By Joanna Matthews, Vice President, Services, Reach Out Centre for Kids ROCK
Co-chair, Our Kids Network Community Planning Table

I am a white European woman and use the pronouns she/her. As a small child, I immigrated to Canada from the colonizing country of England, which maintained a class system. My family on both sides were from the working-class. In the mid-60s, when my parents were given the opportunity to be sponsored by the British government to move to a commonwealth country, they chose Canada. I recognize this sponsorship as a privilege, but even so we were still poor working-class newcomers immersed in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto. I experienced the exclusion, discrimination, prejudice, and struggles that most newcomers endure, and I worked to overcome these hardships.

Sharing Experiences as Part of a Reconciliation Journey

It was not a stretch for me as part of my career to take on the position of executive director at the Halton Multicultural Council (HMC) in 2002. I was aware of my white privilege, had a good understanding about systemic discrimination, and knew how I could use my platform to make changes. Reflecting on my years at HMC, I recognize that I learned through experiences that demonstrated my lack of understanding regarding the Truth about Indigenous people in Canada and their struggles. These learnings have stayed with me to this day and I am sharing some of them in this blog as part of my own Reconciliation journey.

A number of years ago, HMC was hosting the first nationally recognized Multiculturism Day event. This was part of three significant days observed in June (St. John Baptiste Day in Quebec, National Indigenous Peoples Day, and National Multiculturalism Day). We were busy signing up groups to participate in our event, and one day were visited by members of a local Business Improvement Association (BIA). One visitor asked how I was supporting the recognition of Indigenous people in Oakville. I thought I was being very inclusive when I invited this distinguished individual to join us at our event. His response has stayed with me to this day. He asked, “How can I support you to celebrate newcomers to Canada, when my people are not recognized?” I was aware of the tragic history of Indigenous people in Canada, but I was not yet open to the Truth which would enable me to react, feel and walk with Indigenous people as I was trying to do for newcomers.

Part of the work for all staff at HMC was providing training to other organizations and professionals in order to achieve our vision that every individual, regardless of race or ethnic origin is accepted, by fostering mutual respect and understanding.

I often used this ice breaker exercise to begin meetings. Everyone in the room was asked to stand. I would ask attendees to sit down as a question applied to them. …Please take a seat if you were born outside Canada…if your parents were born outside Canada…grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents… An attendee would only remain standing if they were an indigenous person or of Indigenous heritage. While this exercise was meant to recognize Indigenous people as the only true “first people of Canada”, it was dismissive and potentially traumatizing. I was trying to demonstrate that we are all newcomers at one time or another, but this negated the significance of Indigenous persons in the room. Additionally, I did not create a safe space for Indigenous people to remain standing as there was nowhere to go from this exercise as a position of value. I could not truly see what I was perpetuating in attempting to be inclusive.

Moving Towards Reconciliation with My Family

From a family perspective, one of my brother-in laws is Métis from Calgary and another had a brother who was part of the Sixties Scoop child welfare project. Neither of my brother-in laws talked very much about their experiences and we did not try to explore this knowledge with them. This is another example of our family being close, having knowledge, but not quite in a place of supporting or seeing the Truth.

My son chose to go to university in Thunder Bay. We were excited because he would have the opportunity to be fully engaged in the outdoors, take Indigenous studies, and even a course to learn the Ojibway language. Sadly, he did not experience Thunder Bay as he had thought he would. He encountered many Indigenous people in difficult positions, suffering from discrimination and the effects of the generational trauma that resulted from Residential Schools. He did not know how to handle these circumstances or what to think.

These situations and learnings were opening our family to the reality of the Truth about Indigenous people Canada, but we still did not know what to do or how we could become allies.

Taking Concrete Steps to Learn and Understand

When my son was away at school, I began to read more about the true history of Indigenous people, I took courses and added Indigenous authors to my reading. I attended many Indigenous events and speaker-series in Halton to gain a deeper understanding of the experience of Indigenous people by hearing directly from Indigenous people. When the Truth and Reconciliation Report, and volumes of stories and facts became available, I purchased the volume that dealt directly with the prairies and read the stories of my brothers-in-law’s ancestors. Our family read, shared, and discussed this together. Now, we continue to share readings, websites, testimonials and more as part of our family’s journey.

Through my current position at ROCK, I have had the amazing opportunity to work closely with the Peel Indigenous Centre and Enaahtig Healing Lodge. Carefully and with great respect, I have learned so much and continue to work alongside them.

National Day for Truth and Recognition brings Us Together to Reflect and Continue Forward

As a non-Indigenous person, I think my experience is not unique. We can know but don’t necessarily understand; we can understand but may not have gained the deeper connection; and we need to challenge ourselves to move. Therefore, for me the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation means that we can collectively move forward. We need to be authentic in recognizing and commemorating the legacy of Residential Schools. As a non-Indigenous person, this day has significant meaning to me because it will create space to collectively hold our minds and hearts together to deepen our learning and understanding of the Truth.

I believe a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation provides an annual opportunity for all of us to reflect on the previous year and see what we have done to move towards Reconciliation. I recognize that some people feel that observing significant days, weeks or months only provides a focus once a year, but I don’t see it that way at all. I see observing significant days as the ability to shine a spotlight and provide a vehicle to take responsibility.  The senior team for ROCK has been busy preparing for our full staff meeting on September 30th to commemorate the traumatic legacy of Residential Schools. This will become part of our journey as an agency, to deepen our knowledge and work toward our responsibilities under the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Calls to Action.

If you are a Survivor and need emotional support, a national crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: Residential School Survivor Support Line: 1-866-925-4419.