In late spring, as the pandemic subsided and public officials across the country announced plans to roll back or ease public health measures and restrictions, the weeks ahead offered us the possibility of a new beginning, an opportunity to enact positive social change and to build a better future.
For many of us though, this renewed sense of optimism gave way to sorrow and pain, in late May, when researchers working with the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation uncovered the remains of hundreds of children on a residential school site in Kamloops. Since then, hundreds of other unmarked graves have been discovered on the grounds of former residential schools. The discoveries have sent shockwaves through Canada, forcing communities across the country to confront memories of loss and trauma while leaving others stunned and heartbroken.
As researchers continue to work tirelessly to provide families with answers, the repercussions of these findings make clear the need to create spaces for community-led reconciliation and healing. If we hope the post-pandemic society offers us a true opportunity to build a more just and equitable future, we must continue to engage in a spirit of openness and empathy on some of the uncomfortable truths about our past.
Top row (left to right): Elizabeth Rivera (PETF staff), Patti LaBoucane-Benson (2004 Scholar), Vanessa Ambtman-Smith (2019 Scholar), Margarida Garcia (2004 Scholar), Kylie Heales (2021 Scholar), Jasmine Dionne (2020 Scholar), María Juliana Angarita (2021 Scholar), Lorna Williams (2021 Fellow), Margaux Watine (PETF staff), Ginger Gibson (2003 Scholar), Pascale Fournier (President & CEO PETF), Poonam Puri (2016 Fellow), Charlie Wall-Andrews (2020 Scholar), Mckim Jean-Pierre (PETF staff).
Bottom row (left to right): Allen Benson, Joshua Okyere (2021 Scholar), Anick Desrosiers (2021 Scholar), Jarita Greyeyes (2019 Scholar), Bernard Richard (2012 Mentor).
A Space for Healing, Reflection, and Reconciliation
Senator Patti LaBoucane-Benson, a 2004 Scholar and member of our Advisory Committee on Diversity, has spent an important part of her career involved in reconciliation, and healing initiatives. In late-June, I reached out to Senator LaBoucane-Benson to find a way to engage the Foundation in reflection on these issues. We quickly agreed that we wanted to provide members of the Foundation an in-person platform and that the scope and pace of the discoveries required the event be held as soon as possible.
On short-notice, conscious of health precautions, and space limitations, the Foundation team was thrilled to organize its first in-person community event in almost 18 months.
We strongly believed it necessary to prioritize invitations to active First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Scholars as well as members of the Advisory Committee on Diversity. As it became apparent that dialogue on reconciliation and healing would be a critical theme during our incoming cohort's three-year leadership program on Language, Culture and Identity, 2021 Scholars were also invited to participate, as well as 2021 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Fellows and Mentors. Remaining spaces were filled by locally based Scholars and other Indigenous members of the Foundation.
Chief Dr. Wilton Littlechild, Pascale Fournier, and Romeo Saganash.
And so from July 13 to July 14, Senator LaBoucane-Benson and her husband, Allen Benson, CEO of Native Counselling Services of Alberta, graciously welcomed 20 participants to their home near Edmonton. Other guests included Dr. Kisha Supernant, a professor of Archeology who has recently worked with Indigenous communities to locate unmarked graves, Métis Elder Wil Campbell, Elder Irene Morin of the Enoch Cree Nation, Chief Dr. Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer, advocate and coach who was commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (“TRC”), and Marlene Orr, co-chair of Trauma Informed Edmonton, Director of the Stan Daniels Healing Center, and Director of Corrections with Native Counselling Services of Alberta
The intimate and profound moments shared among all participants proved to be a life changing learning experience for which I will be forever grateful and hope to share with all members of our community soon. Some of you have already contacted me to indicate your interest in attending similar events in the future. Please rest assured that we are working to provide in-person opportunities for active-listening, dialogue, and education for all members as soon as possible.
In the meantime, the members of our community who participated in the event have shared notes and pictures from their two-days in Edmonton. Their experiences reflect the importance and power of the grieving, and its role in ultimately helping us find hope for a better tomorrow. I trust you will find them as touching, insightful, and inspirational as I have.
President & CEO
Edmonton, Alberta | 13 and 14 July 2021
Members of the Foundation community gather together to participate in a healing circle.
"As many Canadians contend with the realities of the residential school system, we must honour the residential school survivors who have spoken their truth for decades. Even in our relatively small PETF community, we have both direct and intergenerational survivors who see and feel the impact of this system on ourselves, families, and nations. This trip to Alberta, grounded on the land was an important step for those within the PETF community to address the legacy of the residential school system. There can be no reconciliation without truth and although many are still unaware of the truth of the residential school system we now have PETF community members who have heard directly from survivors. Particularly as people involved in education we all have a responsibility to address the impacts of the residential school system within our respective educational institutes regardless of our areas of study."
"The community gathering was an opportunity to engage in collective grieving, healing, and exploring ways of fostering reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and Canadians. The reality is that many Canadians need to unlearn and relearn the history of the land we live on to start their journey as responsible citizens. Also, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action need to be enacted by citizens and institutions. I will continue to reflect on this journey and remain committed to taking action, particularly by advancing TRC Call to Action #92 to ensure I can mobilize my community and sector to foster business and reconciliation."
"From the moment when we stepped onto the land –Treaty 6 Territory – hosted by Patti and Allen, I knew something special was going to happen and I knew what to do. I took off my sandals and felt the grass and the land on my bare feet, entered into the sacred circle and knew that this was a place of healing. It was a space designed to support me as an Indigenous person- it was a safe space and one that carried strong connection to the natural environment which led me to a place of healing in my own journey. There were two big moments that occurred that have forever changed me: the first was a homecoming and being welcomed back to the traditional territory of my ancestors and family of origin; and the second was the recognition that my role in advancing the TRC Calls to Action has shifted and changed, making space for me to reflect and commit to number 22: “We call upon those who can effect change within the Canadian health-care system to recognize the value of Aboriginal healing practices and use them in the treatment of Aboriginal patients in collaboration with Aboriginal healers and Elders where requested by Aboriginal patients.” I value this insight and cherish these lessons with great humility and gratitude for I have been validated as a Métis-Nehiyaw woman, Indigenous adoptee and second generation "Sixties Scooper" that it is possible to return home, and that this is an important part of healing from colonial trauma. I also learned that as an Indigenous health scholar I am to listen, and receive directions from the ancestors and the land - and that this time is central in advancing ongoing growth, learning and action that will benefit my family and Indigenous peoples beyond what I know to be possible."
Senator Patti LaBoucane-Benson, Vanessa Ambtman-Smith and Allen Benson.
"Both as an immigrant and as a researcher committed to justice and historical memory, I consider that recognizing and respecting Indigenous authority is an imperative need and that the bridges between bearers of Indigenous knowledge and values, civil leaders and scholars are critical links on the road to reconciliation. The generosity, openness, and care expressed during our gathering, revealed these significant lessons in symbolic and organic ways."
"I was deeply touched by the kindness, generosity, and warm welcome from members of the Enoch Cree Nation, and even more so by their resilience in response to the face the violent means employed to make their heritage disappear. The authenticity and depth of our exchanges allowed me to bring to life the notion of reconciliation, beyond apologies that partially acknowledge but do not restore what was lost: power, the ability to be equals, to hold other worldviews, and other rich values. This has inspired reflection about how to better assume individual and collective responsibility to present a realistic understanding of our past, which could allow us to stand in solidarity as co-builders of a future respectful of diversity.”
"It was an incredible experience where I learned reconciliation begins with each and every one of us. It is a way of restoring relationships in a mutually respectful manner. The event created a space for sharing and empathizing with the indigenous community to foster healing."
Anick Desrosiers, María Juliana Angarita, Joshua Okyere, and Kylie Heales.
"It was a thoughtful, thought-provoking, warm, inviting gathering to share thoughts, ideas from the heart and spirit on the challenges of addressing colonial actions and to build a Canada that respects all histories and peoples."
"It was an emotional but inspiring two days, allowing us to gain more insights into the devastating impacts of colonial policies, particularly residential schools. As an Acadian, aware of the hazards of our own history and the heroic efforts of our ancestors to avoid the worst, I was deeply shocked to hear of the terrible consequences of the acts of genocide against Indigenous peoples in my country. I’m grateful to those who had the courage to share with us their painful memories and hopes for the future. Merci/wela’lioq."
"Healing, laughing, opening up, listening in silence, seeing the other, letting oneself be seen, seeing oneself differently through the other's story. We experienced all of this richness and unique moments in Edmonton, unique in the generosity of the welcome (thank you Patti and Allen!), the humanity of the exchanges in the healing and talking circles, our desire to make space for memory, pain, but also laughter, humour, friendship and willingness to collaborate. I was particularly inspired by the way our hosts were able to create a space so conducive to truly encountering others and their stories. I am grateful for the opportunity to come so significantly closer to the lived meaning of the words "truth and reconciliation". I am also grateful for the elders we had the privilege of meeting and from whom I learned so much. They offered us much more than their enormous wisdom, they offered us their presence and their unique way of being. There are journeys that we will never forget. They transform us."
Senator Patti LaBoucane-Benson, Margarida Garcia, Ginger Gibson and Pascale Fournier.
Pascale Fournier, Lorna Williams, Senator Patti LaBoucane-Benson, Vanessa Ambtman-Smith, and Jarita Greyeyes.