Dozens of orange bracelets that read Every Child Matters

Allyship and Truth and Reconciliation

September 29, 2023

Reflections from members of the VIU community

On the journey towards truth and reconciliation in Canada, allies play a critical role. It is key for allies to bear a large share of the work of the truth and reconciliation process, including supporting, sharing, bearing witness and holding members of their own communities to account.

In True Reconciliation: How to Be a Force for Change, Jody Wilson-Raybould writes that we are in a “critical moment of transition and transformation”:

“I understand this moment as one in which we have finally recognized that confronting the legacy of colonialism in Canada, and building the future, is our shared work. This is a moment with significant transformative potential, a moment where we recognize that we all have a role to play, and that we need to increasingly, and urgently, act.”

In this blog post, members of the VIU community share some thoughts on their own journeys toward deepening their personal commitments to truth and reconciliation: 

My name is Paige Fisher. My parents were Helen Barbara Vail, of Wainwright, Alberta, and William Thomas Fisher from Kelowna, British Columbia. My ancestors came to Canada from the British Isle. On my mother’s side this was as far back as 1789. 

I learned this history from family stories. It mirrored what I learned in school about the colonization of Canada. What I never learned in school were the stories that were hidden – the stories of First Peoples who were displaced as my ancestors settled in this land. I was taught that Canada was a “new” country, a country full of possibilities for everyone. I wasn’t taught that those possibilities were only for some people. 

The history I have learned more forcefully over the last 20 years is that this was far more than displacement. I learned that Canada sought to actively destroy the language, culture and way of life of Indigenous peoples through hundreds of years of anti-Indigenous policies like the Indian Act, the banning of the Potlatch, the ‘60’s Scoop, Indian hospitals and the incarceration, neglect, abuse and sometimes intentional torture of children in residential schools. 

I am also learning that this history is far from over. This is not all in the past. Many racist policies still exist, and the intergenerational impacts of colonization, particularly of the residential school era, continue to reverberate through our communities to this day. Every time another announcement is made about the number of bodies hidden on the grounds of former residential schools, our Indigenous friends are re-traumatized. 

As a teacher for many years, and now as a teacher-educator at VIU, I know that I have a responsibility to know this truth. I have learned that we need to do so much more than experience feelings of pity for people who have been discriminated against. I have unearned privilege and power that I need to recognize and use to advocate for change, particularly in non-Indigenous circles. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action were not written as merely actions for our Indigenous colleagues to take upon themselves. As a settler-Canadian born into privilege I have a responsibility to use my voice to speak truth to power whenever I see the opportunity to do so, and to act.

I have had the opportunity to build relationships with Indigenous people who have become my dear friends and mentors. I have been gifted with the opportunity to learn about the beauty and complexity of Indigenous cultures that survive and thrive to this day. 

Through my work here at VIU, I am committed to using every tool I can muster to help transform school environments into places where all children, and particularly Indigenous children, feel seen and heard, and where their identity is recognized and celebrated. As a teacher, a parent, a grandparent and a community member, I need to be a learner, I need to be a listener and I need to be an advocate for a future that begins to move us towards reconciliation.

The question I have been asking myself often over the past few weeks is: What does it really mean to be an ally?

I feel extremely grateful to work at a place that values and provides us with many cultural opportunities to learn. Soup & Bannock Lunch and Learns, and events for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and National Indigenous History month, just to name a few. I feel fortunate to work with VIU’s Elders on many of the events I help coordinate. The wisdom and guidance they provide is truly a gift.

This question came to me when speaking with a colleague who shared this quote: “If you want to be someone’s ally but haven’t been hit by stones being thrown at them, you aren’t standing close enough to them yet.” – Ethan Keller

That gave me pause and I wondered if I was getting hit with stones too. 

My colonial brain took me to the dictionary and Google.

The dictionary defines ally as “one that is associated with another as a helper: a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity or struggle.”

My Google research told me being an ally is “visibly helping, advocating, showing support and staying informed.”

I was lucky enough to recently sit in on a conversation with Riley Yesno, who will deliver the keynote for this year’s VIU’s Indigenous Speaker Series on November 22. She is brilliant, and I felt honoured to be able to speak with her. The question was still burning in my mind, and I felt compelled to ask her, “How can I be a better ally? How do I stand closer?”

She said that when people ask her that question it’s because they want to be part of a transformation in a real, tangible way. She said she would answer my question by asking me a few questions back. Two of the biggest takeaways for me were:

  1. “How have you benefited from harm caused by others? And can you work through that?”
  2. “Are you willing to give up your power, authority and privilege and commit to a vision that is not as advantageous to you?”

Riley was so thoughtful and kind in the way she spoke, and our conversation has left a lasting impression on me. I am going to think very hard about these questions and take steps to stand closer.

Last year I made a commitment to be a better ally. I promised to expose myself to more knowledge, gain a deeper insight into my privilege and cultivate allyship in my children. At the time, it felt like a daunting promise and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep it. As I wrote the words, I found myself already in avoidance because of the pain bearing witness can cause. Seeking out our shared painful history and trying to shoulder some of that burden made me nervous. Of course, I know my small contribution to deepening my allyship is a drop in the bucket and I recognized at the time my position of privilege in the act of feeling nervous in receiving the stories of pain and suffering.

I do believe I kept my promise. I have taken my children to intercultural events and we have discussed the horrors of the Residential School System over many dinners in 2023. We read Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton together. My daughter read it again by herself. I read several books on the theme by Indigenous authors, used the National Film Board of Canada resource to watch some incredible Indigenous films. And did some other things. The point is not to be able to write out a list of actions, but I did learn from these actions. I was challenged by a close family member in a difficult conversation about settler culture and where the lines of pride lay. It brought me face-to-face with the unconscious bias that surrounded me as a child, which caused me to examine my own history. The identity I took for granted as a child – a white child with settler ancestors who simply believed she was Canadian – has been called into question. The home I “own,” the traditions I share with my parents and children, the story of immigration at the root of our existence. While I am still early in my learning, I am learning to welcome the discomfort as I explore further. Each time I am honoured to work with my Indigenous colleagues on a project and they share a small part of their traditions or a single word from their language, I feel gratitude that I was trusted with that gift. Each day my understanding of the bravery that vulnerability takes deepens ever so slightly. I just hope I prove worthy of the gifts over time. 

When I was asked to stand and bear witness at the Orange Shirt Day at, here at the Nanaimo Campus, I felt an overwhelming rush of emotions. I felt an incredible responsibility in accepting this role and have been trying to decipher what all my emotions were trying to tell me. When we have special events in our lives, we invite those who are close to us to witness these events. Events such as weddings, the birth of children, convocation and any other major milestone in our lives. Bearing witness to an event or ceremony that stops to remember the many little lives that were brutally taken as a result of Residential Schools and also honouring those that survived being in the schools, in my opinion, is a major milestone in my life and I don’t do it lightly. Standing firm with my Indigenous family, friends, students and colleagues is me making a statement and commitment to action in educating people around me about the impact our systems have had and continue to have in the lives of our Indigenous communities. It is me standing with survivors as they recount their stories and it is me standing with the families in grief of the lives lost and the trauma that residential schools continue to have in our communities.  

I am humbled and honoured to have been asked to stand and witness and I will continue to stand in support the other 364 days of the year. As a racialized settler and uninvited guest, I raise my hands in gratitude to the Snuneymuxw People on whose land I have the privilege to call home and on whose land the Nanaimo campus is on. 

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