Geraldine Shingoose wasn’t quite sure what to think of the e-mail that landed in her inbox from the Canadian embassy in Sweden.
For years, Ms. Shingoose had spoken to school groups, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) and even Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price about the abuses she suffered in Canada’s state-funded residential school system.
Now that same state wanted to press her into diplomatic service, requesting her presence in, of all places, Stockholm.
“I was pretty shocked to receive an invite like that,” said the Saulteaux grandmother, who is from the Tootinaowaziibeeng Treaty Reserve in Manitoba and now lives in Winnipeg.
But the request intrigued her.
Sweden was embarking on a truth commission of its own to investigate the treatment of its Indigenous people, the Sami, and the Canadian embassy had offered to assist. It wanted to bring in Ms. Shingoose to talk about the TRC.
She had never been to Europe. And the opportunity to help fellow Indigenous people appealed to her.
“I accepted,” she said. “To be invited on a trip like this by Canada to represent our experience in that way – that is a touching act of reconciliation.”
It’s just the latest example of how Nordic countries are leaning on Canadian expertise to investigate modern and historical offences against the Sami, whose traditional territory spans Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia.
For years, Sami leaders lobbied for a truth and reconciliation process similar to the commission held in Canada between 2008 and 2015.
In 2016, the Sami Parliament held roundtable discussions with Paulette Regan, the former director of research for the TRC, and Wilton Littlechild, one of the TRC’s three commissioners.
Sweden’s government relented in 2020. The 12-member commission is now conducting hearings and will deliver a final report by the end of 2025.
Finland and Norway have also launched commissions and have studied the Canadian example closely.
The Swedish mandate is broader than Canada’s TRC, which focused on residential schools. Sweden’s commission will examine Sami history and policy dating back to the 1500s.
The Sami were uprooted from their traditional lands, sent to inferior schools, forced to attend church and barred from speaking their own language or practising their own religion.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sweden conducted studies on the Sami that involved excavating Sami graves and measuring skulls for racial distinctions.
“At the time, all the Swedish political parties were in favour of this research,” said Marie Persson Njajta, chair of the Sami Parliament steering committee on truth and reconciliation. “Those views of the Sami people still live on today. We still have to live by laws founded in that era of racial biology.”
Above all else, Ms. Njajta hopes the commission can educate non-Indigenous Swedes about the country’s colonial past.
“In school today in Sweden, we learn more about Indigenous peoples abroad than the Sami people,” she said.
While Sweden is following Canada’s lead in a number of areas, its emphasis is more on truth than reconciliation. The terms of reference call it a “truth commission,” whose main priority is to research and disseminate information about Sweden’s treatment of the Sami, though a duty to “promote reconciliation” does appear further down on the document.
“I commended them on taking reconciliation out of the title,” Ms. Shingoose said. “We talk about reconciliation in this country, yet our people are living in conditions with no drinking water. Families live in overcrowded homes. We can’t have reconciliation as long as that continues.”
Upon her arrival in Sweden, she met with the Stockholm Sami Association and the chair of the Truth Commission. They exchanged gifts and she offered a piece of advice: The process has to be Indigenous-led, with Indigenous psychological support available for everyone involved.
“I told my story and heard from them how children were taken away from families, how sacred items were removed and banned,” Ms. Shingoose said. “Our ancestors had such similar experiences.”
Finally, she recounted her residential school experiences to Canadian embassy staff. Some were moved to tears by her story of arriving at the Muscowequan Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan at age five and receiving blows to the head that caused permanent hearing damage.
“It was incredibly difficult to hear,” said Jason LaTorre, Canada’s ambassador to Sweden. “But I found the experience with Geraldine to be something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. She’s one of the bravest, strongest people I’ve ever met.”
(c) 2023, The Globe and Mail