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Collective Shame: What Non-Indigenous people can do for Reconciliation by Fiona Muldrew

Posted: Friday, July 23, 2021

Photo: Fiona Muldrew (far right), with her son Aandeg Muldrew and his grandmother Patricia Ningewance.

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of defence of old, colonial, destructive systems, related to increasing awareness of the effects of Residential Schools on Indigenous families. If non-Indigenous people want to be proud of their people as well as the current community we are building together, I encourage you to look at the issue of collective shame, listen to residential school survivors, support their struggles for healing and justice, and then look for examples of non-Indigenous people who have been good allies throughout history (those trying to change destructive colonial systems).

There are many parallels between individual shame and collective shame. Individual shame is when I think I’m a bad person – something is wrong with me and I react with denial, defensiveness, hurt feelings, embarrassment or isolation. Guilt is the feeling that my behaviour was wrong but I’m still a good person. I might apologize or hide/defend my behaviour. I can take responsibility or avoid responsibility but I don’t feel I am bad to the core. A whole group of people can feel collective shame (ex., white settlers and their descendants) about our ancestors who benefited from and defended unjust racist systems. They received cheap land taken away from Indigenous people, made promises in treaties but didn’t fulfill the treaties, wrote unjust laws, didn’t allow Indigenous people to vote or hire lawyers, derided the culture and spirituality of Indigenous people, stole their children and taught them to despise their parents, cultures and languages, or silently benefitted from all these practices. There is a long list of historical events to feel collective shame about. It is more than collective guilt because some feel the majority of the white settler community must have been cruel and seriously wrong to have let this go on for so long, especially when belonging to churches that preach loving your neighbour (but only some neighbours). And it’s still going on today.

I believe the solution lies in comparing how an individual can heal from their feelings of shame. Brené Brown suggests: 1. Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love (you are a loveable person and your people are loveable, but look for good examples to be proud of). You have to know your history and do a little digging to find the good stories. Remember the white people who fought for justice, peace, against slavery, healing, building community, seeking equality, stewarding the land, being vulnerable, speaking the truth, searching for honesty and understanding, loving the children, helping their neighbour, struggling for human rights. When you can accept and love your humanity you can begin to admit that many white people did many unjust things and we must now make reparations. We can do it in a spirit of listening, acknowledging the pain and honouring the humanity of everyone, including ourselves. 2. Talk to someone you trust. Be vulnerable and release your shame. Don’t dump your stuff on Indigenous people and expect them to resolve your shame. Talk to non-Indigenous allies that you trust so you can release your shame and heal to build true community. 3. Tell your story. Secrets, silence and judgement allow shame to grow and fester. When we build empathy with others, we can see our own humanity and the humanity of others. Rita Sinorita Fierro says “a community grounded in blame, shame and guilt around being white is not appealing to white people who don’t already have those feelings or don’t want to or dare to feel them”. Fierro also suggests that “if we create spaces where we can release individual and collective shame, make connections between the two, build trust and grieve what we have lost, we can also see the gifts of that shame and take responsibility”. Perhaps the shame can help us to be empathetic, but does it also keep us separate and isolated sometimes, unable to trust or tolerate our own humanity or the humanity of others? Perhaps we wear collective shame like a badge of honour (I’m more ashamed than you) or we feel we have to fix others to keep us from our own feelings of inadequacy and shame. For me, I have really benefitted from a weekly book study group, looking at Active Hope (by Joanna Macy), sharing stories of gratitude, grief, ways to see differently and how to instill hope and create a world of reconciliation. I have also learned from my son who is part Ojibwe and part Caucasian. I married an Ojibwe man and our 23-year old son has learned to be a fluent Ojibwe speaker and teacher from his gookom (grandma). Though his dad and I are divorced we remain friends and learn from each other. I work with my son’s gookom in her book publishing company Mazinaate. My non-Indigenous husband and step-sons join in with family gatherings, ceremonies and cultural events. For my son, I have learned the importance of anti-racist education and actions to help repair past wrongs and build a better future. My Indigenous relations continue to impress me with their resilience, kindness, patience, deep love, creativity, passion and wisdom for today and seven generations to come. We need to be honest, vulnerable and committed to each other to form true bonds and true community.

Ways to Accept Responsibility for Reconciliation

I believe we can still admire some qualities of our ancestors while acknowledging that we non-Indigenous people have benefitted immensely from a racist government and colonization. We have got all the benefits of the treaties: cheap land, access to resources, the nicest spots to live, clean water, economic freedom, white privilege for some, laws and police that have sided with white people and white institutions, while Indigenous people have suffered immensely from racist laws, schools, churches, the Indian Act, economic impoverishment, an unhealthy food system, destruction of traditional diets and ways of livelihood, pollution, flooding for hydroelectricity, forced relocation, genocidal policies of residential schools, poor water quality, pollution, diabetes, unequal funding for education, plus ongoing child and welfare systems that don’t honour Indigenous culture.

What can Non-Indigenous people do

Write your politicians and demand action on clean potable water (basic human right) for all Indigenous communities, land claims justice, economic justice, food sustainability, social enterprises on reserve and for Urban Indigenous populations, outcomes purchasing to help non-profits address important social and economic issues, end police brutality and racism, supports for Indigenous parents to keep children at home and re-unite families. Read and support the recommendations of the TRC. Contact all levels of government to ask them why they haven’t fulfilled all the recommendations.

Form or join an Allies or Affinity group to talk about racism and heal from Collective Shame. Ask for help from Klinic and/or anti-racism groups.

Join and/or support a group that seeks Reconciliation, Anti-Racism or Justice for Survivors of Residential Schools ex. Indian Residential Schools Survivor Society, Circles for Reconciliation, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, Social Planning Council, Land Back.

Join and/or support Indigenous groups that are acting and speaking out about community needs, human rights, Treaty Rights, the TRC, Indigenous language rights, the Environment and Climate Change: Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata, Main Street Project, Strength in the Circle, Indigenous Women’s Healing Centre, Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre.

Think about changing your bank or investments if they are supporting oil and gas or other destructive industries. Think about how investments are often tied to unhealthy business models or non-sustainable industries. Consider Assiniboine Credit Union, Peace Hills Trust or Me-dian Credit Union.

Take a course on Indigenous issues or read many of the best-selling books by Indigenous authors. Look at the McNally list of best-selling books to see that many Canadians are listening, reading and learning from Indigenous writers.

Research some Non-Indigenous Canadian change-makers who tried to chart a new course: Dr. Peter Bryce, Dr. Philip Katz, Joni Mitchell, Judy Rebick, Sunera Thobani, Charlie Angus, Emily Carr, Gord Downie, John Ralston Saul, Neil Young, David Suzuki, Sheelah McLean (founded Idle No More with 3 Indigenous women), Bruce Cockburn. There have been many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians who have been speaking out for decades about important ways to show love, compassion and healing for our country.

Fiona Muldrew is Sales Manager for Mazinaate Inc., and has been interested in the anti-racism movement for 3 decades.

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