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Issue 138

Artefact: Apology Dice
by Clement Yeh

On the floor are three oversized cedar dice resting on a colourful blanket surrounded by people. The smooth, polished edges of each die invite touch. You feel the weight, perhaps lighter than you expected. Breathe the faint cedar aroma. Feel the grooves that define letters, words. The first die reads “I am,“ “We are“ and “They are,“ each repeated on two sides. The second die reads “fairly,“ “somewhat,“ “deeply,“ “so,“ “really“ and “not.“ Five sides of the third die read “sorry,“ and “tired of this“ on the sixth side.

A moderator explains that the dice will be rolled in sequence, and the participant will then read the words aloud as they come up. The third die completes the sentence and expresses an apology, or lack thereof. There is tension. Does the roll express how the player feels, or not? The game generates discussion about attitudes towards the Canadian government’s Official Apology (June 11, 2008) for its role in Indian Residential Schools. The dice may read: “I am so sorry,“ “We are not sorry,“ or “They are tired of this.“ The participant reflects aloud on the statement. Who is apologizing? Is it the individual, the Canadian public, the government, or the churches that ran the residential schools? What are they sorry for? How sincere are these apologies? How do we move towards conciliation? As players express their feelings on the apology, others are encouraged to join the discussion, contribute similar or conflicting opinions, and perhaps suggest personal and collective ways to move forward.

Is Apology Dice a game? I’m still not sure. Games combine pleasure with tension. Apology Dice creates tension and a nervous sort of pleasure as participants share private thoughts and feelings, try things out, express themselves without having to be an authority. No one “wins“ Apology Dice.

David Garneau (Métis) and I wanted, through a creative means, to generate informal conversations about everyone’s implication in the aggressive assimilation of Indigenous people, colonization, and the nature and limits of apology. I was personally moved to explore my understanding of the complexity of racism. As a young Chinese kid growing up in Calgary, I was ignorant about Indigenous people. I met my first “Indian“ classmate in Grade 6, and I’m pretty sure the first thing I asked him was, “Do you live in a teepee?“ My friends burst out laughing at me, and in retrospect I’m glad they knew better.

In high school Social Studies, we were taught that Plains Indian tribes such as the Blackfoot followed the buffalo herds, surrounded them with horses and ran them off cliffs. They used every part of the animal in creating housing, clothing, tools, crafts and ceremonial items. I don’t recall being told that there are 634 distinct First Nations in Northern Turtle Island, and that they are separate from Métis and Inuit Peoples. I don’t recall anything being said about what happened after European contact. Alliances were made between settlers and Indigenous peoples, treaties were signed and broken. Leaders such as John A. MacDonald concluded that the “Indian“ adult’s way of life and values were so oppositional to “Canadian“ ones that they could not be assimilated into broader society. However, children could be “saved“ if they were forcibly separated from their families, community and language. This is why the Residential Schools were created: to “kill the Indian in the child.“ In the prevailing climate, many members of the public and politicians of the time genuinely thought they were doing the right thing.

“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.“

- John A. Macdonald, 1879

Most reading this article now know this. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know this six years ago until friends and academic colleagues, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, helped fill in the gaps. I’ve since pursued my own research. I’m still meeting adults that have never heard of Indian Residential Schools. Some of them have an extremely, shall we say, narrow understanding of where the problems arose and why things still are the way they are. In the face of teen suicides and boil-water advisories on reserves, and an ever-growing body count of murders, it can be baffling and deeply frustrating to realize how much work there still is to do. How do we close a gap within education and understanding that stretches across both geographical boundaries and generations, especially when people are actively working to perpetuate these gaps? Perhaps we do it one person at a time—starting with ourselves.

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