Past, present, future: thoughts for National Indigenous History Month

Dr. Florence Glanfield invites you to join in the work of Truth and Reconciliation.

Image of the Eaglechild, a stone sculpture by Stewart Steinhauer

Eaglechild (2012) by Stewart Steinhauer of Saddle Lake Cree Nation. The Eaglechild story is a post‑apocalyptic narrative where a sole human survivor, an infant, is rescued, nurtured, and transformed into a part-eagle part-human creature and educated in the cultural teachings of their human ancestors, by non‑human forces. It is an example of oral transmission of cultural knowledge, in the cycle of creation stories from which it comes.

It was just a short year ago when Canada, and the world, ‘woke up’ to the realities of the experiences of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in the residential school system when we all heard about the unmarked graves found in Tk'emlúps (Kamloops), BC.

During the past year, there have been numerous public stories about the work that Nations and communities have been doing across this place now called Canada in searching the grounds of the former residential schools close to, or on, their nations. In just the past month, we publicly learned of the work that Saddle Lake Cree Nation is currently undertaking, just shy of two hours from Edmonton.

Following the Canadian stories coming to light the U.S. government is also investigating the grounds of Federal Boarding Schools for the unmarked graves of the children that never made it home in the United States. Conservative estimates place the number of lost children there at 40,000 children. This unsettling work confirms a dark chapter long known and felt in community.

In the past three months a delegation of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis traveled to Rome for a meeting with the Pope. Following the delegation’s visit, on April 1, the Pope delivered a statement of apology, followed by an announcement that he will visit Canada in July. In May, the Archbishop of Canterbury (head of the Church of England or the Anglican Church of Canada) visited Indigenous peoples in and around Prince Albert. Headlines such as “'Historic visit:' Indigenous groups welcome the Pope's planned Canadian tour” appeared and ‘we’ —  Canadian society at-large — began to believe that the work of reconciliation is happening because the churches are finally publicly making statements.

When I hear the public news stories I find that I become cold, I freeze. I am paralyzed for periods of time, not knowing what to do; how to respond; how to feel; and how to carry on in my day. I know I have to appear at work on that day, with seemingly nothing wrong, I need to wear a strong mask because others have expectations of me. Each time a story becomes public, I light a candle or a smudge and I pray — another layer is peeled away from the onion — the onion representing the identity and core of who I am as a human being. Each time a layer is pulled back I travel back to experiences in school, in my family, and I relive those moments — the feelings and the emotions that were in that time. In those moments, I am no longer a grown adult, I am a little girl — trying to make sense of what is happening around me. But the people I work with will not ‘see’ this. Because I’ve learned that my mask needs to be strong and resilient.

I invited some Indigenous colleagues to share their stories or their responses each time an announcement is made about the discovery of unmarked graves. I invite you to enter into these narratives, remembering that these are University of Alberta colleagues:

Every time a new discovery is made, I am reminded once again of the gunshot I heard, the panic I felt, knowing something was wrong; the flinging open of the door only to see my brother, with a gaping hole in his chest, walk a few steps and fall to the ground. I can still hear my own screams, as I ran to call for help. I can still remember begging my brother not to die. Every time I hear about a new discovery, my tears fall, and I am once again the frightened 17-year old, looking down helplessly at her brother as we await the arrival of the ambulance. There are no street addresses on the reserve, so I assume they are lost; I run back to the telephone. I run around in circles, not knowing what else to do. Every time a new discovery is made, I think about those awful places (the residential schools) and wonder if my brother might still be here today, protecting us, and guiding us like he used to do. I wonder what our lives would have been like had loved ones not attended those places — places that taught them to do harm to themselves and others. Every time a new discovery is made, my world is once again turned upside down… but work continues. Not many will know why my body is shaking and why my eyes are red.

Upon hearing the news of the findings of the children, this is not only heartbreaking and tragic but having to bear the triggering effects it has for my family especially my mother. Her past memories of being in residential school were not happy experiences but only to be faced with abuses. Seeing her siblings and relatives be targeted by the priests and nuns especially when it came to their own personal preferences such as molesting them or punishing them because they acted out. My mother did not have a healthy upbringing while being in the residential school; she never ate fruits or vegetables and if she did it was rotten food that were the scraps from the feasts the priests or nuns had first. I myself could not even imagine the horror or neglect of not being able to eat proper food and being malnourished. So with the stories being told, this not only shows some truth of the hidden secrets that went on at residential schools but former school survivors having to relive the pain and past trauma especially triggering my own intergenerational trauma stressors and making me feel very uncomfortable.

The residential school experience is but one part of the colonial experience. I think about the daily realities of Indigenous colleagues that I hear about in my work, the experiences of overt and not so overt racism / ‘not knowing’ / disrespect:

  • Indigenous scholars being invited to be a co-applicant on a research grant proposal, not because of the scholarship in a particular discipline, but because they are Indigenous and treated like a consultant so that the ‘real’ research can occur.
  • Receiving openly-bigoted feedback on a submission to an academic journal, because the article uses Indigenous-centric wisdom.
  • Going to a dental office and being asked for your welfare card, rather than your work benefits card because it is assumed you do not work and are relying on the social assistance system to pay for your dental care.
  • Getting off the train, along with masses of other people and being the only one asked to provide your proof of purchase (transit pass/transfer).
  • Being followed in stores by security because you are Indigenous.
  • Taking your kids to the movie and the teller says to the other teller, must be welfare day.
  • Sharing with people you don’t drink and being asked if it is because you were an alcoholic. Assuming you had a drinking problem, rather than living a clean sober life because it is how my ancestors lived.
  • Having a physician diagnose your elderly father with scabies when he is actually experiencing life-threatening diabetic nephropathy. Listening as he follows up with an explanation of cleanliness as he backs out of the room. To this day I am angry at myself that I did not respond in the moment.
  • Going to the hospital and being labeled as a drunk Indian or drug addict rather than being treated with dignity and respect from the nurses or being close-monitored.
  • Wearing a specific color (especially Indigenous men or youth) and being stereotyped as a gang member.
  • Just walking down the street or riding a bike and being stopped by the police.
  • Over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system, the past history of assimilation policies in reference to residential schools. Targeting young indigneous mothers and fathers at the hospital when giving birth thinking they are incapable of raising their children or immediately testing the baby for drugs or signs of trauma.
  • Indigenous women have a higher rate of being victimized or murdered, there is a high number of Indigenous women incarcerated in Canadian prisons.
  • How social media allows racism to continue especially in the light of stories, most people continue to say “Get over it” when this is just the beginning of the truths being told.
  • Structural racism on Indian reserves with inequities or lack of support to help with housing needs, access to clean drinking water, lots of disadvantages and it seems like a race-based segregation for the communities.
  • Being white passing and only ever having been harassed by a policeman when I self-identified during a stop on the way to my Grandfather’s funeral.
  • Being asked to represent all Indigenous peoples and comment on every Indigenous topic at work, even when outside your field of expertise or knowledge.
  • The fact that racism is so prevalent that the comments section on Indigenous news articles is regularly disabled for the ugliness that shows up there.
  • Having a school principal tell my son that his recounting of his grandfather’s residential school experiences was making the other children uncomfortable.

Each of these experiences are the daily reality for Indigenous peoples who work at the University of Alberta. It is important for us all to know that these experiences are with us in the here and now and that there are days and weeks when an Indigenous colleague will feel like they’ve been steamrolled by a colonial system — which remains full of racist attitudes towards Indigenous peoples.

It is now June and it is National Indigenous History Month, a month where Canada recognizes the history, heritage, resilience and diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. In June 2022 the University of Alberta will launch Braiding Past, Present and Future: University of Alberta Indigenous Strategic Plan. The development of the plan was led by the Indigenous Advisory Council, composed of 22 First Nations, Inuit and Métis colleagues from across employee categories at the University of Alberta. This plan is a collection of strategies and goals to respond to curricular gaps and the structural inequities in our campus community and beyond, and is the University of Alberta’s response to the TRC’s Calls to Action. The plan is also a celebration of the University’s journey: past, present and the hopes for the future.

I invite everyone to attend the livestream celebration of the plan’s launch; I invite you to join in the work of Truth and Reconciliation through your living and life in relation to the plan; and I leave you with these powerful words from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

“Getting to the truth was hard, but getting to reconciliation will be harder. It requires that the paternalistic and racist foundations of the residential school system be rejected as the basis for an ongoing relationship. Reconciliation requires that a new vision, based on a commitment to mutual respect, be developed. It also requires an understanding that the most harmful impacts of residential schools have been the loss of pride and self-respect of Aboriginal people, and the lack of respect that non-Aboriginal people have been raised to have for their Aboriginal neighbours. Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem; it is a Canadian one. Virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered.”

Dr. Florence Glanfield is the Vice-Provost (Indigenous Programming & Research) at the U of A.

For those needing support:

University of Alberta Campus wellness services for faculty, staff, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows

University of Alberta Campus wellness services for undergraduate students

Indian Residential School Survivors 24 hr Crisis Line 1 (866) 925-4419.

Additional Health Support Information from

Emotional, cultural and professional support services are also available to Survivors and their families through the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program. Services can be accessed on an individual, family or group basis.

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador: 1-866-414-8111

Quebec: 1-877-583-2965

Ontario: 1-888-301-6426

Manitoba: 1-866-818-3505

Saskatchewan: 1-866-250-1529

Alberta: 1-888-495-6588

British Columbia: 1-877-477-0775

Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut: 1-800-464-8106