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The Power of a Plaque

Cindy Blackstock, a Canadian activist and advocate for First Nations children

Commissioner Marie Wilson
A small crowd of people stood beneath an ominous grey sky, hugging their coats close, and holding tight to elegant green Beechwood Cemetery umbrellas, bracing against sudden gusts of wind that caught and swirled golden yellow leaves in the air. A CBC camera person in a warm, red jacket, recorded an event as significant as it was small; a correction of a slice of Canadian history in the form of a plaque.

It was Sunday, November 1, the beginning of a month associated with remembrance and Paul and I had just driven five hours to Ottawa to witness a ceremony that shone truth on a part of history that was remembered until now, through the blindfold of prejudice.

Ever since September and an earlier trip to Ottawa, when we had lunch with Cindy Blackstock; a Canadian born Gitxsan activist for child welfare, and the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society; I had been captivated by Cindy's revelations about two Canadian historical figures: Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, and Duncan Campbell Scott

Over a generously shared hour and a half, Cindy educated and inspired me. I highly recommend you clicking on a link HERE to hear Cindy tell the short version of what I heard then, in an 8 minute interview by Robyn Bresnahan on the CBC radio show this week, Ottawa Morning. Cindy is a powerful teacher. CBC website notes: He was a famous poet and he was partly responsible for Canada's residential school system:  Duncan Campbell Scott left a complicated legacy. We hear why both sides are now part of a plaque near his grave in Beechwood Cemetery.

That day in September, when we learned of the ceremony being planned, we knew that we would be back for it in November!

In preparation, for the last month I had been reading A National Crime, by John S. Milloy, cited as "one of the 100 most important Canadian books ever written," by Literary Review of Canada, and one of two books recommended by Cindy. I learned about the residential school system and the role played by the man at the centre of Sunday's ceremony, Duncan Campbell Scott. The book is a heartbreaking read. The other book Cindy recommended is also compelling: Conversations with a Dead Man: The legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott by Mark Abley.

After a few words, a prayer and the unveiling of the new plaque, we retreated from the fall weather to the comfort of the beautiful Beechwood reception halls and chapel, for refreshments and a powerful and poignant ceremony of Truth Telling, Learning and Reconciliation that included talks by author John S. Milloy, Professor Steven Artelle (University of Ottawa,) Mohawk activist and artist, Ellen Gabriel, and Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner, Marie Wilson. as well as Beechwood COO Roger Boult, Cindy Blackstock, Ed Bianchi of Kairos Canada and Rev. James Murray of Dominion Chalmers United Church.

Mohawk activist and artist, Ellen Gabriel
It was Ellen Gabriel who used the words, "the power of a plaque," in her talk on Educating the Past as a Vision for the Future. I thought of the significance of correcting the public record of a man's life. It was done not to demonize him, but to humanize him. His failings are those that humanity as a whole is frequently guilty of. As individuals too, we are just as prone to self deception, cognitive dissonance and blindness in our thoughts and actions. I mostly live somewhere between the two men in this story, and one choice at a time determines the legacy I will leave behind. Ellen talked about moving beyond shame and guilt, to taking actions that correct wrongs, as was being done that day. 

The afternoon ended with a walk through Beechwood Cemetery, to "visit" Dr, Peter Henderson Bryce, the man who raised the alarm on conditions in Canada's residential schools, an alarm that fell on Duncan Campbell Scott's deaf ears. At his grave, there is a plaque, unveiled in June, which honours his work. 

By the time we walked to the grave of Dr. Bryce, the cemetery was appropriately aglow in a symphony of golden leaves. It was a time to celebrate truth finally told.  

It had been a very good day.


This makes me think of legacy. Especially for those who claim to be in the business of helping. I so want to be the person in the second plaque, not the first. I so want to be aware of the power that I have, that we collectively have, to influence the care of people who are made vulnerable because of their status as disabled people. I so want to be witness to positive change while recognizing and bearing witness, also, to the terrible wrongs that were done.
Belinda Burston said…
Dear Dave, there is no doubt of your great legacy, already secure. I just found this Canada Writes article about you:

Your legacy on the public record is significant, but I am just one of the many with whom you have a personal legacy. You are one of the best friends a person could ever be blessed enough to be have. You stand with friends in their tough times with heartfelt compassion and prayers; I know. You encourage generously and not only share your platform with the unknown, but you step into the shadows to allow them to shine. If legacies of the heart are as important as public legacies, you have both.

I share with you in your heartfelt hope to be a witness and bear witness!
Wow, Belinda, I don't know what to say! Thanks. From the heart, thanks.
Marilyn said…
This was SO interesting, Belinda! Thank you for writing about it.
Belinda Burston said…
Marilyn, thank you for reading! I'm so glad it was interesting to you. It is a sad part of Canadian history and seven generations of children were impacted by residential schools. There is so much healing needed, but God is at work in amazing ways. I have more to tell!

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