The radical act of paying attention

The radical act of paying attention r1 ...

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Content warning: This newsletter discusses residential schools and survivors and may be triggering to some readers. Support is made available to survivors and their families 24 hours a day at the Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s crisis line at 1-866-925-4419.

Like a lot of people across the country, our team at The Narwhal has been grappling with profound grief at the discovery of 215 children buried in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc territory.

The heartbreak and the horror of this moment is blinding. It feels world-ending. All over again. And yet Indigenous voices from across the country are faced with the brutal work of reminding our colonial society that this story is not new, this is not a surprise. Why are you shocked? We told you. We’ve been telling you over and over and over.

In 2015, upon the release of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada engaged in a full-throated debate over whether or not the country was guilty of committing “cultural genocide.” As many Indigenous people have pointed out over the last week, that debate continues to this day. (Did you know the commissioners were prevented from issuing subpoenas and naming names and thus unable to come to a legal finding of genocide? With hands tied, the commissioners used the term cultural genocide in an attempt to honour the stories of survivors and those they lost, even if full accountability was denied to them.)

The commission found that, over the course of a century, 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forcibly taken from their families and homes and placed in residential schools. Kids, far away from their parents, their aunties and uncles. Reliving the details of their abuse at the schools, in accounts shared online and detailed by the commission, has been retraumatizing for many.

At the time of the commission’s work, only half of Canadians even knew about residential schools. In the year following the commission, that figure rose to just 60 per cent. But those Canadians who now knew about this system? They resisted the belief that these schools were destructive. 

A 2016 Environics survey of Canadian opinion on Indigenous Peoples found 42 per cent of respondents felt that “Canada’s residential schools policy was not an intentional effort to destroy Aboriginal culture and connection to land.” Another 11 per cent had “no opinion.”

Why are you shocked? We told you. We’ve been telling you over and over and over.

“No opinion.”

Canada’s disconnect from the experiences and the voices of Indigenous people is not just a form of denial — it is a form of ongoing violence. The public’s breathless surprise at the recent findings of the 215 children’s remains in Kamloops can operate as yet another signal that non-Indigenous Canadians have not been paying attention. 

So, what can be done? 

Two studies found that Canadian media coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work on residential schools was superficial, generating surface-level understandings of reconciliation that emphasized warm and fuzzy feelings of fence-mending, rather than emphasizing the hard work that is urgently needed to decolonize our society and our official narratives.

The commission created specific calls to action for media, including a call for journalism schools and training programs to teach reporters about Canada’s colonial history with Indigenous people, the history and the ongoing legacy of residential schools and Indigenous Rights under Canadian and international law. 

But journalists can and should do so much more, and this starts with the radical act of paying attention in ways Canadian media traditionally has not. This means attending to Indigenous experiences, voices and stories more intently and with more consistency. This means covering not just Indigenous trauma, but the often-untold stories of Indigenous success, resilience, resistance, rebuilding, reconnecting, remembering and reimagining. As journalists, we should feel angry that we haven’t been taught to do this from the beginning.

During the commission’s work, Maxine Matilpi, a Kwakwaka'wakw artist from Alert Bay, said she was disappointed so few non-Indigenous people attended the Victoria hearings. In a piece for the Times Colonist, she wrote: “The tellers need us present to listen, and they need us to listen deeply. They need us to be inspired into action, to ‘walk the talk,’ to not imagine ourselves absolved through ‘statements of reconciliation’ by survivors reported in the news…”

These tellers are still telling their ongoing story. We must be present for it right now.

American psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach says that “attention is the most basic form of love.” The act of paying attention is profound. But, as the commission’s chair, Justice Murray Sinclair, reminds us, what comes of our attention matters too: “Now that we know about it, what are you going to do about it?”

Take care and pay attention,

Carol Linnitt
Managing editor
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Essential reading and listening IndigiNews: Non-Indigenous people — here’s what you can do, right now CBC Radio: Residential school survivors mourn after discovery of unmarked graves Ku'ku'kwes News: Photo Essay: Remembering the 215 children who lost their lives at Kamloops Indian Residential School APTN: ‘It was horrid’: Survivor tells APTN News about loss and fear at Kamloops residential school  

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