We are two white women of privilege and settlers to this land. We are taking on the work of truth and reconciliation because we believe that it is time to decolonize our thoughts and actions. In conversation with of Colinda Clyne, an Anishinaabe Algonquin (Kitigan Zibi) guest to Mississauga territory, we are again telling a story and thinking deeply. We stand beside her with humility and gratitude.
I moved to a reserve in Manitoba before my 23rd birthday. My newly minted husband got a teaching job and as they were prepared to offer me a job teaching Language Arts in the junior and intermediate divisions we accepted and packed the car. We spent 6 full years in Peguis, Manitoba. I learned a lot about education and teaching in that 6 years. 26 years later I understand more of what I didn’t learn. I met a man named Benjamin Charlebois. He sat in the same chair in the staff room everyday at lunch. He wore a crisp white shirt, black pants and black boots every single day. He spoke Ojibway and I believe Cree and was the language teacher. He taught every single grade, K through 12. He came from farther north in Manitoba than Peguis. I can’t remember from where. He struggled a little as when we were paid twice monthly he would sometimes miss a day. He sometimes drank for days at a time. He was 48 then, he looked much much older. I never saw Benjamin without a smile on his lips and a bad joke and laugh in his heart. He has since passed away.
20 years later, we were working with a group of grade 3 educators and Andrea is telling the story of Niigaan Sinclair on the hill on June 1, 2015 (the day the TRC published their findings and the calls to action). He spoke of the survivors on the hill and asked, “I wonder how long they have been waiting for us?” Not a week later, our wonderful guest, from the In the Birch Trees blog post, came to speak to our new teachers. He had an eagle feather and he spoke of wiping the gunk from our eyes to see better, the stuff from our ears to hear better and clearing our throats. I had a moment. It was fleeting, a niggle about Benjamin. It was a like a faint wisp in front of my eyes. We return to the learning team with the grade 3 the teachers a few days later and I think of Benjamin Charlebois. I have been a teacher for 26 years and I have not thought about Benjamin for over 20 of them. I remembered his stories about the nuns and the whippings. He used that word, “whippings.” He tried to make a joke about the nuns and how they would try to fool them and run away from them. I cannot remember him using the words residential school, ever. I did not ask him. I worked with him for 6 years.
We left Peguis in 1997. We came back to Ontario and I became a licensed teacher. I graduated from Queen’s Teachers College from the Aboriginal Teachers’ Education Program. It is here I learn more about Benjamin. I hear the ugly details but I cannot make sense of it. The last school closed the year before I arrive at Queen’s. I have a degree in history from a Canadian university. I did not know. Our guest spoke again today and told us that his family’s history was interrupted by the residential school system …interrupted…because we tried to “annihilate an entire race of people in Canada…” Benjamin Charlebois lived a life I knew nothing of, but spoke of it. He needed me to ask damn it. I know my work has just begun. Little scratches of truth and reconciliation are part of my work and part of what I try to make sense of; truth for Benjamin and for me and my degree and for the work of my generation and the next 7. My friend of 34 years has been part a part of this journey. Troy is the Indigenous Lead for our Board – we were YMCA lifeguards when we were 16. He lets me make a mess, not know, think I know and reminds me I don’t have clue. He holds me to account on what open really means. I have come to count on it – it is a compass. We have hard days. It has occurred to me that they are supposed to be. I have learned that listening is not hearing. If we are going to really understand we aren’t supposed to know. If I could roll back the tape and sit beside Benjamin, and really listen and ask and feel, I believe I would understand better what I am supposed to do. As it is, Benjamin and Andrea and Troy are the reason that I feel like I’m ok with the not knowing. I’m one generation of 7 that are just beginning.
5 am…the dark and the snow feel oppressive…it’s supposed to feel different now…
A: Our educators will change the way the next generation listens.
K: I have been thinking about my own way of listening. I thought about it yesterday with all of the educators in the room. When we asked them the monitoring questions, I had to mentally and consciously NOT listen for specific stuff. I had to hear them and make sense of it. You and I have spent years trying to understand there is not one right answer, yet there I was listening for it. We have to listen to THEM. The answer is who they are. I heard our guest speaker yesterday, when he listened to the question. I also heard the educators change how they listened to him…they started off listening for stuff – it made them nervous and the weird laughing was a result – it changed….he showed them how to listen differently.
Colinda: Indeed listening is different. Sometimes I am listening for the space in between the words, as much, maybe more than the words.
A: We make inferences. We might be listening to who we are and to who are students are in the space between. But, I was listening for the answer too as I did with my students in my assessments. I wasn’t always listening for truth. I didn’t always want to hear the truth. There was sometimes pain in the truth. Pain that I couldn’t protect them from. And Benjamin…
Colinda: Many times, many different Elders have said this exactly, the longest journey we make in our lives is from thinking, saying, doing from our heads, to thinking, saying, doing from our hearts. Often when we are thinking about how do we know something, we are gathering quantitative and qualitative data, proof. We are not thinking about how we know things on a different level, deep in our hearts, in a way there may not be any data to support.
K: It’s as if we can’t let something in unless we can prove it. Taking the time to let it just wash over us or rattle around and find its place means we have to give over to not knowing. The distance between our hearts and our heads could perhaps be bridged if we were willing to not know or as you say “know things on a different level.”
A: I told Troy that I’m in a space where I have to keep checking myself. “A gut check” as you say. It’s uncomfortable facing who you are. It’s a lot of work too.
K: It takes time. It’s as if we need to hear ourselves in the answers – what we teach, what we know…who they are to us. When we hear what we are not expecting and we have to listen with our heart – when we have to make sense of the very humans that are speaking or answering – it’s all of a sudden a different thing…it makes us deeply uncomfortable because we don’t know. I called my mom in the middle of writing the blog and asked why I didn’t ask Benjamin anything about his life. She told me – he was telling you about nuns and beatings – your father was put in a Catholic orphanage when his mother got polio for some time while she was healing – you knew this – he was beaten. It already confirmed what you knew but because it was awful – you did not know how to listen – this takes me back to your statement about your students above Andrea – the truth was too painful. I did not know how to listen on a different level. It had no place inside of me.
A: Yesterday, we were told by one of our participants that have to come to terms with the fact that we are not just brains in a factory. School is for brains. We feel and we learn with our hearts too. Listening to our own emotions is listening to students, to your father and to Benjamin.
K: The kids were very hard on him. The community was not respectful to him. He was an outsider and language speaker – too much truth maybe…
A: Too much truth. Are we protecting ourselves and our emotions? Our guest speaker said that all of who you are is on display all of the time. You may not want it to be, maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. How do we take this on? I’m certain that I don’t take care of my own basket well enough to keep it from unravelling.
Colinda: How can there be too much truth? Is something the truth, or not? Does it remain the truth if we only share what someone is ready to hear? How do we help people get more ready to hear? Who bears the responsibility of it being too much truth for someone to bear? What about the people who have carried that burden of knowledge on their own already? When does it become part of collective responsibility? Lots of teachings around truth, and a different approach.
It starts with knowing your own truth. My friend Pam Agawa often talks about truth for self, and then looking outward at the truths around you. I think this is part of the basket you are talking about. If you don’t even know what your basket is made up of, it’s hard to keep it from unravelling. How often do people even think about their own truths, let alone taking care of them?
K: We edit the truth. We have talked about the discomfort. We know that people have different truths and when these bump up against another’s there is reaction. There is an unwillingness to let a different truth in. A grade 8 student said to me, when we were discussing Truth and Reconciliation, “it’s not just about the truth, it’s about saying that what we knew wasn’t the truth.” In that moment, I am reminded how open children can be.
A: When it’s prickly, when emotions bubble up, you know you are about to learn something. Dr. Dion said this to us, “this is my truth, my story.” It left space for people to bump up against her truth with theirs. It was very uncomfortable. It also gave them room to say, “that was her truth, are there different truths?” She didn’t mean that the truth is up for grabs. Especially when that burden has been carried for so long, Colinda, as you said, we won’t know things on a different level until we look within ourselves.
K: I am also remembering an educator who teaches grades 7 and 8, he talked about not knowing what to do but wanting to DO something – to fix it. I think about how it feels when we hear truths that are very hard that we cannot reconcile. He was questioning the truth and trying to make it fit his own. It is too hard or too messy or not what we already know to be the truth. I think we do this to protect our own basket because we think it may somehow change us. I am wondering if the exact opposite is true?
A: In order to ensure that it doesn’t change us we deny, blame, shame, etc. But if we see and hear the truth if front of us, it should change us.
Colinda: I think about the importance of this as educators, to ensure that we are teaching students flexibility in their thinking. Maybe you thought something was the truth, and you responded in a certain way. When you find out that maybe that “truth” was, in fact, not the truth, then we need to be flexible, open to other possibilities, to explore what this new information means, and how to move forward in a different way with that knowledge. I think this is a huge challenge in our work. I think many people’s default is to deny, blame, shame, etc as you mentioned above.
A: I think we want to make those repairs of perception. How do I look? We have to know the one right answer or appear to because you know someone is going to come around with a measuring stick and make that assessment. It’s the climb. It’s so ugly. It creates the junk in your eyes.
K: I don’t think we realize it. I think we believe that if we do our own thing, mind our own business and just stick to what we know “we will be alright.” I believe in my heart that the opposite is true. Not knowing and letting it in – all the way in – “intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect” (deeply) is how we are going to be alright. Andrea – the making sense of it against and with what’s already in our baskets is how we heal and grow! I think we are supposed to unravel a little…
Colinda: Especially if your basket isn’t made out of the material you thought it was. Need to unravel, unlearn things in order to get to the truth, and then use that again as the starting point. I think part of this is a different mindset. I can only speak for my own teachings. Ways of knowing and doing are different across and within nations. A common thread is that we do things to benefit our families, our children, our grandchildren not yet born, our communities. You can’t really do your own thing, and mind your own business when you’re thinking about how your actions are impacting three generations down the line.
A: So then we have to let it in. We have to.
K: I have carried your statement above Colinda with me for two days. I have never considered any action and nor how it will impact into the next three generations. I am struck deeply by this.
A: My daughter lets it in. She’s never in her own way. I’m in my own way and even my 8-year-old is in his own way. I teach him that. I check him to make sure he knows the right answer. I turn him into a brain to protect him from having to mess up again and again. He should be learning and comparing and bumping into much more complex truths. I have to let him know how that feels. We have to put how that feels on the table.
K: I am wondering if hanging on for dear life to everything we know to be true and cling to our stuff in our basket – if that in itself is unravelling us? When we let it in – it changes us – we learn, we are human and we are different – dare I say whole? For having been in that place with that truth?
A: Changed forever. I’m not sure how to get the knowers out of their chairs. But I will listen.
K: Listening is not the default to inaction. You taught me this. We are not getting anyone out of any chairs. We listen, we change, they change. They will get up slowly. Listening is the deepest action I know at this point. I can tell you that understanding a fraction of how you practice listening is the beginning for me. I have to actually hear the truth for it to change me.
Colinda: I am thinking too of the comment about hearing a guest at a different level. I think about sitting with the same knowledge keepers, Elders over and over. They will often say much of the same. And I am in a different space each time I hear, something different resonates for me, I see something in a new way. And then, sometimes, some great synchronicity brings everything together. In February I was at the Great Moon Gathering in Timmins. An Elder I didn’t know was offering teachings, teachings on a topic I have heard from other Elders before, and this time the light bulb went off, and I was nodding vigorously from this a-ha moment. Maybe I wasn’t ready to hear it before, maybe it wasn’t the right time so it didn’t come together for me. I think this is part of a major mind shift for many, listening as you’ve mentioned above, thinking about our thoughts and actions outside of our own boxes have a wide impact (communities, generations), and waiting.