SUNDRE — The mayor shared his thoughts on the sobering tone of this year’s Canada Day ceremony as the country reflects on the dark legacy of the former residential school system in light of recently discovered unmarked, mass graves of children, with more expected to be found as search efforts ramp up around the country.
“I feel deeply that I want to celebrate the country that I love so deeply,” Terry Leslie said when asked his thoughts about those who lament the near complete loss of their entire culture while others jubilantly party and set off celebratory fireworks.
“And yet, the somber side of that, is to recognize that with that freedom comes incredible responsibility to take action so that these tragedies that happened in the past can never happen again,” he said during a late June interview.
Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released in 2015 a report outlining 94 recommended calls to action, there has been a greater understanding about past tragedies and the recognition that more will likely be uncovered, he said.
“Personally, I’m shocked, as are so many people,” he said about the unmarked graves filled with children, many of whom died far away from their families in deplorable conditions that allowed diseases like tuberculosis to spread at far greater-than-average rates.
“Thoughts and prayers go out to all the families of those that have been discovered, (and) those who were taken during the scoop in the ’60s. We have to understand what took place.”
The provincial government recently announced $8 million in funding that groups can apply for to conduct searches on the grounds of former residential schools in Alberta.
Curriculum under public scrutiny
Asked how the provincial government’s calls for reconciliation can be considered sincere when the resoundingly rejected K-6 social studies curriculum was developed with feedback from Chris Champion, who has previously not only downplayed the residential school system but dismissed it entirely by labelling it a “bogus genocide story,” Leslie said.
“The curriculum is under scrutiny by the public right now," he said.
While himself not fully versed on the specific details of the curriculum, which critics including First Nations elders have called a Eurocentric narrative that largely glosses over Indigenous history, the mayor said educators with “the Alberta Teachers Association, through various school boards and school divisions, are making their feelings known about what they believe is appropriate and what isn’t appropriate.”
That backlash, he predicts, will continue to build momentum.
At the local level in schools, the curriculum “is of deep concern to teachers” who want “desperately to have the resources in place to provide (their students with) a balanced perspective” that uses past tragedies as teaching moments, he said.
“I’m speaking personally. As a former educator, I care and feel deeply about what my children and my grandchildren will take from this,” said the mayor, his voice cracking as he composed his thoughts.
“We need to be able to tell our children and grandchildren about (First Nations, Métis and Indigenous peoples), so that they understand and they watch for the intolerance and prejudice and the racism that raises its ugly head all around the world in every generation,” he said.
“And here, where we live, we need to do our part to stand up against it, and not to cast aside those tragedies in the past, but to respect them and be sure that we teach the next generations about those things.”
With only about 10 of the TRC commission’s recommended calls to action completed, and more on the way, the mayor feels recent headlines could reinvigorate that effort.
Recognize and respect history
“I think the mood across the country is reflected in the conversations that we’re having day-to-day. You and I are having this conversation right now because there is serious reflection taking place in our country about what has taken place through our history,” he said.
“People are — I hope — more aware of the diversity of people; they are more aware of the need to respect individuals for who they are and where they come from — their cultures, their history, their traditions. I hope that as a society, we are moving to a more inclusive, more accepting society that will not tolerate the systemic racism or the nastiness that goes on where people pick on or attack folks that are different."
So while the mayor celebrates Canada Day, he also encourages people to learn more about the residential school system to better understand the prejudice and racism that Indigenous people have endured for generations.
“And probably most importantly, to repatriate to those families their lost loved ones, to find a way to deal with these tragedies. And I won’t say ‘get over’ and I won’t even say ‘move through.’ I will say to recognize and respect how affected people were,” he said.
“Human beings should not have to deal with some of the things that Indigenous peoples have had to confront.”
Be an agent of change
Having grown up in southern Alberta with a proud family history including a father who served in the Korean conflict as well as a grandfather who fought in the First World War and recruited for the Second World War, Leslie said, “When I look at all the historical lessons for us as a nation to learn from, I don’t want us to ever take for granted the freedom that we have to express those opinions and to search for truth.”
It’s entirely possible to be proud about the positive aspects of one’s country, while at the same time seeking to learn from and atone for past mistakes, as well as challenging ourselves to improve as we look to the future, he said.
“We need to not be the bystander watching the bully, who just allows it to pass, but be the bystander that stands up and says, ‘I will be an agent of change',’” he said.
“Hopefully, we get better at those things with reflection and time and the effort to want to to continuously improve.”