Chief Littlechild on reconciliation: “Things will get better”

The department of sociology and legal studies sponsored the annual James E. Curtis Memorial Lecture in the Modern Languages building March 10.</p>

Every year, the department invites a distinguished Canadian scholar to hold a lecture in honour of Prof.James Curtis, who spent his entire career at the University of Waterloo from 1970 until his death in 2005. 

One of Canada’s most distinguished sociologists, Curtis established a successful career focusing on race and equality issues. Despite his numerous accolades and successes, Curtis is remembered today as a humble friend and mentor by his colleagues and former students.

This year’s guest lecturer was Chief Wilton Littlechild, commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) and lawyer. The lecture included introductions from Prof. Rick Helmes-Hayes, and Dean of Arts Douglas Peers, as well as a welcome prayer from Emma Smith, VP of UW’s Aboriginal Student Association (ASA), spoken in Ojibwa.

ASA president Amy Spoke, Smith, and ASA members Jaydum Hunt, Shelby Keedwell, Danielle Johnston, and Hannah Enns then performed two traditional songs as part of the ASA drum group for the eager crowd.

Littlechild’s lecture primarily focused on the TRC’s findings on residential schools and the calls to action proposed by the commission in order to achieve reconciliation. 

Throughout the evening, Littlechild shared some insights into his own experiences in residential school and his personal journey towards healing.

The TRC formed after the 2007 landmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between the Government of Canada and Indigenous peoples. Settled out of court, it is the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

 The agreeement consists of five components: 1. A voluntary Common Experience Payment  which provides monetary compensation for residential school survivors who want it; 2. An Independent Assessment Process to provide compensation for those who suffered sexual and physical abuses; 3. The TRC to document and preserve the unique experiences of those who suffered as a result of the residential school system; 4. Health and healing services; and 5. A commemoration fund.

It was the TRC’s responsibility to listen to people’s personal stories about how residential schools have affected them, and to steer policy-making in Canada towards reconciliation and improved relations between the Government of Canada and Indigenous Peoples.

The TRC ensured that those who did decide to share their stories were comfortable. Personal, medical, and spiritual support services were offered in a private setting, and volunteers were allowed to share their experiences in whichever way made the most sense to them. Stories were recounted through a variety of art forms: songs, plays, or woven blankets, to name a few. 

“I spent my childhood in the Ermineskin residential school,”  Littlechild recalled. “The whole school was surrounded by an electrical fence. If you linked arms with your friends, and the one in the front held a blade of grass and touched it, everyone — all the way to the last person — got shocked.”

“I tried to escape three times.”

During his account of his own experiences under the residential school policy, Littlechild took the time to remind the audience of how devastating this policy was to the whole community: the survivors, the children taken, and the generations that followed.

“Children got lost, froze to death, or drowned because they tried to run away from residential schools,” he said.

During an event in the Yukon, Littlechild vividly remembered a testimony from a young woman in the back of the auditorium. 

“‘What about us?,’ she asked. ‘The children that came after. We too, were impacted.’,” Littlechild recalled.

This statement summarized the intergenerational impact of the policy. Though not directly impacted by residential schools, the experiences of parents, grandparents, and other members of the community have also had a deep impact on the lives of the generations that followed. 

“This policy was a very direct assault on our spirituality and community,” Littlechild said.

“We should use this history to move forward towards reconciliation,” Littlechild stated.

“It took us seven generations to get here, and it will take another seven generations to reconciliation,”  said Justice Murray Sinclair, fellow commissioner for TRC.

Having worked for over 39 years on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Littlechild remains optimistic about the future of his people. 

“We’re in a new time here. Things will get better,” he said.

The lecture wrapped up with a Q&A with Littlechild in which he stated the importance of educating oneself about Indigenous issues and working towards personal reconciliation.

“Education got us into this mess,” Littlechild said half-jokingly. “But only education can get us out of this mess.

“We have to do our share as Indigenous Peoples … and we have a lot of work to do in our own community,” Littlechild said. “[But] it’s going to take all of us to work together to get this done. And I look forward to working with all of you.”