In Response: the Process of Reconciliation in Canada

Canada has a long tumultuous relationship with the Indigenous peoples that have lived on and cared for this unceded, occupied land. Often this is captured in writing by Canadian authors and in literature about Canada. In response to the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children found buried at a former B.C. residential school by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, we’ve put together a reading list from our archives. We hope these articles and editorials both help demonstrate the importance of knowing the history in which such events take place and also sheds light on why we need to continue to discuss, critique, and insist these news stories are considered seriously as events that impact the present and future of Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world.


In “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” Margery Fee contextualized the Commission and its role in Canadian culture. She writes, “this has been the ongoing paradox of the Canadian system of colonization. An interested party, Canada, runs the legal system and the bureaucracy.” The recent discovery of the mass grave is part of the process of reparation, of learning about Canada’s violent history towards marginalized peoples and figuring out how we can move forward. Fee advocates for “restorative justice”; honouring the communities that lost children during the many years the residential school system operated is one way. Published in 215 Indigenous Focus (2012), this issue also includes Renate Elgenbrod’s “The ‘look of recognition’: Transcultural Circulation of Trauma in Indigenous Texts,” which discusses memory and the links between colonialism and multiculturalism as part of the larger conversation around Indigenous reconciliation.


In her 2003 article, “A Residential School Memoir: Basil Johnston’s Indian School Days,” Deena Ryhms contextualizes Johnston’s “narrative re-creation of the life at the Garnier Residential School for Boys.” Mentioning Celia Haig-Brown’s Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School, Isabelle Knockwood’s Out of Depths, Rita Joe’s Song of Rita Joe, and Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, Rhyms asks, “Do such accounts serve to purge a dominant culture’s sense of culpability or to heal a lingering pain in survivors and Native audiences?” From 178 Archives and History (2003), the question is near the surface as community groups respond to the discovery in B.C. and the potential for more graves to be found. If the response is to read the deaths as in the past, what responsibility do those individuals have to the very real, lingering pain that continues to circulate within Indigenous communities?


Sam McKegney’s article, “‘pain, pleasure, shame. Shame.’: Masculine Embodiment, Kinship, and Indigenous Reterritorialization,” argues that “the gender segregation, the derogation of the feminine, and the shaming of the body that occurred systematically within residential schools were not merely by-products of Euro-Christian patriarchy, but rather served—and serve—the goal of colonial dispossession by troubling lived experiences of ecosystemic territoriality and effacing kinship relations that constitute modes of Indigenous governance.” Published in Issue 216 (2013), McKegney explores what makes meaningful reconciliation possible. The shame, as McKegney points out, isn’t past but continues to affect Indigenous communities today, in the present, even as the residential schools have been closed for over two decades.


Demonstrating how canonical publications often fail to represent important marginalized voices, Linda Warley captures the historical attitude toward Indigenous writing in the 1970s: “to name Native writing ‘protest literature’ is another way of dismissing it, for such writing is ‘not really considered part of Canadian ‘literature’ as defined by English departments and literary scholars in the mainstream’.” Warley’s article, “Unbecoming a ‘dirty savage’: Jane Willis’s Geniesh: An Indian Girlhood,” describes the importance of this underread Canadian autobiography about ” a harsh indictment of a paternalistic government, which sought to manipulate and control Native children through agencies such as residential schools, but it is also a subtle and often humorous text, which explores the complex processes through which the Native child was turned into a subject of the Canadian state.” You can read the full article by downloading Issue 156 (1998).


For many, the discovery of the grave challenges local, settler narratives of peaceful colonization. It unsettles and contests “the role of the small town archive in the production of local knowledge,” as Dallas Hunt writes in “Nikîkîwân: Contesting Settler-Colonial Archives through Indigenous Oral History” from Issue 230-231: Indigenous Literature and the Arts Community (2016).


In seeking to support the Indigenous communities of Canada, we hope this reading list helps demonstrate the important conversation that’s been happening and continues to take place. We hope it shows why it’s important to think of a discovery of the burial site as a present day event, not something that happened in the past and is therefore unimportant. And, finally, we hope that our readers will continue to seek out knowledge on this topic and share what they learn with ever-widening communities.