Sunday, September 29, 2013

Musings on the TRC

What does it mean to be a witness? To observe, and also have survived? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission BC National Event opened entire vats of worms in my mind. I volunteered at the events as a settler, born into colonial complicity with a VIP pass in my pale, freckled skin. And yet I felt echoes of my own survival that seeped through me all week, on the brink of triggering me. While not in my case coloured by colonialism, I know so well how it feels to lose parts of one's youth, innocence, and control, and to have school become a place of fear.

I was lucky. Privilege meant that home was a haven I could always return to. For residential school survivors, home was an elusive dream.

Two stories stood out this week, for me. A middle-aged white woman came to submit a report to the booth I was volunteering at while the staff member was on her lunch break. This woman sat down beside me to share that she had passed away at residential school as a child and was now reincarnated and on a spiritual quest to find her own grave. She had no identifying information to guide us, but an hour of intense emotions to share. I am skeptical of the spirituality of a white woman who uses such a space to air her fears. This space is not for her, not for me, but for the survivors, who experience ongoing pain from their lived experiences of this particular trauma. I listened, not wanting to dismiss a stranger in need, but it seems to me like an appropriation, taking me away from survivors looking to gain closure from the event.

Afterward, I shared my unease with a few friends, also history graduate students. Generally, they felt that the process was meant to heal all of us - colonizers and colonized. That her whiteness does not negate her need for support. But that's at odds with some of the Indigenous activists who attended the TRC, often expressing anger that settlers have been using this space to heal at a time when many Indigenous peoples are not yet ready. I would rather see people like myself being troubled at such an event, rather than healed. Yes, it is a space for mutual sharing, but it is unconscionable that a settler should have a voice here at the expense of a survivor. I fear that it is doubly violating for a bystander to claim a survivor's pain as her own.

When I listen to someone in need, I listen fully, multisensorily. For an hour or so, I did not look up as this woman shared her spiritual visions. I tried to respond with empathy rather than skepticism. And I cannot shake the blurred image of an elder, a survivor, unheard and standing behind or beside me, waiting for a turn to share or for some answers. I don't know if anyone was there waiting, or if her sharing took away someone's opportunity for closure. I'll never know. This troubles me.

I am finding some peace in the words of one friend, who remarked that this woman's very actions shows the potency of colonialism; whether spiritual or delusional, it is significant that this woman's thoughts congealed around the particular issue and trauma of residential schools. Appropriative or not, this is something that needed to be heard. But, perhaps not then, there, in that venue. I would take less issue if she published it on the internet, where there is almost infinite space for voices to echo, heard or silent. Or even in a letter, that the TRC could read on its own time. But not in an arena, full of survivors doing challenging healing work.

This need to be heard in an appropriate--not appropriative--space is one reason why I blog. We all need to be heard, perhaps especially about the things that polite society would see as too personal or shameful for the internet. Here, I am heard. But what do I do when the tables are turned, when it is my turn to hear? How does one bear witness, then process internally? I have learned to handle my own pain, gently, and knead it into something that I can cope with. The far larger suffering of others remains a challenge.

One man approached me at the TRC, just wanting to talk. Perhaps my volunteer t-shirt was an invitation, or that I was sitting alone at a picnic table on a lunch break. Perhaps he'd seen me earlier in the day at the booth I was volunteering at, talking to other survivors. This man was upset that he did not feel ready to make an official statement, yet still wanted--or needed--to share the horrors and shame he had lived through. So I listened, before directing him to more qualified emotional support. I will not write down nor verbally divulge what he told me; suffice to say that the abuses he faced are the stuff of nightmares. Even in the context of this event, what he shared was shocking.

This man's story was too big to grasp. The word "I" is powerful, too painful to situate in a sentence that recalls such cruelty. And perhaps that is why he spoke in the second person. You saw. You heard. You felt. You. Now I am holding the slivers from the shrapnel of his pain, distorted yet implanted inside me with his word "you." And though his experiences are not my own, the perpetual ghosts of hands on my body are something I, too, have felt. The pronouns he used pierced into me, and now I am cradling something that is, a week later, still undulating and unexplainable, a sort of tumour that has eclipsed my capacity for words. And yet, to excise this, to share it or bury it, would dishonour his courage in sharing. And yet, my own pain feels fraudulent, appropriative. I try to empathize with the pain of survivors by feeling in the dark for bridges between what we have survived, yet there is a depth that I simply cannot understand fully.

I know better than to dive into these depths, bring up algae-covered memories and scrape them raw in a search for my own understanding. I know better than to drain or dam a lake. Reconciliation seems daunting; it seems like a process for the settler, and not the survivor. What I am wondering now, I suppose, is whether non-Indigenous Canadians can ever be more than an invasive species in this land. Some may be zebra mussels, slicing feet and causing immobilizing pain. Others, perhaps, are bougainvillea; a parade of colourful umbrellas marching through the rain, cheerful hues and singing masking the potential for suffocation.

How do we navigate past this bottleneck, this paralyzed and paralyzing interstice of privilege and pain?

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