Reconciliation and Paradise Lost


From the April/May edition of EDGEYK magazine:

I’m white. I’ve been thinking about what unearned privileges I have because of that, and the blind spots they give me as I live in this world.

I care about truth and about reconciliation, both in general and in relation to Canada’s Indian Residential School system. I worked on and off for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a statement gatherer from 2011 to 2014. I heard a lot of stories.

I recently attended a gathering that I hoped would give me a good feeling. That rush of having a spiritual brush with reconciliation. But I didn’t get that good feeling. I left disturbed, upset, unsure about reconciliation.


Working for the TRC has been rewarding. I have felt like I am part of the process of reconciliation as an individual and symbolically as a white male. It has felt good.

But that word and feeling — “good” — has bugged me. I’ve struggled to describe how the work makes me feel. Saying things like, “it felt good,” has pleasure in it.

Don’t get me wrong, the stories of suffering, abuse, loss, isolation, these perverted and massive injustices perpetrated by the powerful, have deeply affected me. It’s shaken my sense of Canada, of our national narrative.

The reason I’ve been reflecting on my own privilege and my work with the TRC is that I recently attended a gathering that I hoped would give me that good feeling. That rush of having a spiritual brush with reconciliation. But I didn’t get that good feeling. I left disturbed, upset, unsure about reconciliation.

Last fall the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sent a team to Yellowknife to consult with former residential school students about what the new National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation should look like. This centre is where the work of reconciliation will be headquartered. The event poster explained that the TRC wanted to hear people’s “hopes and dreams” for the centre.

At the Tree of Peace, the meeting opened with a prayer. We prayed for truth and for reconciliation. After the prayer, I grabbed a tea and bannock and settled into my chair to hear hopes and dreams, to feel good.

The gathering did not get to a conversation about hopes and dreams. People talked about their frustrations with the TRC’s process, of their anger at the federal government and at the media. Some even used the gathering to speak their truth, painfully and for the first time, about their experiences in the residential school system. I heard truth, but I did not hear, or feel, what I understand to be reconciliation. I didn’t feel good.

I have dreamt about reconciliation as a paradise on the other side of stormy seas. We’ll ride out wind and waves and together we’ll get to paradise. I think this dream was living in one of the blindspots of my privilege. This dream pulls reconciliation for residential schools out of the context of all the other issues facing reconciliation: land, history, language, law, all of it.

I recently read Between the World and Me by Ta­Nehisi Coates. It is a book about race and about dreams. The book is a long letter from Coates to his teenage son about having a black body and living in America. Coates takes aim at what he calls the Dream. For his purposes, he’s talking about the American Dream. But it also casts light on the fairy tales of a racialized world where people with white skin have designed the systems. Coates’ Dream­busting letter to his son gave me a tool to carve into and chip away at my own dream.

The gathering that failed to meet my feel­good expectations, and that helped crumble a dream more comfortable than reality, was not a let down. That doesn’t mean I now feel good about it. The gathering for me felt painful and chaotic. It defied my dream of the stormy passage to paradise. But I think something better happened. And from my privileged position, feeling good had nothing to do with it.

Ta­Nehesi Coates says in his letter to his son, “I would not have you descend into your own Dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible, beautiful world.”

That’s where I’m at now. Still white. Still privileged, trying to catch my blind spots. Still hopeful. But that hope is not based on a dream of paradise. It’s based on the pain and struggle of real life reconciliation: terrible and beautiful.



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