioned gaps in the teaching of Canadian history.
A few weeks ago, I was at an event celebrat-ing Aboriginal Awareness at a major Canadian university. I said to them, “Isn’t it ironic that we are about to celebrate our life as a country for 150 years and here we are having to create an event called ‘Aboriginal Awareness’.” We have been completely oblivious to each other’s pres-ence, or certainly the mainstream to the presence of the Indigenous peoples. Most adults my age and younger have no idea of this history. Our schools have to do a far better job, so that we grasp that our history did not start with the arrival of the Europeans. We have made ourselves very ignorant of everything that came before and indeed, from an Aboriginal perspective, anything that happened since then. The learning is not over; it’s barely begun, and a huge part of recon-ciliation comes from being better informed about each other.
In the TRC’s Calls to Action, we talk about the need for education not just within schools but also within professional col-leges and professional associations of teachers, lawyers, doctors. That’s because we need to reach multiple generations. We can reach the kids now, but what about their parents? How can we catch them up? That’s why we have been meeting with ministers of education and the deans of the universi-ties. If they start teaching this history to graduating teachers, for instance, then when they go to implement the curriculum in schools, they won’t suddenly have all this unfamiliar history to teach. They will already know about it and be convinced of its importance. The same is true, say, in the faculties of law. Lawyers and others in the justice system are dealing with Indigenous clients but they have never been taught this background. We are trying to reach them as well through the professional associations. Likewise, medi-cine and other fields. Our focus is, in a relatively short term, to get our society caught up. Similarly, we talk about bringing new Canadians up to speed on this part of Canadian history, since it has certainly not been part of our international story about ourselves.
What can ordinary Canadians do to help implement the learnings of the TRC?
The first thing that I say to all adult Canadians is, read the 94 Calls to Action. The Calls are grouped in cate-gories—child welfare, health, the judiciary, the arts, sports, the media and, of course, education. People will find themes that attract them. If you are a teacher you will want to know what’s being called for in the educa-tion recommendations. Then you can turn to your principal for support, or your Minister of Education or teachers’ association. If you are a parent, you may want to talk to your parent-teacher association or your school trustee, to say, “We want this to be a priority.” Whoever you are, you’ll be asking whether those things that are called for are happening where you live, and if not, how to make sure that they do happen. The point is to get engaged. Don’t try to figure it out alone. Call the right people together and say, “What would be appropriate?”
What I can tell you, Beth, is that all over the country people are asking, “How can we make this happen?” and coming up with lists of good ideas to address areas that need work, and then getting involved, asking what can I bring? Practical skills? Resources? Influence? I’ve heard about study groups, professional conversations, initiatives from departments of education; the Law Society of Upper Canada is doing a whole study review to make it a priority for themselves; there are cities that have declared years of reconciliation; there is the work of Kairos and other faith and social justice groups. People are talking about how to operationalize the Calls in their municipalities. There is no one best plan. A constant in all of this is to start building relation-ships with each other, so that we are not strangers. The only way to do that is to begin in an intentional way to put ourselves in the same room at the same time for the same purpose. You will see a pattern in our Calls to Action: there is always a call for one group or level of government or association to work with another.
Do you have suggestions for families or groups like L’Arche?
You do whatever can work. When I am in Yellowknife, my home, I reach out to my faith community and to the municipalities in the area. I talk to my grandchil-dren, giving them age-appropriate information. They know about this history. I make sure when I can that they can participate when there is something appropri-ate going on. Some of the actions people are taking are very hands-on, such as one done with school children. It involves planting “gardens of dreams.” We had huge participation in this right across the country. It became part of my personal mission of reaching out to schools. The children made a craft—a heart on a pointy stick that could be planted in the ground to make heart gar-dens. On the hearts they put messages—words such as “courage” or “partnership” or “love,” or a picture of people holding hands, or an Indigenous symbol—something that captured their understanding of the story. These became gardens of hope, honouring memories and planting dreams all over the country. Because they are very publicly visible, people ask, “What is that all about?” And the kids talk about their garden at home. So the garden becomes an investment that calls forth ongoing conversation.
What are your expectations now, at the culmination of the TRC?
Non-indigenous participation grew from 10% among thousands at our first national event in 2011, to 60% among tens of thousands three and a half years later.This is evidence of the momentum built by our work, and of the growing awareness of Canadians and the sense that this history belongs to all of us. The conversation has not died down. This history is not going to slip back into the dark. What we have to do is figure out how to go forward in a way that is respectful, fair, and enriching for all of us.