In October 2015, Fulbright Canada sponsored Rochelle Willier’s attendance at a week-long course on “Reconciliation, Conflict Prevention and the Promotion of More Inclusive Societies” offered by McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID). The program was designed to challenge participants to think critically about the role they can play in building societies that embrace difference and forge a path forward that is representative of diverse views. Central to this program is the understanding that renewed relationships, based on dialogue, mutual respect and understanding, are key to achieving long-term reconciliation and conflict prevention. This is directly relevant for improving relations between civil society and the private sector, as well as for improving the relations of both of these sectors with governments at the local, regional national and ultimately the international level.
Fulbright Canada CEO, Michael Hawes, sits on the advisory board of ISID and Fulbright Canada was pleased to support a program that closely aligns with our priorities of engaging with indigenous Canadians and enhancing educational opportunities for persons from underrepresented communities.
My participation in the ISID Executive Education Program: Reconciliation, Conflict Prevention and the Promotion of More Inclusive Societies at McGill University allowed me to reframe my former understanding of reconciliation as an academic topic to reconciliation as a daily practice.
I have learned about and engaged with the topic of reconciliation from a multidisciplinary approach in my academic studies, but I was motivated to participate in this course in order to learn how about how to implement reconciliatory action in my day to day life. Each module of the program was aimed at equipping participants to engage in discussions around reconciliation in a restorative fashion. One of the strengths of this program was the thoughtful curation of the presentations. Moreover, I found that the discussions facilitated within each presentation allowed us to better engage with the course materials and draw out themes, often times subjective, that were most important to the people in our classroom.
On the first day of the course, Dr. Elizabeth Jelin, an Argentinian Sociologist presented on the complexities of historical memory. This talk piqued my interest, as she suggested that people who share their stories of past abuse may go through a process of re-victimization. Many of us argued that re-visiting past memories of abuse need not be a victimizing process and discussed the example of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
One of the cornerstones of the TRC hearings was the ability of survivors of the residential schools to share their stories of abuse and victimization. As these stories have been suppressed for so long, encouraging survivors to speak openly has been considered of the upmost importance. Course participants, many of whom were themselves intergenerational survivors of the residential schooling system, mostly viewed this as a restorative and empowering process.
We were able to learn more about the TRC from Dr. Marie Wilson, one of the commissioners. Listening to Dr. Wilson’s experiences further confirmed this idea that revisiting past abuses may not always result in a re-victimization. Dr. Wilson emphasized that one of the TRC’s mandates was to facilitate a safe space where survivors would be heard. In sharing past instances of abuse, survivors were not only being given the opportunity to be heard in a respectful and compassionate way, but were also ensuring that their experiences would be added to public record so that the history of the residential schools will not be forgotten or hidden, as it has been for so many years.
The act of storytelling and sharing oral histories has been and continues to be a very important aspect within many indigenous cultures and communities in Canada. I think one of the most harmful aspects of the residential schooling system in Canada was the climate of enforced silence imposed on its students. Dr. Wilson shared with us the many instances where children were forced to conceal the harm they were facing. This abuse and the silence that continued to surround it has had an incredible intergenerational impact. Taking this into consideration, we can perhaps see that the sharing of these stories, as painful as they may be, are important in allowing Canadians to acknowledge a part of our collective history.
At the end of the course, Karen Joseph spoke on behalf of Reconciliation Canada about her experience as an intergenerational survivor of the residential schooling system. Her presentation probably impacted me the most of any that week. Through her own process of sharing, Joseph was able to demonstrate how, through acknowledging past abuses she had experienced, she was able to not only take steps towards her own reconciliation but to also help others who wish to do the same. I thought that her story exemplified a choice to see past abuses inflicted on indigenous communities as either a way to ensure our status as victims for the rest of our lives, or as a way to address those wrong-doings ourselves, with the help of our peers and others who wish to hear us, in order to heal and shed the stigmatized label of victim. Revisiting these stories from our past does not have to cause us further harm, but can instead be an opportunity to guide us towards a more positive future.
The one key lesson I took away from the program was the importance of sharing our experiences and the healing and restorative power that having a safe space allows. Further, revisiting instances of past abuses need not be a harmful experience but instead something that an individual can use to propel themselves towards their own restorative path, an opportunity to overcome the barriers that silence once placed in front of them. Many of our speakers stressed that reconciliation is not an end goal but a process, one that I have seen aided by the ability to share what was once considered something to keep suppressed.
Rochelle Willier is a recent graduate of McGill University, obtaining her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology with double Minors in Environment and Canadian Studies. During her time at McGill, Rochelle did a work-study program as a Communications and Events Assistant with the McGill First Peoples’ House and the Social Equity and Diversity Education office. Awarded a Research Assistant position, Rochelle helped to create McGill’s Inaugural Traditional Knowledge Holder Speaker Series. As a person who is deeply committed to the exploration of Indigenous contexts and realities within Canada, Rochelle was fortunate enough to explore the topic of reconciliation through a multidisciplinary lens throughout the duration her academic and professional pursuits at McGill.