Truth: Island Indigenous leaders speak their truth on what truth means today

Ottawa, Canada. June 1, 2021. Memorial in tribute to 215 aboriginal children whose remain found in Residential School in Kamloops. Every Child Matters sign by Toys and shoes dropped in memory. Shutterstock

MANITOULIN – Truth must be established for all parties before reconciliation can truly begin.

The United Nations defines genocide by listing five acts that were intended to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Those acts include killing or harming its members, deliberately subjecting the group to living conditions that will bring about its destruction, preventing births and forcibly transferring children out of the group. The plain unvarnished truth is that Canada is guilty of all of those acts.

Aundeck Omni Kaning Chief Patsy Corbiere describes herself as someone who can walk in both worlds, but when it comes to defining the truth in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, only one side of the national equation truly accepts and believes the truth.

“We as Indigenous people have always known or suspected the truth of what happened in the residential school system,” she said. “But even among our own people, there are those who had their doubts, or didn’t want to believe the truth.”

Chief Corbiere spoke with The Expositor just after addressing store owners in the Loblaws family of grocery stores about what Truth and Reconciliation Day means.

“The truth is what actually happened,” she said. “People need to know and understand the truth of what happened.”

When the discovery of hundreds of unmarked children’s graves on the grounds of a former residential school first hit the national and international media, people were forced to confront a truth that, despite the best efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, had remained largely buried in the national consciousness. With those discoveries, “people around the country, around the world were forced to ask themselves, ‘did that really happen?’” she said. The evidence appears on the face of it to be undeniable. Yet the subsequent discovery of even thousands more graves seemed to sink like a stone with barely a ripple in the national consciousness. “You don’t hardly hear anything about it anymore,” said Chief Corbiere. “Everyone was involved, the churches, the government, the RCMP and Indigenous people knew it, but it was out of sight, out of mind for most of the country, it still is. And nobody has been held accountable for what happened.”

Chief Corbiere said that accepting and coming to understand that truth is a prerequisite to moving forward in any meaningful way, both as a nation and individually for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“Everyone thought it was a lie,” she said. “But you can see the truth if you just open your eyes (and ears) to let the truth in. The truth is coming out, it is the truth, it really happened. When you can learn the truth, really understand it, then maybe you will come to view things in a different way. You might understand how the forced poverty, the abuse, the loss of our languages and our culture might lead someone to despair, to bury themselves in alcohol and/or drugs. When you understand and accept that truth, you can finally begin to look forward.”

“The thing is, it is still going on to this very day,” Chief Corbiere continued. “They did that originally with women, where if a First Nations woman married a white man, they lost their status, but if a white woman married a Native man, they got status. Today, if you take section 6162 of the Indian Act you are seeing the same kind of thing. If my own grandchildren were to marry a non-Native, they would lose their status.”

Although financial settlements are certainly welcomed by the recipients, the truth of the matter is that money is soon gone and the problems that money was supposed to address remain or have even become worse. 

“Money doesn’t buy the truth,” she said. “At the end of the day, paying people isn’t going to help by itself. It might make people happy for a short period of time, but it does nothing to deal with the generational trauma that has been inflicted on our communities.”

Until the truth is taught, in its entirety in schools across the education systems in Canada, until people come to learn and understand the truth, reconciliation will remain a dream that lies just out of reach.

Craig Abotossaway is the executive director of Mnaamodzawin Health Services, which services five member First Nations communities on Mnidoo Mnising (Manitoulin Island). Mr. Abotossaway has spent the past 25-plus years of his career supporting  Indigenous approaches to health practices, and ensuring those practices are highly promoted and expected by his staff, thereby ensuring health services meet the unique needs of First Nations people.

“Truth at its core is getting the true story, the facts, out about the residential school system,” he said. “The finding of babies neither shocked or surprised us, we had always heard the stories.” He referenced the ongoing tragedy of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls as another truth that, despite a national inquiry, still remains largely hidden away from the public eye.

“The finding of the babies tells the truth of their experience,” he said. Even during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, that level of truth has never really come through. “It just continues to be swept under the rug. There were fine words, the Harper apology, but it was never followed up.”

Finding the bodies of children in unmarked graves may help propel the truth toward social justice, but without the internalizing of the truth by the non-Indigenous community. “Some of that happened when they found those bodies,” he said. But then the coverage dropped out of the news cycle. “Now it is not being talked about.”

Mr. Abotossaway said that it is important that the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation not descend into a day of tokenism. “We see that with veteran’s day.” He said that the day does offer an opportunity to spread the truth of the history and current state of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and government, as well as Canadian society in general to more Canadians.