“We cannot change the past, but we can honestly recognize it.” These are words that stood out for me in a recent blog post by UBC President Santa J. Ono, in which he expresses how “honoured and humbled” he was to participate in the raising of Reconciliation Pole at UBC’s Vancouver campus.
Reconciliation Pole is a work by 7idansuu (Edenshaw), James Hart, a Haida master carver and hereditary chief, and it symbolizes the experiences of residential school students and the path toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.
“We cannot change the past, but we can honestly recognize it. As the scales fall from our eyes, we can see clearly what we did not see before.”
– UBC President Santa J. Ono
For me, these words pretty much sum up how I feel now that the scales have fallen from my eyes. As a middle aged white guy from an entrepreneurial background, I can honestly say that I had no idea at all what the residential school system was about until I was in my forties.
I graduated from high school in 1984. And the last residential school was finally closed in 1996. So how, you may ask, did I not know about this stuff? Quick Answer (IMO of course) – Willful ignorance and by the design of our education system at the time. I can say this because when I was a kid, Aboriginal studies amounted to learning that a Potlatch was a kind of large community picnic, and that everybody brought some food to share… Seriously! Many who are my age and grew up in communities like mine probably remember it the same way.
What we did not learn about was the Indian Act of 1876, which paved the way for colonization, aggressive cultural assimilation, and the residential school system. And nobody mentioned that a potlatch was a ceremony integral to the culture of coastal First Nations; a ceremony that was targeted and then banned by law (the Potlatch Law) in 1880, along with every other culturally significant practice of Indigenous people.
“As the scales fall from our eyes, we can see clearly what we did not see before.”
About 10 years ago, the Government of Canada offered an apology to former residential school students and their families. That’s when I first started hunting down any and all information I could find on residential schools. I started reading; a lot. One jaw dropping story after another.
Now, the material is out there more broadly. And through the Truth and Reconciliation process, a great many more personal accounts, and personal testimony, have been heard and documented such that we can all see clearly now what we did not see before.
Not long ago, Phil Fontaine, our National Spokesperson, and the lead for adoption of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, told me that the residential schools were not just his history – First Nations people’s history – but that it was Canada’s history, my history. That’s why I, personally, and the whole First Nations Education Foundation team, intend to play an active part in this reconciliation. As Santa J. Ono said: “We cannot change the past, but we can honestly recognize it.”
Scott Jeary, FNEF Executive Director