New project takes a community-based approach to reconciliation  

Vanessa Watts sitting on a log bench outside a building, smiling.

Vanessa Watts is leading research to explore what reconciliation looks like outside of state-informed processes, helping to create forward-looking, intergenerational connections between Inuit and Haudenosaunee communities.

Vanessa Watts is exploring what reconciliation looks like outside of state-informed processes.

Watts, an assistant professor of Sociology and the Paul R. MacPherson Chair in Indigenous Studies, is the principal investigator for the research project “The challenge of reconciliation: what we can learn from the stories of the Hamilton Mountain Sanitorium and the Mohawk Institute Residential School”, funded by the Future of Canada Project.

Here, she discusses her project’s community-based approach to furthering reconciliation and its potential impact on how we view Truth and Reconciliation going forward.

Can you tell me about your project and the role that place and community will play in your work?

This project comes out of the notion of place. Specifically in Hamilton, there was the Hamilton Mountain Sanitorium that brought Indigenous tuberculosis patients from the north in the 1950s and ’60s; and about 30 minutes away in Brantford was the “mush hole” or the Mohawk Institute Residential School — the first and longest-running residential school in Canada, which shut down in the 1970s.

Both of these state institutions removed Indigenous people from various territories under the guise of salvation and aid, but in reality, they were interested in removing people from their homes and their cultures.

Not only were people removed from their communities when they were brought to these institutions, they were not able to make connections with one another in these new places.

Through this project, my collaborators and I will assist these affected communities in reconnecting with each other and will explore what it looks like when we think about this reconnection in a forward-looking, intergenerational way.

For example, what does it look like when Haudenosaunee and Inuit peoples who have been impacted by these institutions come together and create new relationships on their own terms?

The Future of Canada Project has allowed us to begin some archival research and some community relationship building that will build toward a four-to-five-year project where these re-connections can happen.

What do you hope will happen as a result of bringing affected Inuit and Haudenosaunee communities together?

The sharing of stories and being able to connect outside of state processes and policies is so important.

When Inuit peoples were brought to Haudenosaunee and Mississauga territories where the Hamilton Mountain Sanitorium was located, there were assimilationist policies that got in the way of what may have naturally transpired when two Indigenous groups would meet without this kind of colonial intervention. For example, there might have been a welcoming, an exchange of knowledge, long-lasting relationships could have been built between groups.

When I think of facilitating opportunities for these communities to create new relationships now, I think of the possibilities—friendships can happen, the sharing of stories. This is healing in a different way.

Reconciliation is often framed as reconciliation with the state, the government, the church, etcetera. What we are asking through this work and through bringing these communities together is, what would it mean to conciliate between Inuit and Haudenosaunee communities? I’m really interested to see what the relationship building will look like.

What do you think reconciliation could look like in Canada and how might your project contribute to this?

A really important aspect of reconciliation is relationships between Indigenous communities—not because we’ve wronged each other and need to reconcile, but because we have been prevented from connecting in particular ways because of statist policies.

Reconciliation isn’t just about forgiving the government or getting over what the government did. It’s also about understanding that the actions of the government prevented natural intergroup connections between nations and societies that have always been alive. Government policies interrupted these connections.

This project is a way of reimagining what could have been and placing these ideas into a more forward-looking picture.

When we think about intergenerational impacts, we might think of the negative impacts experienced by children and grandchildren of survivors of the Indian Residential School System, for example.

What we are asking through this project is what could intergenerational impacts look like if we create a legacy that is more strength-based? This isn’t about ignoring trauma or not tending to trauma — trauma is a part of this story — but it’s also about looking to reorient things and build intergenerational impacts that are based in strength.  

While this project aims to work outside of state processes around reconciliation, do you see this work intersecting with the reconciliation work happening within our governments, for example?

I don’t see our work as separate. In the Calls to Action created by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was a body funded by the government, there is the call for the repatriation and opening up of archival records, which is part of the work we are doing within this project. So, in a way, we are responding to one of the calls from the government.

This project is about building relationships outside of state processes, but it’s also about listening to the Calls to Action that speak to child welfare, health policies, things like repatriation of material culture, open access to archives, and enriching high school curriculum.

How will you be bringing Inuit and Haudenosaunee communities together? 

The long-term goal of this project is to provide an opportunity for youth in Inuit communities and local GTHA urban Indigenous youth — including youth from Six Nations, Mississaugas of the Credit, and perhaps students from the Indigenous Studies program at McMaster — to connect and do an exchange of sorts.

We want to create an intergenerational impact that’s focused on youth where there can be a cultural exchange born out of the sophisticated, complex, nuanced and Indigenous-specific ideas and worldviews of these two communities.

We’re also thinking about a future symposium between former patients of the Hamilton Mountain Sanatorium and survivors of the Mohawk Residential School where they can come together and share stories through digital or oral narratives.

Having those communities own their digital stories, or co-own them, and have them accessible in terms of research and curriculum would be so valuable.

Can you tell me about your recent trip to Iqaluit?

This April, my team and I travelled to Iqaluit to meet with community stakeholder groups, which was an exciting milestone for the project.

Our liaison at Nunavut Arctic College facilitated meaningful opportunities to engage with Inuit organizations and we discussed the possibilities of a developing the cultural exchange between Inuit and Haudenosaunee youth, which I mentioned earlier.

While in Iqaluit, we hosted a community meeting to talk about the project and shared some images of sculptures made by Inuit tuberculosis patients at the Hamilton Mountain Sanitorium in the 1950s.

The Art Gallery of Hamilton has a collection of these sculptures, many of which were donated by private collectors, and because the making of this art was presented to patients as occupational therapy, many of the pieces do not have properly attributed artist names attached to them. It was meaningful to share images of the work with community members who may have connections to the artists.

We also had the opportunity to talk to the community about accessing currently restricted archives at Hamilton Health Sciences, which contain photographs and sound recordings from the Hamilton Mountain Sanitorium.

We would like to share these archival materials with those whose relatives and community members were impacted by the sanitorium so that they are able to learn more about what took place during this time.

It is particularly important to consider a form of repatriation of these materials as well. Indigenous-led organizations having not only access, but ownership of historical materials pertaining to their own nations and communities is crucial when contemplating what data sovereignty can and should look like in an era of reconciliation.

Can you see this approach to reconciliation being applied to other communities across the country?

I think it will be applicable because sanatoriums and Indian Hospitals ran right across Canada, as did Indian Residential Schools. We know these institutions created all kinds of relational barriers.

I hope our work will be inspirational to other communities, nations and societies.

How do you think this approach to reconciliation will impact the future of Canada?

There are hundreds of years of legacy that currently impact Indigenous peoples. Tuberculosis is still an issue, child welfare is still a huge issue, especially in First Nations communities. Institutions such as sanitoriums, Indian Hospitals and Indian Residential Schools — there is a long history and a lot of lasting damage.

As we talk about looking forward and creating new sorts of relationships, it is important to realize that reconciliation needs to be ongoing.

Reconciliation isn’t going to be achieved at the end of this project or during the term of our current government or when the next one is elected. The work of reconciliation exists outside of that. Government imperatives can be helpful in setting the stage for work to happen, but governments are finite.

The work of this project will contribute to Indigenous ideas of interrelationships that preexisted government intervention and will outlast government intervention in what I hope will be a very long time into the future of Canada.

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