“It’s too hot out, I’m going to leave” says the business person as they get up and walk out of a truth and reconciliation event featuring artists, leaders, and dignitaries. Colleagues follow them, complaining about the sun and heat, while wearing t-shirts, jeans, and sunglasses. The supposed 'unbearable heat' for the morning had reached 19-degrees Celsius. A few minutes later another person says: “I’m on a term contract. I really should get back to the office, I wouldn't want to be seen as not pulling my weight, I mean they did give me a ticket to come, but still... term contracts ya know.” I sat in the stadium, and was shocked, although not surprised at what I heard. The city-wide event in the provincial capital city that I attended on Sept 29, 2022 was called Miyo-wîcîwitowin Day. This event focused on residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. Many came to the event through tickets provided by their employer. “Oh, I should probably go too” another person said. Quickly, one by one, people dispersed. By 10:00 am, with an event that officially began at 10:30 am, the six stadium rows around me had emptied completely.
The pre-program with some dancers and musicians had started at 9:30. The reconciliation talks and performances focused specifically on sharing stories and insights from a number of leaders (including dignitaries) about reconciliation would run from 10:30-13:30.
What was the point of these people coming, beyond engaging in the performative act of ‘knowing they should.’ These people showed up for 30 minutes, left before the day began, but wore an orange shirt, obviously demonstrating their commitment to Indigenization and to un-learning the colonial rhetoric of the settler-state and relationality between nations within the territory known as Canada.
A commitment was made by school boards to bring teenagers to the event. The stadium was filled with youth and school-buses filled the streets out front. The event was hoping to attract approximately 16,000 people. One of the goals was to host one of the, if not the largest reconciliation event to date in Canada. The centre of the stadium was filled with chairs for students, each student received an orange shirt to wear to show solidarity on the day with a spirit bear on the front, an extra layer of reminders of the inequities experienced by Indigenous peoples in this country. The stadium was filled with teachers who, if not explicitly encouraged, did not stop youth from leaving the area where the presentations were taking place to hang out just outside of the range where it was possible to hear the presentations. Students gathered, spending time with their friends and eating food from the concession stands. While the topic of residential schools and reconciliation can be heavy and have a lot to unpack, there were supports present for people who needed this. My sense from comments I heard circulating around the stadium was that Indigenous peoples were not performing according to expectations. There was no wailing and sharing their trauma in a sensationalist fashion. The ceremonies to make sure that the day was a good day took place before the public arrived. People were not “Indian enough” to make the event interesting, they were not living up to the stereotypical Hollywood representations that continue to be expected by mainstream society about what it means to “act Indigenous”.
Some people “got it”. Some teachers insisted students pay attention, listen and learn. Some people will have heard what they need to hear as they were wandering around the site. It will have changed some hearts. The call to discuss Indigenous issues around the dinner table will have been heard by many. The call to forgive, to have hope, to be strong, these messages will continue to resonate for many.
But when we think about the act of reconciliation as one that happens beyond a single day, when we think of it as a relational commitment, and a chance to purposefully step forward on a different, relational path, I wonder about those people who left before the event began. I wonder if they looked in the mirror at the end of the day and said to themselves: “I wore an orange shirt. I did my part. Every child matters” while metaphorically patting themselves on their back. I wish I could say to them- did you really do enough? Do you realize that it isn't just about children? Every child matters also includes the child within every adult needs to be seen and cherished? Have you thought about what symbolic representative actions mean, especially among those who call themselves allies? And should you be labeling yourself as that in the first place?
I want to say to those people who left early, it is never too hot to decolonize.