Learning and unlearning — for reconciliation

This week’s guest writer is Pam Peters-Pries, associate program director for MCC Canada.

March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  March 21 was chosen because on that day in 1960, police killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in Sharpeville, South Africa.  The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the day in 1966, calling on the international community to increase its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

We should celebrate the many steps, big and small, that have been taken to eliminate racial discrimination since then. The apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled. The American civil rights movement resulted in many policy changes prohibiting racial discrimination and segregation and protecting the rights of minorities.  In our own country, the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission acknowledged and urged action to address the long and tragic history of systemic discrimination against Indigenous peoples in what we now call Canada.

An International Day of Anything proclaimed by the United Nations can be an occasion for grand thoughts and actions – to look across the sweep of history and acknowledge change, or to address the highest ranks of power in our societies and demand change we yet wish to see.

But it should also be an occasion for us to look at small things, at the practical actions we can take in our everyday lives to contribute to a grand and global vision. This is a great day to think about what we can do to contribute to the ongoing work of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, reconciliation that has the potential to eliminate the discrimination faced daily by Indigenous peoples.

Senninger's Learning ModelAt an intercultural competence and anti-racism training I attended last year, I learned about Senninger’s Learning Zone Model. The model assumes that in order to learn, we have to venture out into the unknown. We need to move from our comfort zone, where things are familiar and where we don’t have to take risks, to our learning zone.

The learning zone is a place where we are stretched, pursue our curiosity, and make new discoveries. As we learn, we should aim to get close to – but not into – our panic zone.  In the panic zone, our learning is shut down by a sense of fear.

The TRC’s Calls to Action place tremendous emphasis on education – on learning. What many of us learned about Indigenous history and current realities in school or through the media is inaccurate and inadequate. And so this learning zone model is instructive for us.  Certainly, we need to get out of our comfort zones. We may find comfort in the stories of settlers coming to an “empty” land that was peacefully “surrendered” by Indigenous people to settlers through treaty-making. We may find comfort in the belief that settlers prospered through hard work and perseverance alone, not through privileges – such as access to land – granted to them at the expense of others.

As we work towards reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people—a task each citizen in this country carries every day and not just on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination— we need to move out of these familiar comfort zones and into our learning zones.

In our learning zones, we may discover that the history we learned hides from us the history of systemic displacement of and discrimination against Indigenous peoples in this country. We may discover that discrimination against Indigenous peoples is not a thing of the past, but continues today in the lack of access to clean drinking water in many Indigenous communities, under-funding of Indigenous education, and disproportionate representation of Indigenous children in foster care and of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

trc-march-2015

More than 7000 people joined the Walk for Reconciliation at the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. MCC photo/Alison Ralph

For some of us, venturing into our learning zones may mean heading very close to panic zones for a brief time, as a radical shake-up of long-held beliefs and perspectives may be needed for us to begin to see these things that have been hidden from us. But panic is not the goal, and is not a sustainable place. Learning is the goal.

So let’s be gentle but ready to dis-comfort each other.

The learning zone may be uncomfortable, but it may also be surprising and emboldening. It is a place we must explore if we are to unlearn the “comforting-to-some” myths and misperceptions that reinforce discrimination of Indigenous peoples. It is a place where we can learn the truth about Indigenous history, suffering, resilience and genius, and discover the grace and generosity inside ourselves that can feed the long work of reconciliation ahead .