Mending words – Talking Reconciliation

by Amber O’Reilly

Part reading, part panel discussion, this powerful inaugural event honoured the work being carried out to further reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Why not connect literature to social issues, fiction to reality? In the words of Rosanna Deerchild, “you must give voice to a story for it to grow. Stories are like sacred stones, not to be tossed around as weapons.” THIN AIR succeeded in harnessing the power of mending words to address one of today’s most pressing issues.

Rosanna delivered her carefully selected poems with a quiet strength that was unbroken by applause until the last lines of the naming ceremony poem were spoken. It was especially meaningful that her mother was present. Audience members glanced at her in wonder throughout the performance.  The mother’s character came alive on the stage, as if she were speaking through her daughter. Such is the power of poetry in transmitting all the courage and resilience woven throughout a survivor’s life. Rosanna also recounted the five-year journey of listening to her mother’s stories, writing the poems and publishing calling down the sky, which created the space for their own reconciliation. Rosanna is now able to hold the space for Indigenous stories to be told in mainstream media through her CBC radio show Unreserved.

Shelagh Rogers first highlighted the changes in herself from her experience of bearing witness to survivors’ stories. Her way of listening changed to evolve into a muscular activity requiring full presence and integrity – a realization that prompted her to begin reconciliation with people in her own life in order to listen with a clean heart. Shelagh’s feelings about Canada changed as did the way she envisioned her public commitments.  She stressed the need for proper representation of Indigenous peoples in decision-making bodies while urging non-Indigenous Canadians to continually ask “who is missing at this table?” Her CBC radio show, The Next Chapter has featured 120 Indigenous writers over the past eight years, many of which were celebrated in the course of Indigenous Book Club Month in June.

Senator Murray Sinclair spoke of the work of Truth and Reconciliation Commission in hearing the statements of 7000 of the approximately 100 000 residential school survivors. For him, the main purpose of the TRC was to let survivors know that they were not alone. The commissioners noticed that one aspect of the common experience many survivors shared was that by being deprived of care, love, their traditional names, histories, creation and afterlife stories in residential schools, they found themselves searching for their purpose in life. Many sharing circles were also opportunities for youth to engage with survivors and deepen their awareness of their challenges. In his experience of listening, it had become clear that blaming was not a path to reconciliation: “Reconciliation is not about making others feel an equal or greater hurt. It’s about coming to terms with Canada’s history in a way that allows us to move forward. Change requires a long-term commitment.” Senator Sinclair encouraged Indigenous youth to sit down with the survivor in their family, hear their story, today, as it needs to be released and they are the ones who need to tell it.

Much of the conversation focused on the three guests’ highly public lives, yet they spoke of reconciliation within their personal relationships with family members as being as powerful as reconciliation at a societal level. Indeed they knew each other quite well and listening to them was encouraging, like a conversation with family at a welcoming table.