Monique Gray Smith on Reconciliation, Recognition, and Relationship

Back in 2018, Monique Gray Smith helped The Federation launch our Reconciliation Book Club with a special guest appearance and reading at our June conference. Since then, she has been a friend of The Federation, donating books, offering training, and more. In early 2022, she sat down with our Indigenous Advisor, Riley McKenzie, to talk about reconciliation work, the promise of future generations, and the power of stories.

* This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Riley McKenzie: So, to start, what does reconciliation mean to you? As we have spoken about it has a very different meaning for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. But what does it mean for you or your family?

Monique Gray Smith: I have a very simple definition—making the invisible visible. And so I do that through the talks I give and the books I write and I often have the same response that others hear from people. They say: “I didn’t know that. Why didn’t I learn that?” And it’s because our governments, both federally and provincially, are very strategic. There are reasons why people didn’t learn those stories and those histories and so I put them in the books I write. Because when I was in school, I never saw anything. At all.

I got a copy of Bobby Lee Indian Rebel when I was in nursing school. I don’t even know where I got it from. Maybe it was in the Douglas College Library. But it was the first book I read, written by one of our people, where I saw myself on the page! I had never ever had that experience before and I was twenty-two!

So, I don’t want that for our children or our young people. And I don’t want that for non-Indigenous children either. It’s equally as important for them. I think that we have an opportunity right now to educate the hearts and the minds and the spirits of non-Indigenous children—whether they identify as White, Syrian, Hindu, or non-Indigenous. We have a chance to focus on the question: “How can we be together?” Because so far, the system has been focused on: “How do we keep them apart?”

Those kids are our future leaders. And I mean that literally, not metaphorically. They are going to be the bank managers and the teachers and the social workers and the nurses and the doctors. How we educate their hearts and minds and spirits and care for them today influences our future in huge ways.

That doesn’t mean that reconciliation isn’t equally as important for adults like those working with The Federation. If an Indigenous person or family comes in for service and somebody has implicit biases that they haven’t even begun to unpack, the family will feel that. Because of our intergenerational trauma, we have this hyper-vigilance, and we feel it.

If they come in and they feel an implicit bias or they feel judgment or they look around and they don’t see or feel themself anywhere in the building or with the staff? It’s pretty hard to get some good work done.

It’s a very long definition.

Riley: I appreciate it. Because I think sometimes we don’t take time to consider what reconciliation means to us. There was energy generated around The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the TRC Calls to Action but as individuals, we didn’t necessarily pay attention to what would happen next or think about what that meant for us. I know personally, it didn’t sink in for a number of years.

Monique: When we think about reconciliation, it calls on us to have our own definitions. The government gives us a definition of what they think it is, but for each and every one of us, it’s different.

I’m a mom, I have twins who are eighteen. My wife and I have been married for over twenty-eight years. She is my greatest joy without any question. And my sister lives here in Victoria and is working within the Ministry of Children and Family Development as an ambassador for reconciliation in her own way. And somebody might say: “Well how can you work in the Ministry Of Children and Family Development as an Indigenous woman whose mother was removed at birth and call that work reconciliation work?” But we all have our own journeys and understandings.

I believe it should be about us moving toward a new and more equitable relationship—our families, our communities, this place we call Canada. But it’s not upon me to judge what it means for you or how it looks for someone else. I think an important aspect of this work is that we’re all on these individual journeys but hopefully moving together.

Riley: So what do you see an ideal future looking like? We have this work that needs to get done. What do you see things looking like down the road?

Monique: Well, I think we’re far away from any sort of ideal yet. I think this generation that’s actually in school, that’s who will start to make real change. When you and I are sixty-five or seventy, that’s when we’ll see it. Because I don’t think that there is enough will yet to do the change that is actually required. I think it will be these young people that will do that change. I think we’re laying down some of the paths for them and laying down some of the medicine for them to pick up along the way when they get tired, but we’re not the ones that are gonna do the real work.

I think we’re raising different citizens—a generation that will actually make the big changes, that will have the courage to say: “No, actually. We’re not kicking Jody Wilson-Raybould out. We’re actually gonna bring her in even more.” That gives me hope.

The only place that it’s being talked about every single day is in the schools. We can still do our work; I’m not saying we have to stop. We still have to do our part. And those working in the Federation, in this sector, with our families, they have really beautiful work to do on this journey, because they’re helping to heal.

Riley: So when we talk about making changes what do you identify as what folks need to change? Oftentimes, we hear people say: “I don’t know what to do.” And it can seem so overwhelming, especially when you look at systemic issues. But from your perspective, what are some of the concrete actual pieces that folks could do?

Monique: I think they can be reading Indigenous authors, listening to Indigenous podcasts, and also reading and exploring Indigenous joy. In literature right now, there’s so much that takes us to the heavy trauma—which is the truth for sure, but it doesn’t capture everything. That’s not all of who we are.

We are joyous, humble, vibrant, funny, gracious, and sharing people. And the stories don’t show all of that yet. I really encourage people to explore the joy. I think educating their own heart and mind and spirit is a really important step. I think that can be done in a collective, like a book club, for example, but I think sometimes it can also be done alone.

Because sometimes the truths and the insights people have are like: “Oh my god, I said that” or “I did that” or “I thought that.” Even if it was 40 years ago. So we may need the space to process our own actions and be active on our own personal journey of reconciliation.

I think organizations can do book clubs, they can do online courses, they can have speakers come in, they can have lunches where they reflect. They can do all kinds of things. But it needs to happen on a regular basis and it can’t be a thing that gets cancelled. It needs to be a priority. These things—like the acknowledging of territory—shouldn’t be a check-box, they should be practices that are embedded into the culture of an organization.

I also think that people can write to their MPs, they can write to their MLAs. They actually read those letters. You can say things like: “If you’re actually doing UNDRIP, why are we logging old-growth forests?” or “If you’re actually doing UNDRIP, why are all the foster parents in the province not having some kind of really healthy vibrant education about engaging Indigenous children and families?”

Riley: So sometimes it’s our own work. Sometimes it’s collective work. But with each, there will be barriers and things we get stuck on. So how can people in this sector support each other around learning the truth of our collective history and moving down that road of reconciliation?

Monique: As recently as three years ago, when I was doing work around the early years, there was a lot of divisiveness because of funding. The kind of, “Oh, the Indigenous population is getting more money again.” And I think what people aren’t realizing is that actually has to happen. If we are going to have a civil society down the road, there needs to be an investment that equalizes the historic inequity. And right now, we’re so far from that.

There have to be these investments. But at the same time, people forget that, as the saying goes, “when the tide comes in all of the boats float.” So what that means is that if all those children or families at the Friendship Centres or at Hulitan are getting some extra services right now, in ten or fifteen years, we as a society will all be better off. So people should stop questioning some of those decisions and support them instead.

The other piece is giving up control. For so long the mentality has been: “Oh, we gotta control it.” But no, actually you don’t. That’s a very colonial and paternalistic perspective that assumes we, as Indigenous people, still don’t know how to take care of ourselves. But we had been doing that very well for a long period of time before settlers came along. We were very good at the collective raising of a family.

Riley: So I also wanted to chat about your book Speaking Our Truth. It’s a wonderful book for supporting and guiding people through our history and understanding the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and imagining the future non-Indigenous and settler relations in this country. Why do you think that that book, in particular, is necessary? And why do you think people don’t know some of this history?

Monique: Well, I think it’s only one of many books that are necessary. And I think people don’t know because the government didn’t want us to know. It’s been very strategic—what was put in schools in our generation and previous generations. I remember my son Jackson in grade six, asking the teacher, like, why are we learning about Egypt for the third year? Why aren’t we learning about the Lekwungen-speaking peoples? He got sent to the principal’s office.

The curriculum was very strategically designed to dismiss us and to dismiss history. I graduated in 1986. The residential schools and day schools were still operating. I think that’s why people didn’t know—because the government didn’t want us to know.

And I think the book resonates with people because I really wanted it to feel like I was having a conversation with them. It’s a book of invitation rather than a to-do. I wanted to say: “Come on, let’s go on this journey and learn together.” And there were pieces of history that I didn’t know, that I learned about as I was writing. I really did go on a journey.

And somewhere in there, one of those stories of survivors or the young people will resonate with you. There are so many stories within that book that there is something for everyone. Maybe that’s why it’s still doing so well all these years later.

Riley: Did you find you had to tailor those stories for a younger audience? You did target younger readers. Did you have to modify things in any way?

Monique: No. But because it was marketed for nine to sixteen-year-olds, we did keep that in mind for sure. And I do for all my books. Like in Tilly and Tilly and the Crazy Eights I don’t go into the details of trauma. It’s not my style anyway. There are lots of other books that do that.

One thing that did come up when we were doing the very final edits was the history chapter. Specifically, how to talk about St. Anne’s and the electric chair. We felt that it had to be in there because it hadn’t been anywhere before. But we weren’t sure how to frame that for a nine-year-old or even a sixteen-year-old whose temperament is very tender and empathic— even an eighty-year-old who is empathic. How do we include it so they can read it and not get traumatized? We spent a whole month going back and forth on that chapter.

I actually quit writing that book twice. I called my editor and I was like: “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” It was so painful, trying to do all that research and bring all that truth. Some of the stories are incredibly heavy. But that’s why we need the stories

There’s a beautiful podcast by Ryan McMahon called ‘Red Man Laughing’ and in there he has an hour where he has Murray Sinclair doing a keynote in Ontario somewhere. And he tells this story about walking into a school and there was this couple in front of him and they were holding hands and each of them had their cane in the other hand, wobbling into the hall. And then when they went into circle, they sat side by side and they were still holding hands. And she started to speak first and she said: “You know, we went to school here.”

And she had worked in the kitchen and he was the runner. And so he would come into the kitchen and they started to fall in love. But after a couple of years the nuns found out and they were separated. She was sent to the Yukon and he was sent somewhere in Ontario I think. And back then there was no way for them to find each other.

They both ended up having families. And when her husband died, she decided to move back to Mission. And eventually, she lived in a care home. And one day, there was somebody new coming in because somebody had passed at the table where she sat. So her table had this empty seat. And then he came in. After all those years. And then she said: “You know, we’ve been together ever since. And we’re married now. My only regret is that we didn’t have children together.” And then he pipes up and says: “Yeah but it doesn’t stop us from trying!”

So these are the stories that we also have to be telling. Love stories, friendships, families rebuilt, childhood friends reunited.

Riley: What’s that experience like when you go to schools and you talk to kids about things like residential schools? What’s that experience like compared to talking to people like me?

Monique: I don’t do a lot of sessions with the kids. I do more sessions with the educators. Because that, for me, is where the sphere of influence is. If you can change the heart and mind of an educator and how they impart the truth, then you’ve just impacted at least thirty kids. If they are teaching grade nine social studies, you’ve impacted about two hundred and fifty kids just by how many they have in their classes throughout the year.

But when I do work with the kids, I have to be so grounded because their questions are beautiful. They are often thinking way beyond what we may expect. I went to this one school to talk about Speaking Our Truth and this one young man in grade seven asked: “What do you think is the intersectionality between reconciliation and the LGBTQ2 movement that’s unfolding right now?” Those are the questions I get!

The teenagers and young people, they have some of the most poignant questions. Maybe we just don’t give them credit for thinking that deep at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. We may assume that they don’t think about these larger systemic issues that adults do but that’s not the case.

And they have these really interesting conversations among themselves. But I think, unfortunately, the education system needs to open up the door to these different vantage points. That’s why I say we need to educate the educators. That will open the door. One of the very first illustrations in Speaking Our Truth is that circle. It’s about being willing to have difficult conversations with care and compassion. But the educator has to set up the class for that safety.

Otherwise, those difficult conversations are not safe—for Indigenous kids or even for other non-Indigenous students who are coming to grips with these things. In class, they may ask: “How come my parents didn’t tell me this stuff?” But then they go and try to have a conversation with their parents who are like: “What are you talking about?”

So when I do talk with kids, that’s a piece I talk about.  “Some of you might not feel safe having this conversation at your dinner table tonight or tomorrow. So where are the safe places for you to talk about this when you need to?” Because for some kids, home is not safe either. That’s a really good conversation to have with kids. “Where does it feel safe to have those conversations?”

And I think it’s the same for The Federation and those working within Federation member organizations. Because there might be people who don’t actually believe in reconciliation. So how do we then have those conversations as an organization? How can we talk about our values and ways of moving forward—these difficult conversations—while making sure that our organization is a safe place to have those conversations?

Riley: So what do you think has changed or hasn’t changed since you published Speaking Your Truth?

Monique: I think that there is more awareness in our society. And especially in our province’s education system. But Alberta wants to actually remove everything about the truth from their curriculum. So we take a few steps forward and a couple of steps backward. But I think that  there are more people who want to keep moving forward. I really do believe that. And I think there are more people who understand that we can’t rely on the government to move things forward. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the government.

I once interviewed Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and she said: “We can’t wait for the government. It’s not gonna happen if we wait for the government. It’s about all of us as people, collectively finding a way.”

I think there are more and more people who have started their journey. For me, that’s really exciting. I think that is a big change from when the book first came out. I really do wish I could say the federal government has made significant changes. But the one change that makes me hopeful is the agreements between the provinces and the feds around childcare.

Riley: What do you see as the barriers for folks as they keep going down that path of reconciliation? When does it get hard? And then what are some things that might reduce or remove those barriers and help people move forward in a spirit of reconciliation?

Monique: I think one thing that’s important is to not be or feel alone on this journey. We need to have those moments alone to think and reflect. But we need sounding boards and we need those places where we can hold each other up. We need to be there for each other on the days when the tears just flow.

If people think they can go on this journey alone, their journey is gonna be very short-lived. Because it’s really hard. We need to be together on this journey.

The other one is for people to be writing letters—especially if their temperament is: “I want to do something.” The federal government is still taking the children to court. How much work does Dr. Cindy Blackstock have to do? There are a lot of things people can do to demand policy change. Write letters, get engaged, don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions when there are forums that are available.

Riley: Great. Okay. What is a story or a lesson that isn’t in your books that you would want people to hear?

Monique: Well, this is sort of in Tilley and the Crazy Eights, but the fact that love is medicine. And that as individuals I think we need a lot of that medicine right now.

There is so much stress and trauma in our society at the moment. And as a result of the pandemic, Truth and Reconciliation have kind of been pushed to the side because we’ve been in survival mode and we’ve been in lockdown. So we can’t come together

But it’s the idea that love and the ability to connect will be the medicine that will show us the path forward. When my dad was sick a year ago, he had so many regrets. That was probably the hardest thing to witness. And so that’s the piece that’s not in many books. To use your dreams and your gifts—to use them for good. Don’t let them become regrets. I think we have that responsibility. They’ve been given to us and we have to share them. That’s the reciprocal relationship with the universe—to share those gifts in a good way. That hasn’t really been in any books yet. I have this thing on my desk that says: “Yes. Not yet.” And I think about that when there’s something that I really want to happen: “Yes, not yet!”

Riley: Nice. So before we finish, who are some of your favourite Indigenous authors? Who do you think deserves wider recognition? Who should we be reading?

Monique: Louise Bernice Halfe. In Saskatchewan, Paul Seesequasis is doing more of a portrait project right now. Carly Baker is another Indigenous woman who has a few things out. I think she’s a beautiful writer. Lisa Bird-Wilson. Francine Cunningham as well. These are Indigenous women who don’t have a breadth of work yet, but their work is really beautiful.

Richard Van Camp. His stories are so incredible.  Joshua Whitehead and Billy-Ray Belcourt and Tracey Lindberg. Tracey Lindberg and George Littlechild have a book coming out. It’s gonna blow all of our minds. She wrote the story and he did the illustration.

Riley: It’s been so wonderful chatting with you. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with us, Monique?

Monique: I think when we look at reconciliation, upholding the dignity and the stories and the lived experiences of Indigenous women and those who identify as women and two-spirited, is really important in this journey of reconciliation. With the government, provincial and federal, most of the voices are still men, because of the Indian Act. But we have so much to learn from our women about caring for the land, about caring for the language, about caring for the water, caring for children. That’s why I’m always so mindful about promoting Indigenous women and their writing.

It’s our place. I think even Indigenous men in the community often defer to the women, to the matriarchs, unless they’ve been incredibly colonized. And I know a number who are. But I have also seen men stand up and say: “We need to be paying attention to the women. Women need to take the leadership role in these discussions because we can’t. We don’t hold that energy of healing and of family and community. It’s the women who bring that forward.”

Riley: Thank you, Monique.

Monique: Well thank you, Riley, for this visit. It was my pleasure.