“There’s something that breaks inside of us when we go through a trauma, an atrocity and we turn for help to people, and they turn their faces away. For years, we Canadians have turned our faces from the reality of residential schools…”
With these words, Canadian Sikhs recently acknowledged that as a faith community they remained silent or paid no attention as about 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools across the country from the 1860s up to 1996.
In a 3:49 minute video,It Matters to Me: The Legacy of Residential Schools, released on You Tube last June, members of the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO) vowed to acknowledge the Indian residential schools legacy and not to turn their faces away from it.
The idea for a video came after Lori Ransom, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) senior advisor for churches and faith communities, contacted the WSO to see if it would be interested in learning more about the residential schools legacy and the TRC’s work.
“When we spoke, it very much resonated in my heart as a Sikh because our faith was started in the crucible of social justice,” said Sukhvinder Kaur Vinning, WSO executive director, in an interview. “One of our mandates as Sikhs is to assist our neighbours when they are unable to help themselves, to be their voice if they are unable to speak for themselves and to help shed light on very dark situations.”
The video – and four others that are set to be released – are an opportunity for Canadian Sikhs to practice their value of Sarbath da Bhala, or “working for the upliftment of all,” said Vinning, who also appears in the video. “It’s an active mandate for us and so this dovetails with the opportunity of sharing the work of the TRC and helping to educate on the legacy of residential schools.”
While Sikhs who may have been here for over 30 years are more aware of the federally-funded, church-run residential schools that were designed to assimilate First Nations people into Canadian society, it’s not on the radar of new immigrants, said Vinning. “That’s not something that’s talked about when they lived in India or anywhere else. But when educated about it, it’s a shock for them to think that a country like Canada has this sort of history.” [Canadian Sikhs number nearly 470,000 and account for 1.4 per cent of the population, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada survey.]
The video has been shown in gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) and has also been shared with WSO’s inter-faith partners. The response has been very positive, said Vinning. “They were developed initially to help educate Sikhs but our inter-faith partners have also come on board to say it’s been helpful to them as well,” she said.
The aboriginal experience resonates with the Sikhs’ own history of persecution, the video points out. “We’ve had people turn their faces as we share what we’ve been through. We know what it’s like to be unrecognized, whether it’s our mother tongue, our unique identity or our faith,” states the video.
The four other WSO videos include, It Matters as a Canadian, which will feature people from different cultural backgrounds who will speak about why the residential schools legacy matters to all Canadians.
“I think it’s important for all Canadians, regardless of whether we were born here or have immigrated here, to learn because when we forget our history, we’re doomed to repeat it,” said Vinning. “If we truly want the future to be different and we don’t want to repeat the lessons of the past, then we must understand it and we must be able to apply those lessons today. Only then can it prevent us from going down that road again.”
Two other videos will focus on why learning about the schools matters to people of faiths and to Sikhs. Kaur described the fourth as a “more frank” video that will go into detail about what happened to the children who attended these schools, including the abuses that took place. It will also draw parallels between the aboriginal experience and the Sikh experience of losing a generation due to oppression.
Beyond the videos, which the WSO will present to the TRC at the upcoming national event in Vancouver, a series of inter-faith as well as aboriginal-Sikh conversations around healing and reconciliation are being planned, said Vinning.
Ransom has commended the WSO and other faith groups with no direct involvement in the residential schools for “taking ownership” of its legacy and participating in the “journey of reconciliation.” [The Anglican Church of Canada, the Roman Catholic Church in Canada, the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church in Canada all operated residential schools at various times.]
The Christian Reform Church in North America (CRCNA) and the Mennonite Church of Canada have been active in TRC events and have produced their own materials about the schools legacy, Ransom told a recent gathering of the North American Interfaith Network held in Toronto.
The CRCNA has launched a cross-country art tour – reForming Relationships – which features Kisemanito Pakitinasuwin or The Creator’s Sacrifice, a series of 17 paintings depicting the Easter story, by Cree artist Ovide Bighetty.
The Mennonite Church has published Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together, which has been edited by Steve Heinrichs, its director of indigenous relations. The book is a dialogue between indigenous and Christian authors from various faith backgrounds and they explore issues such as sacred relationship with the land, said Ransom.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has partnered with the TRC in sponsoring a recent forum that looked at the parallels between the experiences of Holocaust survivors and the survivors of the Indian residential schools.
“We’ve found sources of strength and we’re finding out more by working with communities who’ve had wrenching experiences of persecution, injustice, and unspeakable horrors as a people,” said Ransom.