TRC I remember – AFN National Chief Atleo

AFN National Chief Atleo speaking at Kainai First Nation.
AFN National Chief Atleo speaking at Kainai First Nation.

AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Atleo
EDMONTON – Aboriginal – Today I am reminded of the day almost six years ago now when I was sitting in the House of Commons hearing the words of the Prime minister apologize on behalf of Canada.

But it is more than the words of the Prime Minister that I remember.

What I remember most were the flood of words and emotions flowing from our people that day, words of our former National Chief and my late Grandmother that resonate still in crystal clear tones for me today.

As we gather for the final national gathering of this incredible journey and undertaking, this quest for truth telling, of giving expression to our hurt and our healing, I am compelled to share these reflections from that day and from today.

National Chief Phil Fontaine, in his response to the apology, spoke of the dreadful chapter of shared history that was the residential schools and implored us all to have the courage to face the darkest moments. He spoke of survival and affirmation of our place as Indigenous peoples. And he reached out to all of Canada to join this work of reconciliation.

My grandmother in her own way responded that day as well. Holding my hand she leaned to me and said, “Grandson – they are just beginning to see us.” She also shared a dream that I have since shared many times. She shared a dream of trying to turn a page, a dark page, by herself but it was a heavy page, too heavy. She knew it would take many people to turn this very heavy page – a page in the same dark chapter that National Chief Fontaine referred to.

Today, I have the tremendous honour to reflect on this work of truth and reconciliation both personally as an individual who knows many – including members of my own family – that were sent to the schools, and in my role as National Chief. I have witnessed the deep pain and anguish of those speaking truth, and the results of shining light into the darkest corners.

My own family and my own history is deeply marked by what that light exposes – stories of experiments carried out on innocent children and of the deep inter-generational trauma that results. I personally experienced violence as a child. This real hurt made me too a victim. I believe we can and must support each other to no longer be confined or defined as victims who continue to hurt ourselves and those that we love, but rather as strong survivors having done the hard work. We can, we must and we will choose to end this cycle.

Today, I have the privilege to now reflect back both personally and as National Chief what I witness in our communities, in our homes across this nation. Struggle is not difficult to find. It is all around us. We are a people constantly responding, reacting to and learning from trauma. We experience, and we endure. This makes sense because of our past and it is our reality.

Through the beauty and pride of our culture, the strength of our ancestors, we can move out from that deeply embedded sense of trauma, we can move out of the darkness into the light and energy of our hope and confidence in our future.

Through the truth we can free ourselves from the bonds of anger and hate. We can unburden the next generations of the anger and pain. We can convey to them the gifts of our spirit, our songs, our languages and cultures. We will never forget. We will remember those things they tried to take from us – we will gift them to the next generation.

Let me share with you the constant motivation I have for this effort. Quite simply, it is our children – all of our children – wherever they may live. Our cultures have always been child-centred. The nurturing and caring of children has always been the highest value of our Nations.

As National Chief, I have travelled to over a hundred schools and I have had the chance to listen to our children, to listen intently to their wisdom, a wisdom I see sometimes without words. Sometimes it’s the flicker of intensity, the light in the eyes, the thirst to learn and live their language and culture.

Today we can again capture that deep care and concern for children at the very centre of our identity. We can and must begin to prepare the way to bring back this light and energy into every one of our homes and families.

It starts with forgiveness within our own families – forgiveness to not hold onto the pain and the suffering and most importantly to not pass this on any longer.

Forgiveness is not forgetting. Those experiences, and even the pain they caused, have a great deal to teach us, both about not being victimized again and about not victimizing others. This is not about absolving responsibility. It is rather something internal, and it is a sign of strength. It can free us and empower us to move forward. It starts with our commitment to not place this burden on the shoulders of the next generation.

We now enter the opportunity to end the dark night for our people. It requires the very best of us. It requires us to honour our peoples and to honour our memories, not by holding onto the pain but to learn from it, to say “never again”, to rebuild our communities and nations knowing we have prevailed.

Our legacy is not of anger and pain. Our legacy is courage, resilience and strength. Our future is to walk forward into the new day. Harkening back and reclaiming the essence of our strength, a strength founded in love not hate; in compassion, not anger.

This is our future now and we will write this new chapter grounded in our constant care and devotion to our children. We are and will bring back our teachings and the deep meanings as more than symbolism. We will conduct ourselves in accordance with our teachings, living our cultures through expression and interaction within our nations and with our neighbours.

I do not suggest that the hard work is over – no, far from it. We now prepare for the harder work of summoning our strength and acting on it. Acting now to break the shackles of shame and the cycle of pain and determine our own path forward through love, ceremony and respect.

The new dawn is here. It is in the eager eyes of young children who want to learn, who want to know who they are, who want to know their story, their songs, their spirituality.

They have an inherent understanding of the beauty of their people. We now have the chance to nurture this beauty and each and every one of us must be ready to see this beauty.

Just as my Grandmother said, “they are just beginning to see us.” I believe she was also hinting at the reality that we too as a people are just beginning to “see” again.

Seeing and seizing our roles and our responsibilities first and foremost within our homes and families will unlock the tremendous potential of our Nations, grounded in who we are and who we will become.

We will continue our march towards full recognition and justice. The State must be encouraged to march with us. We will be steadfast and strong.

We are and will continue to strive for control of our education, a goal of our people ever since the first group of children were taken away to residential school – never again! I encourage all of you survivors and supporters alike to continue to share and support the learning of our ways in our schools. Through truth, there is healing and learning that gives us great strength.

By reaching out to all Canadians and to the Canadian State we have generated new opportunities for healing and reigniting the fires of our Nations. We have made stunning progress and are reclaiming the story of this country. We have forever banished the notion that this was an empty land. And we are reaching out to Canadians – too long denied the rich and vibrant history of our Nations, our cultures and art – to help them understand the true origins of our sovereignty, of partnership and of Treaty. We will continue on this path, offering this knowledge, and inviting them to walk with us to a new future.

This is an exciting and important time. Through the eyes of the children, I am fully confident that we can and will end a cycle of being hurt and hurting.

This has been the work of this incredible journey through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and now we look with confidence to a future – confidence that we will support ourselves and our children through education. I see this success taking root all around us. This is our moment not to feel trapped or held back, but to nurture this new way, to blossom with renewed strength.

And we must all understand – everyone, First Nations and non-Indigenous, newcomers, people of all faiths and all walks of life – that this is our history, that we have told the story of our past and it is now time to create our future.

Kleco, kleco

National Chief Shawn Atleo
Assembly of First Nations

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