Reconciliation as an everyday practice

November 9, 2023

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In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its First Report which documented the experiences of more than 6,000 witnesses who survived living in residential schools as students. Eight years later, it is important to assess what progress we've made and what work remains for us to do in our journey towards Reconciliation.

For this Big Thinking Podcast episode, our host Gabriel Miller is joined by Crystal Fraser, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, to discuss Reconciliation as an everyday practice.


About the guest 

Headshot of Crystal Fraser | Photo de Crystal Fraser


Crystal Fraser is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Arts – History, Classics, & Religion Department at the University of Alberta. Dr. Fraser is Gwichyà Gwich'in and originally from Inuvik and Dachan Choo Gę̀hnjik, Northwest Territories.

Her PhD research focused on the history of student experiences at Indian Residential Schools in the Inuvik Region between 1959 and 1996. 
Her work makes a strong contribution to how scholars engage with Indigenous histories during the second half of the twentieth century, and how northern Canada was unique in relation to the rest of the settler nation.



Crystal Fraser in the news 

  • Indigenous Historians say more than an apology is needed from the Catholic Church - CTV News
  • Finding and Honouring Unmarked Burials of Indigenous People in Alberta Multi-year 'monumental' effort: experts - Edmonton Journal
  • Let Indigenous people speak for themselves in Canadian History - Cabin Radio
  • Reflections on the practice of reconciliation - guest blog post for the Federation

[00:00:04] Gabriel Miller: Welcome to the Big Thinking Podcast where we talk to leading researchers about their work on some of the most important and interesting questions of our time. I’m Gabriel Miller and I’m the President and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

[00:00:20] In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its Final Report which documented the experiences of more than 6,000 witnesses who survived living in residential schools as students. Eight years later, it is important to assess what progress we've made and what work remains for us to do in our journey towards Reconciliation.

[00:00:42] Today I am joined by Crystal Fraser, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, to discuss Reconciliation as an everyday practice.

[00:00:58] Gabriel Miller: So, we're closing in on eight years since the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in December, the Yellow Head Institute released its annual assessment of progress on the calls to action. And I wanna just read one small bit of what they said: “While acknowledging there had been some progress”, they went on to state, “we conclude that a tremendous amount more needs to be done, especially in areas like health, education, child welfare, justice, and Indigenous languages if Canada hopes to take real responsibility for the genocidal legacy of the residential school system.”

[00:01:49] What are your thoughts and observations about progress on the TRC’s call to action seven and a half years after they were first issued?

[00:02:02] Crystal Fraser: The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was really a landmark achievement.

[00:02:11] They interviewed and collected the testimony of thousands of survivors. They held Canada accountable for genocide, for historical injustices. They also compensated survivors. And so a part of my thoughts is that the further we get away from the TRC in time, my fear is that, nationally, we are going to forget about it.

[00:02:43] We are going to minimize it, we are not going to place a lot of priority on the calls to action. And as the Yellowhead Institute reports, we have seen that happen year after year, that it is a shocking, shockingly embarrassing number of calls to action that have actually been achieved.  

[00:03:04] I think a couple things, I think a part of it is that the calls to action were designed to engage government, to engage organizations like churches, very high-level organizations that don't necessarily resonate with everyday Canadians. Now it's a little bit tricky because it, it is the humans, it is the Canadians who work in these organizations, in these structures.

[00:03:35] But the calls to action didn't really tell us how to implement these things, what needed to change, but also how we needed to change as a society. And so I think that it is a little bit to be expected that we have struggled with this. Additionally, you look at other watershed reports such as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the calls to Justice also remain forgotten or on hold or simply not implemented.

[00:04:11] I also know that if there is public desire, if there is public appetite for these kinds of systemic changes, such as what we saw in the second half of 2021 with a conversation around unmarked graves, because we were able to implement a few more of the 94 calls to action after the announcement in Kamloops May 27th, 2021, that if we set our mind to these things, we can do it and the fact that we aren't or that we are refusing to or prioritizing other things, I'm not sure what that says about us.

[00:04:53] Gabriel Miller: Something you've just said really stands out to me. The TRC calls to action - as important, as historic as they are, as essential as they are to making progress - didn't tell us how to change as people. And you mentioned the dialogue that's emerged around unmarked graves since 2021.  

[00:05:19] What are your observations about how that has affected the conversation in the country? Do you feel like people are wrestling with, on an individual level, what has emerged since 2021?

[00:05:37] Crystal Fraser: It's difficult to say because I've come to know these conversations as blips in time. That is what I call them. We have events that happen that really shake the foundation of the settler state of Canada. One of those would be the acquittal of Gerald Stanley.

[00:06:03] One of those would be the conversation around unmarked graves. One of those would be those poor Indigenous women in a landfill outside of Winnipeg. We have these very momentous conversations that happen and it is all over the news, it is in media. We incorporate it into our classrooms and universities.

[00:06:33] Indigenous scholars write blogs about it. It seems as though it is a very robust conversation, but it is this little blip in time. And then we move on to other things, or rather, Canada as a nation moves on to other things. And so, what I have observed is something like unmarked graves, that was the conversation that needed to happen.

[00:06:59] If we look back to the TRC report, they had a whole volume on unmarked burials. They had asked the Harper government for additional funding in order to research that area, and they were denied. And so, it's not as though these conversations have not been happening, it is the amount of social power that is given to them.

[00:07:23] And particularly June, 2021, you know what I observed, not only as a scholar of residential schools, but also as an intergenerational survivor is outward shock from Canadians. The question of how can, how could this have happened? Who are we? What do we do with this? Some people who thought about it deeply asked themselves: what was my family’s involvement in residential schools?

[00:07:54] And that shock and outrage lasted for maybe a month or so. Then it was Canada Day and we had conversations around the Canadian Historical Association saying that this in fact was genocide. Historians have not done a great job at calling it what it is, but we also had cancel Canada Day hashtags.

[00:08:16] I spoke in the media about if your neighbor is having a funeral and they are in mourning, you do not throw a party sort of thing. Right? And now what we're seeing is an all-time high of residential school denialism.  

[00:08:32] Gabriel Miller: Let's talk a little bit about denialism. What's the essence of it to you? For someone who might not be following this conversation as closely as you or doesn't have your expertise, what should they know about what denialism is?

[00:08:48] Crystal Fraser: Daniel Heath Justice and Sean Carlton wrote a really great short piece in The Conversation outlining some key points of how to define it and examples of it. For me, residential school denialism does not mean that you don't believe residential schools existed. We have historical evidence and proof and documentation that residential schools existed.

[00:09:13] It is more of the denial of survivor knowledge, so disagreeing with personal lived experiences of the system. It is also making certain justifications; some white children were at residential schools and therefore could have not been that bad. Other things like well, tuberculosis in the 1920s was rampant in many communities, and therefore we should minimize its impacts and harms at residential schools.

[00:09:48] So those are just a couple of examples. Uh, quite honestly, when we engage in this kind of rhetoric, it's not necessarily because you don't believe in Indigenous knowledge, or you don't believe in the TRC or survivors' experiences. It's mostly just folks who are misinformed.

[00:10:08] Now on the other hand there is this key group of individuals in Canada who, basically deny that unmarked graves exist. They have said that we are fabricating evidence in order to get more money or some kind of a payout, and so I think there are various degrees of denialism, but at the end of the day, they're all hurtful and harmful and pretty much based on ignorance.  

[00:10:40] Gabriel Miller: When you think about your own journey, as an Indigenous woman, as someone who did graduate studies, finished her PhD, developed real expertise, particularly in the experience of residential school survivors, who has been at the center of discussions around these issues, initiatives to try and address them.

[00:11:01] I would imagine you are encountering acts all the time that on some level there's part of you that doesn't want to believe them. And I'm wondering what's that been like and how do you make sure that you're able to keep doing your work as a historian and as a researcher in the face of truths that are ones we'd really on some level rather not have to discover about in, in your case, about what happened to the communities and the peoples that you've come from, but also about this country and about your fellow citizens.  

[00:11:41] Crystal Fraser: I've sometimes talked about my very first trip to the archives. This was at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, and I was researching the residential schools in Aklavik, so Immaculate Conception and All Saints Indian residential schools during the 1920s and 30s.

[00:12:03] And the very first records that I found were about the financial statements related to the money needed to dig graves and to bury people. Now, granted, those records were related to the greater mission that ran the residential school.

[00:12:29] But you know, that was my very first experience in 2012, I think, where that really hit me. And so, I had always known that residential schools were terrible. My mother and my grandmother are survivors, and we don't talk a lot about it in our family. I think that's pretty common for Indigenous families is, we don't talk about it.

[00:12:56] And additionally, there is this stereotype that like if you're Indigenous, clearly you have this knowledge or you know about residential schools and that's just not the case. And so, when I started my PhD, I was looking for answers. I wanted to know why I couldn't speak my language, I wanted to know why there is substance use in my family.

[00:13:17] I wanted to know why incarceration rates were higher for Indigenous peoples. And at that time, I was mentored that “historians should not start with present day questions, our interests are in the past”, but for me it was not that way. Death is always front and center when you're doing this sort of work.

[00:13:40] Additionally, when you work with survivors, and I've heard other people say this, that you hear a really disturbing or a graphic story and that impacts you, that touches you in a way that, that you can't necessarily undo. But there's always something worse around the corner. There's always that next story that you're gonna remember a little bit more.

[00:14:11] And so that is just a reality of researching genocide in Canada. And as we do this work, particularly for Indigenous scholars, who are living out the dire consequences of colonialism, there is a whole extra level of self-care and also professional boundaries that we have to set up in order to make sure that we can keep going.

[00:14:48] There is also, you had mentioned denialism, so, hate mail, experiencing lateral violence in your discipline from other scholars or historians. And then also just looking after yourself on a personal level and making sure you take that vacation time, making sure you interact with survivors that like, it can never just be surface level archives, facts, statistics, that there always has to be this lived element there.

[00:15:11] For some Indigenous researchers, it's going to be about ceremony, so having extra demands and responsibilities on our plate that not every other scholar grapples with.

[00:15:27] Gabriel Miller: Any concept of progress, any hope of coming to terms with the past in this regard and beginning to address the terrible legacy of that past seems to depend on our ability to document the truth and for people to learn.

[00:15:48] And so I want to turn to your experience as a researcher and as a teacher, as an instructor in the university. And I wanna start with your experience teaching in two different parts of the university in Native Studies and in History. I was just wondering if you could share with us some of your observations about the differences and similarities of teaching in those two disciplines right now.

[00:16:15] And the students who are in those classrooms, the kind of conversations, and then maybe we can talk a little bit about what does that mean about where we're at in terms of educating ourselves.  

[00:16:29] Crystal Fraser: Absolutely. I think that at the faculty of Native Studies, you have a majority Indigenous student base, and so that brings different expectations into the classroom.

[00:16:40] It also, quite honestly brings a level of safety and comfort to me as the instructor. And so, I'll give you a couple of examples. I had said a majority Indigenous student base, and when I teach in Native studies, these are mostly Native studies majors, what I call like Indigenous history 101 that I have to start with in, in Canadian history courses, they get it.

[00:17:10] They often, this knowledge has been lifelong for them. Some of them live on reserve, some of them are dealing with missing relatives, some of them struggle with addiction. And so, they have spent their lives looking for answers, but also being guided by community and by elders and by their culture. So, it's just a different starting point that I can walk into the classroom and start a conversation and just trust that they will get it right, whereas in, in history, not a bad thing, but mostly settler students.

[00:17:51] And so we need to spend a little bit more time on, on background on why this is important and really why Canadian history should be defined by colonialism and by genocide. It's not this dark chapter that some historians have called it. Additionally in Native Studies, it is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged to have a syllabus that has majority Indigenous scholars on the reading list.

[00:18:24] I'm not sure that would really be possible at this point for Indigenous historians. Like, there are a growing number of us now, but given our other obligations with community, the early stage of our careers, sometimes we have not widely published yet, so that would be another difference. And then finally, actually, some of the critiques I get from the students in Native Studies is that they desperately want an on the land component.

[00:18:56] So this past semester I taught Indigenous knowledge and oral traditions, and they were constantly asking, are we going to go outside for this? How can we talk around a fire? How can we be on the land? Are there going to be any field trips like you're talking about Indigenous knowledge, which is defined by land, right?

[00:19:19] Versus in history courses that, that desire, that connection, even though land is also central to settler colonialism is never brought up in in the same way. The expectation is not there.  

[00:19:35] Gabriel Miller: Let’s talk about the work that needs to be done, and let's start by talking a little bit about 150 acts of reconciliation. What is that idea and what's important for people to know about it?  

[00:19:53] Crystal Fraser: So, 150 acts of reconciliation, co-authored with Sarah Komarnisky was a product of Canada 150. And so, like many ideas, you get angry enough about something and that turns into productivity. And it started with The Canada 150 campaign that I was hearing on radio, the advertisements for literally band-aids at Shoppers Drug Mart that had Canada 150 stamped on them, and I thought the uncritical celebration of 150 years of colonialism.

[00:20:26] I asked myself, what do I wish that Canadians knew or that could do in order to help me undermine these conversations? And so, I just started making a list and then brought Sarah onto the project she is settler Canadian with Ukrainian heritage, and we had thought, what if we could make a list of 150 ideas that everyday Canadians, the same Canadians who work in government and at churches and who are teachers.

[00:20:55] What if we made a list that resonated with everyday people and that you could do with your kids and that you could think about at the gym or Costco? And at that time, we were also starting to see the 94 calls to action as fairly technical.

[00:21:10] And so we published this list. And its number one is “learn the land acknowledgement” so the centrality of land. Number 150 is “don't stop here, keep on adding to this list.” And over the past few years, we've seen 150 acts win awards, we have worked with Little Salmon First Nation artist, Lianne Charlie, on posters.

[00:21:36] Those posters fund a student scholarship at U of A for Indigenous students. We've seen the list on active history, get over 125,000 unique visits. Within a month of publishing that list, somebody was able to get Indigenous flags flying outside a city hall in a town in Ontario. So, we've seen very concrete outcomes in society, in the classroom, in, in the lives of settlers and Indigenous peoples, and we're just so grateful that work continues to resonate.

[00:22:15] Gabriel Miller: Thinking about, some of the things you've talked about, your concern that with every year the power of what was in the TRC report is at risk of fading from our minds, that there's a constant temptation to, uh, experience this in blips and the story of the day or the week or the month comes and goes, and then the larger project fades from our minds.

[00:22:42] But also as someone who's so directly involved in addressing the concerns and in documenting the truth of what happened in residential schools, and particularly now around unmarked graves. If you're seated beside the Prime Minister on a flight across the country or maybe beside the leader of the official opposition, and they ask “Dr. Fraser, what do we need to do? What are we doing wrong? What do we need to change?” What do you think you'd want to say to them?  

[00:23:19] Crystal Fraser: Wow, that's a big question. From what I understand, the modern version of the Department of Indian Affairs has this huge backlog on treaty cases and land claims and conversations around modern treaties, which is what we’re calling them now.

[00:23:38] So the centrality of land and working with First Nation governments and organizations, and the Metis Nation and Inuit communities, I think that's all really important. So, number one, the centrality of land and the conversations that we can have around that, including resource exploitation, et cetera.

[00:24:00] Secondly would be this notorious Indian Act that it continues to legislate Indigenous people today. It was passed in 1876 as a means of consolidating all legislation on Indian People, and we're still stuck with it today. My, my grandmother married a white man from England, she lost her Indian status and with that you lose the right to be buried in your community, you lose the right to all kinds of cultural implications.

[00:24:34] That was later reversed, and my mom was able to get her status back, so was I but there are still gender inequalities in the Indian Act. My daughter cannot be officially recognized as an Indigenous person in Canada, even though my own government does recognize her.

[00:24:52] So I mean, the Indian Act is responsible for a lot of different things, but those would be the two things I think is land and the Indian Act, and under this central framework of decolonization is not a metaphor.

[00:25:07] Gabriel Miller: When it comes to the question specifically around the work that is ahead around the children who've gone missing, who went missing from residential schools, thousands of them, you've talked about, it seems to me, talked about a project that is much deeper and probably longer lasting than a lot of decisions, decision makers, a lot of politicians realize.

[00:25:32] Why is it important that work be done with the kind of time and attention to, to detail and the patience it's gonna require to do it, what, why do you feel like that's so important?  

[00:25:46] Crystal Fraser: We are working with Indigenous communities with survivors who have known for decades that their children, their siblings, their relatives, have been missing or died while institutionalized.

[00:26:00] And this was a part of the frustration in 2021, not only with the media splashy headlines of discovery. We already knew this, just nobody was listening, but certain funding opportunities at various levels of governments that this needs to be spent by a certain day and the process doesn't work that way.

[00:26:21] Sure, we can apply for the funding, but if we wanna do this work in the right way, in a good way, that will allow researchers the time to work in archives. I've estimated that for one residential school, a whole archival scan could take three to five years. And then working with other sorts of experts if you're looking to do ground searches or water searches, that could be forensic pathologists, it could be medical officers, it could be policing bodies, but additionally, this work has to be guided by community, and so this also means engaging in ceremony.

[00:27:01] This means working with individuals who can have culturally informed processes of healing, cultural competence around trauma. This also means doing that work in a timely way, because every day we're losing survivors. And these three components, I think, starting with Indigenous knowledge and then moving into archival searches, and then finally ground or physical searches that can take many decades.

[00:27:38] Not everyone wants to hear it, and some communities have felt so pressured that they have started with the ground searches first. So, they can have access to these resources. And we also have other communities that two years later, they are nowhere near ready to apply for funding yet because they are still talking with their people.

[00:27:58] They are still trying to determine, number one, is this a process that we wanna engage in and for what? And number two, how do we go about doing it? What kind of objectives are we wanting here? Do we just want to learn the names? Of some people who went missing or died, do we wanna know the circumstances around their deaths?

[00:28:19] Do we want to engage in a memorial or remembering process, or do we actually want to physically remove remains from the ground and work with DNA samples? And so, I think there's still a lot of these discussions happening, and really the key is patience.

[00:28:42] I think about Murray Sinclair, former commissioner of the TRC, he made a reference that it took us several generations to get into this mess, and that's how long we need to try and get out of it.

[00:29:02] Gabriel Miller: Thank you for listening to the Big Thinking Podcast and to my guest, Crystal Fraser, Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta. I also want to thank our friends and partners at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, whose support helps make this podcast possible.

[00:29:17] Finally, thank you to CitedMedia for their support in producing the Big Thinking Podcast. Let us know what you thought of this episode and share your feedback with us on social media. Follow us for more episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcast and Google Podcast. À la prochaine!

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