A few days ago, an interviewer asked me what I thought of the residential schools, ‘being an “outsider”’. By calling me that, he was referring to me being from the Netherlands and moving to Winnipeg only three months ago. I came here so that my wife, who is from Winnipeg, could be with her family. I had thought of myself as a newcomer, but the term ‘outsider’ had not yet occurred to me. So during the interview I found myself wondering aloud whether or not I was one, and whether or not I could give the interviewer the outside perspective he was looking for.
In one obvious sense, I most definitely am an outsider: I have not experienced the residential schools. I do not know what it is like to be taken from your parents as a child, to be removed from life as you know it and to be raised in a loveless environment by teachers, nuns and priests whose aim is to take away your very identity. It is beyond what I can imagine. The only thing that I can do to learn is to listen to the stories of the survivors. It is their inside perspective and not any outside perspective that needs to be heard.
Over the last two weeks, we received hospitality from several First Nations: the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, the Poundmaker First Nation and the Little Pine Cree Nation. Their Elders entrusted us with the stories of their childhoods in the Residential School system. The stories were heartbreaking. We heard of a family that had five consecutive generations go through residential school, stories of horrible abuse and of trying to find healing. I am deeply grateful to the Elders who shared their stories, as they are profoundly affecting the way I am experiencing the country that surrounds us as we walk.
Taking the word ‘outsider’ in a very different way, I feel that calling myself by this name would be letting myself off the hook way too easily. I am not an outsider to colonialism at all: as a European and as a Christian, I am part of the culture that gave rise to the evil of colonialism. More specifically, my home country has a very bloody colonial history – there is absolutely nothing to be proud of there. So I also have to ask myself the questions that Canadian settlers who aspire to be allies to Indigenous people have to ask: whatever is it in our culture that made us think it was okay to do this, and what steps can we take to overcome that mentality?
The Residential Schools where one dramatic stage in a long history of dispossession; traditions and spirituality were taken away from Indigenous peoples as well as the land and its resources. Now that we’ve entered Alberta, the oil storage tanks that surround us serve as constant reminders that the colonial project has not stopped; it is still going on, at a great cost to the Earth.
Having moved to Canada, I am now also making use of resources that were taken from this land. I am now also receiving many of the privileges that come with being a white settler in this country. Thus, the history of oppression and colonization in this land is becoming a history that I share. Even as a newcomer, I have a responsibility to learn and to take steps that might lead to healing. In this sense, I am not an outsider anymore.
– written by Laurens Thiessen van Esch (Walker)