Lift Each Other Up: An Interview with Chief Wilton Littlechild, commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

In 1976, Chief Wilton Littlechild had the distinction of being the first Treaty First Nation person to acquire his law degree from the University of Alberta. He also received his master’s degree in physical education in 1975. In addition to running his own law firm from the Ermineskin Reserve, Chief Littlechild is a strong advocate for the rights of Indigenous Peoples. He was the chairperson for the Commission on First Nations and Métis Peoples and Justice Reform, and served as a member of Parliament from 1988–1993 for the riding of Wetaskiwin-Rimby. He served on several senior committees in the House of Commons and was a parliamentary delegate to the United Nations. He also served two terms as the North American representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He was appointed the Honourary Chief for the Maskwacis Crees and also the International Chief for Treaty No. 6 Confederacy. Currently, he is one of three commissioners in charge of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and himself a survivor of residential schools. In December, Joanna Rice, an associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice, sat down with him to learn more about his experience in the residential schools and his work as a commissioner.

Joanna Rice: What does it mean to you to be a commissioner, and what does that role entail in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada?

Wilton Littlechild: First I can give my technical response as to what a commissioner is. Usually it’s a person authorized to be a task leader by a court or by  a government. In our case it is a court-ordered mandate from the residential school lawsuit. Three of us have been appointed through a special appointment process that empowers us to do a set of tasks made clear in the mandate. We are to gather stories from survivors—who are the former students—or from anyone who was affected by the schools and wants to share testimony with us. We then have to establish a national research center. That may be a physical structure or a virtual research center. All testimony gathered, whether it be a tape or video or song, poems, books, or theater, will all be housed in this national research center for future access. Maybe my own grandchildren would like to go to the center to access information about what my experience was in residential school, for example. But mainly it is for the Canadian public—or the public anywhere—to have access to that information.

The largest task is to work on reconciliation. Once we have this information from the students, the survivors, and other people affected by it, how do we use that information to guide us in making better relations between Indigenous Peoples in our communities, the churches, and all of Canada?

So my role as a commissioner is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to  building a better Canada, one that is inclusive of everyone. Maybe that is a large bite we are taking on—it certainly is a lot of work—but I think we can put people on the right path toward reconciliation.

Can you think of an image or moment at the TRC so far that captures what you are trying to achieve here?

It’s hard to select just one, there are a lot of moments I’d consider significant to date.

At one church-led event, a church congregation decided that while the prime minister had apologized to the survivors of residential school, they as a community felt that they should also apologize to their neighbors. There was a First Nation Indian reserve, as we call them in Canada, right next to the city. So they had a reconciliation day; they gathered many names in a book—they called it a book of apology—and gave it to the neighboring First Nation community.

But you know the highlight for me? Maybe it’s because of my own background, but at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics that were held in Vancouver our people were showcased. Three hundred young people were showcased for forty-five minutes of the opening ceremony to really honor the resilience of our culture and our languages and to show success through our youth. It was an act of reconciliation at the highest level to be put on the world stage. So much happened last year that was all good. These moments and many more were important, but for me that captures what we’re trying to achieve.

As a survivor yourself, would you tell us what your life was like before residential school compared to your life once you were there.

Well, when I was a child, before I went to residential school, I was raised by my grandparents. I was brought up in a very traditional way with my Cree language, Cree culture, and Cree ceremonies. One day, I was dropped off at residential school—I recall I was dropped off by a team of horses—and it was a whole new world where I didn’t even understand the language, which was English. It was a very difficult transition to be put into as a child by yourself. When I reflect back, the most difficult part in terms of trauma was just being separated from family.

Your family bond, if not broken, is really stretched to the limit. For me, I already had that missing link with my parents, then being away from my grandparents didn’t make it easier at residential school. I knew my brothers and sisters were at the same school , but we were separated. So there was no real family bond or parental bond. In my case, my grandparents’ bond was almost severed by residential school. That was a very serious trauma from many perspectives, whether it was the physical separation or the mental isolation from your own family, to the spiritual and cultural separation. Because, as you know, we weren’t allowed to speak our own language or practice our own culture; in fact, they were outlawed completely.

It was a tough, traumatic experience, not to mention the abuse. You’ve heard of the abuses: physical, sexual, mental, spiritual, and cultural ones. The reason the Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established is because there were more than 10,000 lawsuits filed for these abuses that went on in residential schools. The courts asked the parties to settle, and one of the conditions demanded by survivors was that a truth and reconciliation commission be established so that Canada will now know what happened in these residential schools. Of all the abuses experienced, the sexual abuse and witnessing violence was an experience of severe trauma for me. I really had to work on myself, right to this day. Infact, I still work on my own healing journey because of what happened to me at residential school. The up side of all this was my survival, which was due in great part to sports. To this day I thank the Creator for exposing me to sport. It was really my vehicle of survival in residential school.

I happen to know you’re actually a bit of national hero for your sports career in Canada.

I’ve been blessed with the ability to compete internationally in three different sports: hockey, baseball, and swimming. This past year in fact, I made Team Canada for swimming, and I’ll be competing in the U.S. national championships this year. So I’m still competing in my age group for swimming; I’m still very physically active. But the underlying motive for me doing that is to walk the talk.
I encourage young people all the time to be balanced in their life: to be
mentally, culturally, physically, and spiritually balanced. I’ve been inducted into seven sports halls of fame for those three sports. As an athlete and as a builder (sports event organizer), my highlight was scoring the winning goal in a World Cup tournament in Paris against Finland in a championship game. We won the gold medal! All of this stems from the residential school experience, where I came to believe that being physically active could be an escape from the abuses. So that is one highlight, and a positive highlight for me, from residential school that I think almost outweighs all of the negatives.

You’ve explained what you were able to do to stay healthy physically, but what were you able to do at residential school or after residential school to stay alive culturally, given that it was so actively pushed out of you at school?

I think it was engrained in me enough. It was already such a part of my life, being raised with it by my grandparents, even after all those years of not being able to practice or participate in cultural activities or ceremonies, especially the sacred ceremonies. The fact that I was able to retain my language made it easier for me to go back to our cultural ceremonies after residential school.

Once I was at university I could still speak my language fluently, so it was a fairly easy transition to go back to my culture. After all, that was all I had before I went to residential schools and it wasn’t beat out of me. In terms of the discipline, we were punished a lot. A couple times as children we were trying to reenact ceremonies as we remembered them, but that was just totally not allowed. I mean, we were put into a situation where, “You will now speak English and you will now practice Catholic religion.” Iguess you would say it bothered me for several years. I can remember the day when I was 28 years old, and I asked my mother. “How it could be? How we could be just so bad ? Why would we be categorized as heathens, as savages, for practicing our culture and to be told that the Catholic Church was the only way?” It was a difficult mental struggle that I had with myself trying to figure that out. So I went to my mother, who was still very strong culturally. And she said, “There is only one Creator, one God, and it’s the forms of celebration or expression of faith that are different. Both are respecting the same God, the same Creator.” That started to straighten me out, but it was a struggle for me, and I think that struggle was because of the residential school experience where Cree spirituality was not allowed.

Has your role in the truth commission made a difference in how you feel about residential school?

Well, it should be noted that each of the three commissioners has a very important perspective. Justice Sinclair, our chairperson, he did not go to residential school, but his parents and grandparents all did, so as a child of residential school survivors he knows firsthand the impact of the residential school legacies. Commissioner Wilson, her husband is a former survivor of residential school, so as a spouse she was affected by residential school. And myself, spending 14 years at residential school, I’m a person directly affected. All of us have been affected in distinct ways, and we think of these collective impacts as a sacred trust to guide our work. This sacred trust ensures that we will use each of our special contributions to ensure that we do not fail in meeting our critical mandate.We cannot fail in our mandate: too many survivors and their descendants are relying on us.

One has to remember that this is the first commission in the world that is uniquely focused on children: what happens to a child when you take him or her away from his or her family, what happens to parents when you take their children away? What is the impact on that family? It is a very serious issue, not just directly on the child and family but also intergenerationally, the trauma that is suffered by the next generation of people because of residential school. The problems with our criminal justice system, the high inmate population in Canada and I dare say the United States as well; I think it’s a direct result of the residential school legacy. The high dropout rates in schools? It’s at least partly an intergenerational effect. I say that because the violence that in many cases was an outcome of residential school in many families, makes whole families not  want to go to school anymore; for them it’s just not a good environment. In my role, I have to be open-minded and, with an open heart, receive all the information, believing there is an opportunity for change. I cannot let my own experience interfere, but rather, it must be used to enhance my role.

Given the kinds of damages you are talking about, how is it that this is a truth
and reconciliation commission? It’s quite controversial to be talking about reconciliation. As a commissioner and a survivor, I image you’ve thought about this a lot.

Let me preface my answer to that with a personal note. When we go into the communities and hear the personal testimony of students, I share the pain and the joy of the other students as they come forward. In all of those moments, I look within myself and ask, what is the critical thing between truth and reconciliation? What positive aspects can I reference? And I daresay it’s forgiveness. I forgave the government for what they did the day the prime minister of Canada issued the apology. Later I was part of a delegation to the Vatican where the pope gathered a small delegation to express serious regret for what had happened at the residential schools. These were some opportunities for me to forgive, but it wasn’t enough. I think that the more important thing, and the challenge I have to continue working on a daily basis, is forgiving yourself: remembering that it wasn’t your fault, forgiving your parents because it wasn’t their fault. Essentially, for me, it wasn’t just the expression of apology but also an expression of forgiveness that meant going forward on a healthier basis.

When I take that back to the question about reconciliation, I look at it from two different places. One is from a cultural perspective. In my language, in Cree, when you say “reconciliation” it’s called Miyowahkotowin. It means “having good relations.” That’s what reconciliation is in my view, and I have a cultural support for that in our ceremonies, where we have protocol: Waypinasun, which can mean “letting go” when it is offered in that spirit. Whether it’s letting go of a bad experience to find a place where you can forgive, or, once you’ve let go, regaining your own self, your strength as an individual so you can start to get back to the balance that you were first blessed with. That is from a cultural perspective, but I’ve also said that for me it’s a feeling when I have a good relationship with someone else. That can be you with the Creator, you with God, you with your family, or with your community. Personally, or me reconciliation is actually a spiritual feeling, a good feeling.

I remember the United Nations once had to select a peace prayer for the International Year of Peace. It was actually a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, and in that prayer there are two very important passages that give me, as a commissioner, terms of reference that I have relied on since day one. The prayer reads, “Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is sadness, joy.” So you pray for a positive action. Later, it reminds us that it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. So when I come back to reconciliation, when I am able to forgive myself and forgive others, then I feel that is how I receive forgiveness as well. If we multiply that approach, we may come to reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Peoples. I’s going to take both of us working together. Because this story is not an Indigenous or an Aboriginal story, it’s actually Canada’s story. The challenge we have is having Canada become engaged fully with the story. That’s when you are going to see reconciliation happen fully. We can only, in the terms of our mandate, begin to set that path for others.

What, then, do you think reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous Peoples will look like? After all, we are talking about something quite political as well as personal.

I think one of the most significant political acts of reconciliation already taken was Canada’s recent endoresement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Now we need to look at all of those articles contained in the declaration to determine what it means for us. We need to ask ourselves, How do we go forward on implementing the declaration? In my view, it is a framework for reconciliation. How do we make sure that a tragedy like the residential school legacy never happens again? We know that indeed, we do have norms and standards now regarding education; you can no longer take a child away, there can no longer be forced removal of children.

What limits do you feel most strongly on your work as a commissioner and what work needs to be happening outside the TRC to support you?

In our case the limits are indeed time and money. We don’t have enough time in the mandate to be able to do the things that need to get done. As to money, it is not government money, and that should be underscored. This is survivor’s money. They called for funds to be set aside from the court settlement: $60 million to establish a truth and reconciliation commission. It’s not a government-funded commission; it’s an independent commission funded by the students.

What needs to happen outside the commission because of time and money limitations?

The Canadian public needs to become engaged. One of the delightful things about community gatherings is when I look out and see three quarters of the audience that are not Indigenous. That to me is a signal that we are going the way we ought to go. Indigenous people talking amongst each other about all our bad experiences, that doesn’t work. It’s got an important purpose in terms of the healing journey, but it won’t solve the bigger picture in terms of where we need to go. Private industry also needs to become fully engaged in the discussion, and we are in fact looking into ways to achieve reconciliation through economic development. And of course the schools.

Education is the key. Remember, students across Canada were sent to learn that we are inferior, that we’re no good. In a classroom so much could be done in terms of the journey of reconciliation. I’ve met with several trustees, school districts, and other members of public education, encouraging them to open up their curriculum so that residential school history can be taught in the schools. Not just Indigenous schools: moreso in the non-Indigenous schools. The government, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous government, can also continue to be more engaged in this endeavor. For all of these, there is no reason for them to wait for us to finish the commission and write the report. These are things that need to begin soon and and, of course, continue after the life of the commission.

What does the process mean outside of Canada?

Everywhere on mother earth you will find the commonality of Indigenous Peoples in the violation of our rights. It doesn’t matter what part of the world you go to; you will find these violations. You will find dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from their lands, territories, and resources, and you will find that we are marginalized from the mainstream. You will find racism. It’s a very sad set of commonalities and shared experiences.

If we gain respect and recognition here, I think it would be a beacon of light for the rest of the world in terms of how can we handle these violations, this dispossession. If we can find a way to restore good relationships and to make respectful relationships, if we can set a path to where Indigenous Peoples will be respected and recognized fully, if that can happen in Canada, there is no doubt in my mind that it can and will happen elsewhere.

One last question: if, when you finish your work, you could leave everybody in Canada with one message that they heard and that they understood, what would the message be?

I would say: it is time to lift each other up. We are so used to putting each other down, whether it’s through discrimination or racism or economic one-up-manship. That’s the residential school legacy: it’s a history of putting people down. I think if there is one message that comes out of those 150 years of history, that I would talk about with all of Canada, sitting here today and I think three years from now at the end of the mandate, I will say the same thing: it is time to lift each other up.

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