Celebrating National Aboriginal Day

By Dr. Vianne Timmons, President and Vice-Chancellor Posted: June 21, 2015 8:00 a.m.

The Witness Blanket exhibit that was displayed in January 2015 at the U of R.
The Witness Blanket exhibit that was displayed in January 2015 at the U of R. (Photo courtesy of External Relations)

On January 13th, 2015, Elder Noel Starblanket stood in front of a monument to residential school survivors in the Research and Innovation Centre, clutching a copy of the University’s freshly launched strategic plan and speaking to the media about his experience as a residential school survivor.

The symbolism was perfect for where we are in 2015, both as a University and as a country.

The monument was the Witness Blanket, a wood-based art installation incorporating more than 800 items connected to residential school experiences in Saskatchewan and across Canada.

Elder Starblanket’s words that day to reporters about his traumatic experience in a residential school conveyed one thing very clearly: we cannot build a better future without recognizing and reconciling past injustices.

It was with this image of Elder Starblanket in mind that I took note of the headline in yesterday’s Regina Leader Post. It read, “Demons replaced dreams,” and referred to the experience of the victims of convicted sex offender Graham James. All of us recognize that these victims have lifelong scars. We know that these victims cannot recover without talking openly about their experience and trauma, and they cannot move forward and rebuild their lives without the right supports.

Why do some not recognize this about residential school survivors?  

A systemic, race-based and government-sponsored system of abuse was set up and inflicted upon generations of Aboriginal people. As a result, the headline “demons replaced dreams” is written across the collective psyche of Aboriginal people throughout Canada.

This can be overcome only in a society where the truth about our history is told, the value of Indigenous cultures is recognized, and the right supports are in place to help all peoples succeed.

As a person of Mi’kmaq heritage, I believe that the recent findings and recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada should give us hope. Victims of the residential school tragedy told their stories. Through their stories we recognized the injustices that have been perpetrated. And through the Commission’s recommendations, there is a road map for our future as Canadians.

The Commission’s final report offers us a chance to truly celebrate this National Aboriginal Day as the dawn of a generational shift, where the true value of Indigenous cultures is recognized and the climate is created for eliminating the gross social inequities that have resulted from historical injustices.

As a University, we sent a message about reconciliation in our new strategic plan. Entitled peyak aski kikawinaw, the plan embraces Indigenization, with the name conveying in Cree that we are stronger together. This reflects our collective attitude as a campus that reconciliation is not simply the accommodation of Aboriginal practices; rather, it is an opportunity to advance society by incorporating Indigenous knowledge into our scholarly pursuits.

It is for this reason that the image of Elder Starblanket in front of the Witness Blanket back in January struck me as so profound. The story about his past, as well as the collective stories of millions of Aboriginal people, seems intimately intertwined with the document he held in his hand that maps out our future as a University.

The braided sweetgrass adorning the cover of that document acts as a symbolic reminder that our future is woven together – a future that we can make stronger by truly reconciling with our past.

Please visit the website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada at the link below to learn more: www.trc.ca