Bringing truth and reconciliation to the classroom

As a teacher and researcher, Keavy Martin wants people to engage emotionally with the lasting impact of residential schools.


In this one-minute lecture, English professor Keavy Martin talks about the work of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the longer process of building a more balanced relationship.

(Edmonton) Filtered through intellect and specialized language, the study of any academic subject can sometimes lack emotion and immediacy.

That’s one reason English professor Keavy Martin is taking her students of Aboriginal literature to the final meeting of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission later this month, where they will hear first-hand accounts—in all of their raw and often disturbing detail—from survivors of Canada’s residential school system.

The commission, established in 2008, has travelled to 600 communities in the last six years, bringing to light thousands of stories of the abuse of 150,000 Aboriginal children who were removed from their families between 1870 and 1996, when the last school closed near Regina.

Some 4,000 people are expected to attend the meeting at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton March 27–30, after which the commission will begin preparing its public report. True and lasting reconciliation, however, will take years of healing, says Martin, involving the kind of reflection she encourages in her course, Indigenous Literatures and the Problem of 'Reconciliation' in Canada.

“We’ve got a mixed class with some of what we call intergenerational survivors. Their parents or grandparents went to residential schools and so are still dealing with the impacts of that,” says Martin. “It can be very different for them than for some of the students who are descendants of settlers coming to terms with this reality for the first time.

“What I’m hoping is that the students think a lot about what it means to grapple with this history, and are able to connect it to their present lives and families.”

The challenge in class discussions is to lean away from easy solutions and the desire to simply “get over it,” says Martin. The reality of abuse can be hard to face, especially because it so radically contradicts deeply held myths of Canada as a nation of peacekeepers, as a champion of human rights.

“Often the horror comes with the desire to say, ‘OK, if we could just communicate better this would be fine. If people could just heal and forgive, we could move on,’” says Martin, whose own SSHRC-funded research project, Creative Conciliation, explores how indigenous arts and arts-based research can fruitfully contribute to reconciliation.

“My research is conceived around the end of the TRC to ensure that conversations continue and there isn’t a false sense of closure afterwards. The commission has been pretty clear about that—that it will take many generations for many people to achieve a more balanced relationship. It’s not just about sharing truth and achieving healing; it might also be about larger changes in our society that will require effort on the part of non-Aboriginal people.”

In conjunction with the TRC meeting, Martin is helping to organize the Indigenous Writers Gathering March 21 with six Canadian Aboriginal writers, including celebrated B.C. author Eden Robinson, whose Monkey Beach has become a classic of contemporary Canadian fiction. Also appearing are Marilyn Dumont, Daniel Heath Justice, Gregory Scofield, Anna Marie Sewell and Richard Van Camp.

“Many of these authors comment on the history of residential schools, but also on the contemporary impacts of that system that are still ongoing,” says Martin.

Martin will also participate in a panel discussion March 20 called “Understanding #TRC: Exploring Reconciliation, Intergenerational Trauma and Indigenous Resistance,” organized by the Faculty of Native Studies and including one of the TRC’s three commissioners, U of A alumnus Wilton Littlechild, as well as James Daschuk, Ian Mosby and Rebecca Sockbeson.

“I’m one of the few settler Canadians appearing on the panel,” says Martin. “Because I have family history in Edmonton I can locate myself that way. This kind of issue requires us, even as professors, to engage personally and emotionally, and that is a very different way of speaking, especially in the academic world.

“So I’ll try to talk not only in an abstract, intellectual way, but also from my own experience and history, and to really think about what the role of people like me could be in this larger process of reckoning with the colonial past and present, and in trying to achieve a more balanced relationship.”

Learn more about the U of A’s involvement with the TRC