Richard Jackson knows a lot about reconciliation.
He’s reconciled himself with a childhood disrupted by Canada’s residential schools, and with the many ways his community struggled for stability long after the majority of those schools shut down.
As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission traveled across Canada examining the legacy of residential schools, he also reconciled himself with taking on the heavy emotional weight that came with revisiting those memories.
“It opens up old wounds to talk about it, but the healing I’ve done is something I’m happy to share with people,” said Jackson, who works as a resident elder with the Central Okanagan School District.
He is part of the Thompson band, but lives in the Okanagan and is a familiar presence at local powwows for his emceeing.
While some may just enjoy the music and the dances involved with powwows as entertainment, Jackson explained there is more to them than meets the eye.
As the drum beats, the history of residential schools is oftentimes explored in song, reflecting the significant role they now play in aboriginal history.
At its peak there were 80 residential schools across Canada, and over 150,000 children walked through their doors.
Some were given an education and walked away with few scars.
But the commission found that for the vast majority, the experiences were of cruel abuse and hardship as the government pursued the goal of “removing the Indian from the child.”
In addition to practices that fragmented families and indigenous culture, 4,000 children died during their stays.
“I made it. I went through it. I am not blaming anybody,” said Jackson, pointing out that traditions that settlers tried to snuff out have helped the process.
“In our powwows, we experience a very highly-positive spiritual cleansing. We balance and ground ourselves, physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.”
They have helped him, but overall forgiveness, he explained, is a nuanced concept that will require buy-in from whatever government Canadians elect.
“They’ve started with the apology,” Jackson said. “But they need to have more funding for schools, for housing and for education so we can compete with the jobs that are going on today.”
Some funds aimed at addressing aboriginal needs have been spent over the course of the Harper government’s tenure, but the relationship between the current government and Canada’s aboriginals can be most politely described as tense.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is an Okanagan aboriginal leader who has served as president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs since 1998. He explained that the friction between the current government and indigenous people is due to the fact that shortly after Harper was elected, his government rejected Liberal leader Paul Martin’s motion to adopt the Kelowna Accord, which came with a $5.1 billion boost to aboriginal spending over five years. They’ve since fallen short of many funding aims.
The Conservatives are also the only party that has not committed to launching a full inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
“The Harper government has pursued a unilateral legislative agenda that has not served the interests of aboriginal people in this country,” said Phillip, who is asking his community to get out and vote for “anybody but Harper.”(See story A29.)
It’s a strong political message that some say is resonating among young aboriginal voters, whose political will was galvanized in recent years by things like the Truth and Reconciliation process.
Now that the truth part is over, and the Canadian government has apologized, questions about the best way to achieve reconciliation are being asked.
It will be a long process, Jackson said.
“Healing is a journey, not a destination,” he said.
“It’s a commitment we have to take for the rest of our lives. We need to heal the racism and show kindness to one another.”
“Powwows are one good way to do that. They are the heartbeat of our First Nation people, our cultural identity, and our aboriginal right.
“They’re also empowering, and that’s what we need to share with non-native people.”