According to the folks at Merriam Webster, the ones who produce one of the most popular dictionaries, the word of the year for 2008 is ‘bailout.’
Now that the New Year is upon us, it seems like a pretty reasonable choice given the financial turmoil of 2008. A lot of us could have used a bailout somewhere in the year that was.
It leads me to thinking about what word I would use to describe 2008. With the federal government’s apology for the residential school horror and the launch of the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission following that, it seemed like a pretty good year to be indigenous.
So the word ‘optimistic’ comes to mind. We’ve never heard a government apologize fully for anything that’s befallen us as aboriginal people and it was a high-water mark in our political history. It was our ‘yes we can’ moment and one a lot of us will cling to for a long time.
There were times when we never thought our pain would be recognized. Residential schools left a stain on the consciousness of Canada and without recognition of that fact there wasn’t much hope for healing to happen. It took a lot of doing on the part of a lot of people — both native and non-native — to get us all to the apology. When it came I cried. I know a lot of Canadians did.
See, the thing of it is, that it showed us all that we are irrevocably connected to each other. What harms one in this country, in this world, harms everyone. That’s a paraphrasing of an old Native teaching but it is remarkably apt here. Because it’s not just residential school survivors that need to heal from the legacy of abuse — it’s Canada.
Which brings us to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was struck soon after the apology and promptly fell flat on its face in a public display of too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Its job was to tour the country and allow the story of residential schools to be told. Those residential school survivors who wanted to tell their story are still voiceless while the commission sorts itself out. So it’s caused even more pain.
When the chief commissioner, Justice Harry LaForme, abruptly quit, it showed everyone that politics has no place in healing. The commission was struck as an independent body and it was never allowed to be that. Instead, it became a tool and a tool in the wrong hands is ineffective.
So the word ‘frustrating’ floats out of the ether. Sometimes it seems like Native people are locked into the Assembly of First Nations two-step, one step forward, and two steps back. We’re all supposed to keep on dancing while the band has left the stage. Seems no one informed National Chief Phil Fontaine that the phrase independent commission means just that. He’s so intent on carving his name into history via the residential school recovery process that it was nearly scuttled before it began.
But shortly after that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Talk about your definitive global message. He became the first person of African American persuasion to become president. Truth is, he didn’t need a lot of persuasion, and neither did the tide of voters that swept him into office. The huge gathering at Chicago’s Grant Park was hugely uplifting for anyone who has ever struggled for political identity.
For native people it was a sign that anyone can do anything when they believe in themselves. Here in Canada we’re a long way from electing a native prime minister but Obama showed us all that it’s possible. The process, so long maligned by native people, has within it the power to effect change. But it takes the individual to make it happen. It takes a vote. It takes working with the system instead of against it.
Barack Obama showed everyone that.
So the word ‘hopeful’ arrives. With all of the turmoil of 2008 it might seem like a airy-fairy word to attach to the year. There are a lot of people everywhere feeling the pinch from events of the last year. But an old Ojibway man once told me that hope is an anagram. It breaks down to Hang On, Pray Everyday.
The by product of that kind of action is faith and so maybe in the end, hopeful should be the defining word for 2008. Maybe it should be the defining word for any year. It could be. If we carry hope into a year and out the other end it becomes a hope-filled year — and nothing but good can come from that. Nothing but faith that we all will prosper. So I hope you have a Happy and prosperous New Year.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org