How two Syilx Elders are sharing the truth on the path to reconciliation.


WE STAND IN A CIRCLE. Nine UBC Okanagan faculty and staff. Our group represents diverse fields of research, different countries and unique cultural backgrounds. Perhaps like many of the participants, I am a little uncertain, a bit wary of what exactly a cultural safety training workshop is about. Syilx Elders and traditional Okanagan knowledge keepers Christina (Chris) Marchand and Eric Mitchell, who are conducting the cultural safety training, stand with us.

“Circles are important,” says Marchand, slowly meeting the eyes of each participant. Her energy is palpable, as if literally holding up the circle from its centre.

“We are all a part of this circle,” she says. “Together we create this safe place.”

Marchand gestures to herself and then Mitchell, her partner in this work and life. “It takes a lot for us to be here in front of you to speak our truths,” she says. She then explains that today, and each day in this four-day course, we will open by standing together in a circle. “It is our way to honour each other; to begin to build a foundation of trust and truth.”

Marchand holds her hands with her palms facing up. Some participants look around a little uneasily, others cast stares at their shoes. I clasp my notepad, intent on recording information to take away.

Mitchell raises his hand and motions to those reflexively going for pens. “Put your paper and pens away. You won’t need them,” says Mitchell. “Today, and for the next few, you won’t learn with just your minds. You will learn with your hearts too,” says Marchand.

Day 1: Preparing for the Truth

And so begins our journey of cultural safety training together. Each with our own ways of seeing the world, each with our own separate life experiences and our own conditioning and biases — but here willing to open, listen, shift perspectives and understand.

As Marchand and Mitchell tactfully yet whole-heartedly layout, we find ourselves at this place in history together — a time when we need to hear the truth, no matter how difficult it will be.

On September 24, 2019, UBC Okanagan made an official declaration in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action. At the historic signing of the declaration, Syilx Knowledge Keeper and Canada Research Chair in Okanagan Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy Jeannette Armstrong greeted the audience in the Syilx Okanagan language, nsyilxcən. Armstrong, an associate professor at UBCO, then announced UBC Okanagan’s five commitments and explained the commitments have been made to: “Advance the process of Canadian reconciliation and redress the legacy of Indian residential schools that operated in Canada from 1838 to 1996 with the intent of forcibly assimilating Indigenous children into the dominant culture and as part of a broader policy of cultural genocide.”

Number one on the list of five commitments — to develop and deliver an Indigenous culture orientation program for all UBCO faculty and staff — is underway.

As adjunct professors with the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, Marchand and Mitchell are our guides along this long road named reconciliation unwinding before us.

The cultural safety workshop we are taking part in today only exists due to the coordination and continual efforts of many. Since 2008, a cultural safety training course has been part of the UBC Okanagan curriculum for third-year nursing students.

Mitchell first began teaching cultural safety in the early 1990s when the principal of a Vernon high school sought to understand why his Indigenous students were struggling.

“This principal, he’d ask me a question and I’d answer him kind of lightly because usually, people didn’t really want to know,” says Mitchell. “But he kept after me. And after me. And finally,” says Mitchell, leaning forward, “I looked him in the eye and said: ‘I don’t know if you really know enough about us [Syilx people] to ask me that question and fully understand what you are asking.’”

Day 2: Not the Canada We Thought We Knew

Mitchell extends his arm into the centre of our circle, and with an intentional and calm voice begins: “In Canada, there’s a dark hole that hardly anybody knows about. We are going to take a peek into this dark hole you don’t hear much about,” he says moving to the edge of his chair and staring into the imagined black hole at the centre of our circle. “We are going to share a few bits of that with you now.”

The energy in the room changes. Legs fold, arms cross. Some shift uneasily.

“Be kind to yourselves. Be patient with yourself. We are not here to blame or offend but, our truth, you can’t really tell it any other way,” says Mitchell.

Marchand asks the group to close their eyes. The imaginary dark hole is about to become all too real.

“And keep them closed. No peeking,” she adds, as Mitchell moves a little closer to the centre of the circle and begins to read a letter written in 1910 to Sir Wilfred Laurier, Prime Minister at the time.

All eyes now shut, Mitchell begins to methodically read the Memorial to Sir Wilfred Laurier from the Chiefs of the Shuswap, Okanagan and Thompson Tribes of British Columbia.

Presented to Laurier during his campaign tour in Kamloops in 1910, the letter eloquently lays out the narrative of the experience of local Indigenous communities since contact. Outlining Indigenous ways of understanding land title, respect and reciprocity, the remarkable document of resistance ends with the simple request to be treated fairly.

“Now we sincerely hope you will carefully consider everything we have herewith brought before you and that you will recognize the disadvantages we labor under, and the darkness of the outlook for us if these questions are not speedily settled. Hoping you have had a pleasant sojourn in this country, and wishing you a good journey home, we remain

Yours very sincerely,
The Chiefs of the Shuswap, Okanagan and Thompson tribes

Laurier left the Okanagan with that document under his arm, having heard their gracious and tactful attempt to communicate the injustices and wrongs they had endured since contact. But Laurier lost the election and no action was taken on the letter, no response ever offered. The atrocities that unravelled instead are part of what we are taking this cultural safety training to reconcile.

Mitchell adds: “People get squirmy. They get angry. This is uncomfortable to hear. It’s not the Canada you thought you knew. But all of us here inherited this history. So, let’s talk about it.”

“At the end of the day, it’s your choice what to do with this information. That’s what reconciliation is. We are talking to your humanity, just like the Chiefs in the letter were appealing to Laurier’s. If most Canadian people knew what has been going on they would say, ‘No, that’s not who we are. And that’s where it starts.”

Day 3: Making Reconciliation Real

On the third day of the course, our circle, one participant notes, has become tighter. We stand closer to each other and to Marchand and Mitchell. Something has changed. When they ask for our thoughts, we speak more freely. We ask questions. With the help of Marchand and Mitchell, we’ve pushed through an invisible barrier. What’s different?

We know things that maybe we didn’t before. I had thought there was one Indigenous community in the Okanagan. In fact, seven distinct Indigenous communities make up the Okanagan Nation Alliance and more than 30 different Indigenous nations across BC.

“Racism doesn’t come from the heart — it comes from the mind.”

To read more, click on Journey to Reconciliation