Thursday, 3 September 2015

Two residential school desks dare us to respond more powerfully than a report

Here is a piece the Globe and Mail published on July 15 - my response to the powerful exhibition of Sonny Assu's work at the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver.

Installation View - Day School

At the centre of Sonny Assu’s recent exhibition at Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery were two school desks. School desks remind us of childhood, but these desks were different – and not just because of the way they had been altered by the artist. There was nothing nostalgic about them.

One, of 1930 vintage, was called Leila’s Desk. A box of Lifebuoy soap sat on the desktop, a reminder that on her first day of school a classmate called Mr. Assu’s grandmother a “dirty Indian.” The other, of 1990 vintage, was called Inherent and revealed the word “chug” on the underside, a piece of invective thrown at the artist by one of his classmates.

The exhibition was called Day School, a direct reference to Indian residential schools. Mr. Assu is from the We Wai Kai Nation, whose home is Cape Mudge on Vancouver Island. The desks were stark, tangible reminders that the residential school experience is not just something to read about in a report. It was, for years, the everyday reality for thousands of children in our country.

The exhibition coincided – unintentionally – with the release of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during the first week of June. The mandate of the commission, established as part of the comprehensive settlement of residential school legal claims, was to document the stories of survivors, their families and communities, research and write the history of the residential school system and make recommendations. The commission took six years and spent $60-million to do its work. Along the way it gathered 6,200 statements.

In its report, released June 2, the commission made 94 recommendations, or “Calls to Action.” They are almost entirely directed at governments and other public institutions. This is hardly surprising: Indian residential schools were supported and funded as instruments of public policy, and the legacy of the harm done by governments is the responsibility of governments.

The recommendations are ambitious. The commission calls on government to rewrite the citizenship oath to include a reference to aboriginal treaties, require law schools to make courses in First Nations law mandatory, eliminate the over-representation of aboriginal people in our jails, issue a Royal Proclamation and Covenant of Reconciliation and much, much more.

Once the commission’s report was released, it did not take long for the focus to shift to government. Would governments accept the report? Promise to implement its recommendations? And, of course, why isn’t government acting?

I thought about this as I stood in the quiet art gallery and looked at the two school desks.

Of course, we should worry that this file may already be making its way into the “too hard” pile on the desks of government officials. All too often, commission reports gather dust rather than inspire action.

But I worry, too, that the focus on the institutional recommendations, and the government response to them, may miss the main point.

In an odd way, it’s easy to ask government to solve this problem for us. It allows us to blame the government when government fails to act. But more invidiously, it allows us as individuals to wash our hands of the problem and off our personal responsibility to government or some other public institution – in this case, our responsibility as citizens and humans to understand the truth of the residential school experience and to work through what reconciliation means, not just for someone else, but for ourselves.

The legacy of the residential school system is complex. It’s not a history in which all of the hats are black or white, and we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

But it is beyond doubt – and this is the power of all those thousands of statements – that for too many of our fellow citizens, childhood was a story of hardship, fear and neglect when it should have been one of love, care and nurturing. This is not just a policy question for government. It is a story about human lives, each as worthy of honour, dignity and respect as our own.

Public institutions have work do to, but we will not come to terms as a country with the legacy of Indian residential schools until we do so as individuals. We have to find a way to stare straight at this reality rather than turn away from it.

Mr. Assu’s school desks are small. Small like the innocent young boys and girls who sat at them. They silently dare us to respond – more powerfully, perhaps, than the report of any commission.

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