TRC and VPL and Me: The journey we share and take alone


“Seven generations, seven generations” is a mantra I say to myself whenever I come across something new about Canada’s fractured history with Indigenous peoples. It seems like every day I learn another story about families split apart, dispossession of lands, or people hurt by institutional assimilation. I’m internalizing the concept “Seven generations of pain takes seven generations to heal,” that I first heard from Justice Murray Sinclair.

Acknowledging that there is no immediate solution to the legacy of Indian Residential Schools has freed me to continue in my personal journey toward reconciliation. I feel like it began four years ago when I volunteered at the All Nations Canoe Gathering and Reconciliation Walk in September of 2013, but perhaps it began much earlier as my past informs my truth about the assimilation of Indigenous peoples just as it does for all Canadians.

I grew up in White Rock, British Columbia, just blocks away from the Semiahmoo Reserve. It was the 1970s. I did not “see” any children from Semiahmoo at my school and I did not know any Indigenous families. The only physical evidence of the Semiahmoo community was a wooden bridge crossing the Little Campbell estuary to the reserve and a vandalized cemetery within our local park.

When I moved to Vancouver in the 1990s and attended anthropology classes at UBC, I studied the language and culture of the Gitxsan peoples who live near the Skeena River in Northern BC. I learned phoneme charts and read textbooks.  I never met a Gitxsan person and, like my childhood in White Rock, my only knowledge of Vancouver’s urban aboriginal community was the glimpses I caught of individuals near the steps of the Carnegie Centre as my bus rushed me along Hastings Street to UBC and back.

I later worked in the Dunbar neighbourhood of Vancouver, which meets Musqueam land on the North Arm of the Fraser River. The Musqueam residents did not appear at my library branch nor at the local supermarket. I heard through co-workers that the community preferred to use their own childcare centre for storytimes and shopped at other grocery stores. I wondered about the Musqueam people living so nearby and yet moving in other circles.  What kept us apart?

The 2013 All Canoe Gathering took place in my adopted neighbourhood on False Creek in Vancouver. It was my first experience working with people from the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh nations. Hundreds of people were at Vanier Point that September morning and I was struck by the patience and good nature of all the participants and I greatly respected the skill of the organizer as she negotiated the canoe placement and schedule of 110 distinct groups for the truth telling ceremony. I observed how each participating First Nations community joined in the event and yet emphasized their own identity, history, and stories throughout the day on the water. I began to understand that each Nation, each group, each canoe, and each individual needed to share their own truth to begin the process of reconciliation.

The journey continues…

The journey continues today as I join the Vancouver Public Library’s (VPL) Truth and Reconciliation Working Group (TRCWG) to present on our recent initiative: an online, Reconciliation “gathering space” for library staff.

I am so happy to be on this working group at this period in time. Processing generations of damage to Indigenous people in our country is indeed a seven generation process, but it was important to VPL to start now and I wanted to be part of that start.

In 2013, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued its Final Report containing 94 Calls to Action. The City of Vancouver responded with a report outlining 41 actions under 3 themes: Healthy Communities and Wellness; Achieving Indigenous Human Rights and Recognition; and Advancing Awareness, Knowledge, and Capacity. VPL contributed to the City of Vancouver’s response and then identified several items from the 94 TRC Calls to Action that the Library could act upon.

With the endorsement of the Library Board, a group was formed to coordinate the work. The TRCWG was formed in July 2016 consisting of librarians, library technicians, library assistants, shelvers, human resources consultants, Branch Heads, and managers. The group’s diverse composition was designed to bring people from across the library’s service areas to review the VPL Board approved response and get to work on seven unique actions to support reconciliation.

The group’s focus areas are:

TRC Recommendation #17: [To] enable residential school Survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the residential school system.  

TRC Recommendation #57: [To] provide education to public servants on the history of Indigenous peoples, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, Treaties, and Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal–Crown relations. 

TRC Recommendation #62: [To] make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Indigenous peoples historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade 12 students. 

TRC Recommendation #69: [To] ensure that [library] record holdings related to residential schools are accessible to the public.  Commit more resources to its public education materials and programming on residential schools.

TRC Recommendation #78: [To] assist communities to research and to produce histories of their own residential school experience and their involvement in truth, healing, and reconciliation.

At the first meeting of the TRCWG we watched a short film and then we talked, and talked, and talked: our chairperson wisely prioritized discussion in our first few meetings. We needed to sort out our feelings and our personal histories before we could sort out how to move ahead with our tasks in a mindful way. After our first meeting I researched my Semiahmoo neighbours and discovered that their community had shrunk, through disease and land dispossession, to only 25 people in 1971. This knowledge helped me put my memories of the empty houses on the Semiahmoo reserve and their abandoned gravestones into perspective.

Since July 2016 the TRCWG has met every 6 weeks. As we began to assign activities we realized that we needed Indigenous voices in our group. We put a call out to VPL staff that identified as Indigenous to join us. Next month, Metis and T’Sou-ke Nation colleagues will begin participating in work. VPL’s Aboriginal Storyteller in Residence, Jules Koostachin, has also expressed interest in attending a meeting and we are looking forward to hearing her perspective on our activities.

TRC in action

The work of the TRCWG has begun in earnest and we have completed a few concrete tasks that were set out eight months ago. I can already see that there are so many more activities to come as each action we take seems to open more learning opportunities and new goals. Once we started working on staff training to meet TRC #57 we realized the need for an internal hub for staff to talk, read, and share their learning with others, and so we started a TRC intranet space. When we started working on TRC #17, investigating a process to allow library patron records to reflect reclaimed names, we realized how important traditional character sets would be to our computer systems in the future. As we collaborated with librarians on the creation of new research guides on Indigenous Peoples and Residential Schools, further topics were suggested and now VPL has a guide on Murdered and Missing Women of the Downtown Eastside.

We also realized that to meet TRC #69 and to increase public access to information on residential schools, we needed to review subject headings for all materials indexed within VPL. Work has begun on reviewing our historical photograph database to bring more residential school images to light. Consultations with Indigenous stakeholders have resulted in the expansion of VPL’s Aboriginal Collection profile to include community created materials and changes to collection focus and terminology. These activities are just the start.

Last month, my TRC team mate and I stood at the front of a large staff meeting crowd of about 70 supervisors from across the VPL system. I saw clear signs of support and interest in what our group is doing as I explained our online TRC gathering page to the audience.  I was excited to share the resources the TRCWG have found and added to the site and I pointed out where library staff have already found our space on the intranet and have jumped in with their ideas and opinions on reconciliation.

I feel like in a short span of time, our small group has made some movement toward reconciliation. This is the beginning and I won’t be on this working group forever: our team decided at our first meeting that our Terms of Reference would not include a “term” of service.  All of this is okay with me, I am immensely grateful to be a member of this working group. By unpacking the TRC Calls to Action into actionable parts, however small, we are all gaining knowledge and “truth” about Canada’s relationship to Indigenous peoples and I am ready to spend a lifetime learning and doing more.

Anne Dodington is a Library Technician working in the Vancouver Public Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections. She is also a member of VPL’s Truth and Reconciliation working group.