Canada established its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in June 2008, appointing Murray Sinclair, Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson as commissioners. It took seven years of interviews, massive public gatherings and a 60-million-dollar investment to belatedly raise Canadian dialogue on Indigenous peoples, raise awareness of “Indian” residential schools and uncover the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who never returned home from those institutions.
My own contributions to the early years of the TRC were to mobilize youth and bring their voices and skills into the process. The Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE) worked with multiple young people to inspire art, conversations and even host a Toronto-based truth and reconciliation gathering. In 2015, I was appointed as an honorary witness by the commission and since then have dedicated substantial time and effort to increasing dialogue with people and organizations across Canada. In 2016, I was invited by the newly established National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba to become a member of the governing circle, a group I have chaired since 2019. I was also appointed in 2016 by Lakehead University as the first Indigenous chair for truth and reconciliation in Canada.
Each of these processes have informed the activity and extension of knowledge on Indigenous contributions and challenges by the Canadian state. They have also had the effect of inspiring “Truth” conversations modelled on the Canadian TRC process amongst Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world.
In 2020, I was invited to participate in discussions with the Finnish government and the Sami Nation as they opened their Truth Commission. This past October, I was invited to visit Tromso, Norway and Stockholm, Sweden to discuss truth and reconciliation with members of the Sami Nation in both countries, Canadian ambassadors to Norway and Sweden, truth commissioners in both countries, Sami, Norwegian and Swedish scholars, as well as members of the Church of Sweden.
Through these meetings, I learned that discriminatory events in Canada mirror discriminatory events in Norway and Sweden. Norwegianization and Swedification mandates in both countries served to sever Sami language from the Indigenous population; interference in the transmission of cultural values, access to jurisdictions and authorities over lands, medicines, reindeer, and children were very similar to the Canadian Indigenous experience; and the establishment of the “Truth” Commissions were going to be handicapped by similar paternalistic thinking and governmental dictates.
What did I contribute? My participation in a conference titled “Truth and Reconciliation Processes in Stable Democratic States: Who, How, and What Happens After?” was to explore what the Canadian context could offer the Nordic experience. The invitation noted, that “given the ongoing or impending TRC processes in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, the insights and outcomes from the TRC in Canada are resonating profoundly throughout the Nordic region.” I was invited along with a colleague to opine on the challenges and gifts of the TRC and the 94 Calls to Action. I am regarded as a very forthright individual and I did my best to encourage the newish Truth Commissions to broaden their mandates, employ deep listening strategies to Sami Nation history and contemporary desires, and to let go of the need to control, limit, or dictate truth commission outcomes.
I also visited Taiwan in November 2023, where I spoke at a conference hosted by the Council of Indigenous Peoples on Truth and Co-existence. This was a new concept and approach for me, but I believe it has great utility for extending the dialogue in many interesting ways. The concept of co-existence refers to “the state or fact of living or existing at the same time or in the same place.” Indigenous peoples would agree on the need today for “peaceful” coexistence based on concepts upheld in the Guswentha (Two-Row wampum), the Dish with One Spoon Wampum, other tools of co-existence – some of which pre-date contact on this continent – and concepts represented in the peace and friendship treaties initiated on the east coast of Canada.
I consider these invitations a great honour and representative of the lead Canada has taken on rebuilding nation to nation relations with Indigenous peoples. However, we still have a considerable distance to go before we can mutually agree on our progress towards reconciliation, or even peaceful co-existence. Canada has embarked on a generational process, and our ability to inspire dialogue globally is a testament to the tenacity as Indigenous peoples to not only survive but thrive and ensure the truth is acknowledged and never forgotten. Miigwetch, Cynthia