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A Personal Reflection on Truth and Reconciliation

October 21, 2017

By: Peter Keller

Playing Cowboys and Indians was a favourite summer backyard game I played as a young child growing up in Europe.  I always favoured the role of the Indian. I liked the notions gleaned from books and movies of Indians sleeping in a teepee, canoeing the lakes, and leaving no trace when travelling through the woods. For me this was preferable to gun slinging in dusty towns, or riding the range for some hard to understand cause.

It wasn’t all play growing up. Born a decade and a half after the end of WW2, as a young German citizen I had to grapple with my nation’s recent history. Somehow I carried guilt.  I felt a sense of shared responsibility.  Why was I carrying guilt for something that I had no say in, and was not a part of?  What were my responsibilities going forward in relation to atrocities committed by some in my country who lived a generation or more before me?

As a teenager and young man I then lived for eight years in the Republic of Ireland.  I arrived there soon after an event that led to decades of open civil conflict, Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972. My stay in Ireland allowed me to learn about, and to observe first-hand, the struggle by a nation to survive and recover from a long history of colonial rule and oppression, trying to maintain or re-establish home-rule, identity, culture and pride in self.  

It was my fascination with the Arctic and Inuit way of life that brought me to Canada for graduate studies in 1980. I soon had my romantic childhood notions of Indian ways of life shattered. What I observed during the years in Ontario, leading up to crises like those of Oka and Ipperwash, was confusing. Mixed and often contradictory messages were being delivered by media, First Nations, politicians and civil society.  It was not easy for somebody who “came from away” to understand what exactly was going on, and why. A summer on Baffin Island engaging with local Inuit communities was another eye opener. The tensions between traditional ways of life and values, and the presence of resource extraction industries, missionaries and southern bureaucracy were present everywhere. Something sure was not right!

The Pacific Northwest became my new home in 1985.  Since then, my scholarship advancing mapping for better decision making, and later also my administrative responsibilities, allowed me opportunities to meet and work with a number of indigenous communities not only locally, but as far away as Borneo. I thank all of them for their patience and openness, for their willingness to share insights about ways of thinking and knowing that opened new lenses for me on how to view life, society and nature. It has been an honour to be part of a team facilitating the recording of indigenous history and knowledge using community mapping and associated tools, and to seek ways to help open doors for constructive dialogue and shared engagement.

I was brought up to assume that education, teaching and learning are noble things all humans should aspire to and foster.  Life’s lessons then taught me how devastating teaching and learning can be when forced and/or motivated by agendas of politics, power and control.  Today I try and understand the justified distrust of western education by those who suffered under forced and destructive environments of teaching and learning.  But I cannot give up on my belief that learning and teaching are the way forward for a healthier society, nature and civil co-existence. Concerning formal education, it must however be received voluntary, motivated by honesty, and guided by unquestionable integrity.

I applaud recent efforts in Canada to allow the Truth of a dark chapter in its history to be heard and documented, and for seeking Reconciliation.  My personal journey can’t help but try to draw analogies to histories of other parts of the world.  I recognize of course that this is simplistic and fraught with errors. There is so much more to be learned, heard and done.  Given my stage in life and career today, two questions related to Truth and Reconciliation are forefront in my own mind looking at the road ahead.

One thought is what more can and should Simon Fraser University pragmatically and realistically do to allow the Truth to be heard, and wrongs to be acknowledged.  What more also can SFU and other universities do to help with Reconciliation, and to contribute to finding a respectful and workable way forward? The work of SFU’s Aboriginal Reconciliation Council will help find answers.

The second question is more personal.  Eileen and I have two children born and raised in this amazing part of the world.  To them the Pacific Northwest is home.  They feel their roots belong here. Must they live with a type of guilt I felt about German history as a German born citizen? What are their responsibilities with respect to the past, and looking forward? I remain optimistic that representative and inclusive education in its noblest sense, willingness to engage with difficult subjects, and inquiring open minds have the potential to help address my questions.  I sense a common will to find answers to how present and future generations who call the Pacific Northwest home will be able to live and work together looking forward, informed by the Truth of what happened in the past, and knowing that Reconciliation is an ongoing and necessary step in this process.