When the remains of 215 children were found in Kamloops last year, news hit close to home for Jeff Halvorsen, a recent graduate with a doctorate from the UCalgary School of Social Work – he was born there – low and attended school on the traditional territory of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, the indigenous people of the region.
Halvorsen, having already read the Truth and Reconciliation summary, discussed the matter with his family. They decided to take small steps
“We thought, what could we do for reconciliation?” He recalls
At that time, the Calgary Board of Education had announced a name change to the old Langevin School. Petitioning for a similar course of action at his daughter Makena’s high school, Sir John A. MacDonald Junior High, made sense given Canada’s first prime minister’s role in expanding the residential school system and other racist policies, like the Chinese Head Tax.
Halvorsen had been involved with an anti-racism group led by Faculty of Social Work professors Dr. Regine King, PhD, and Dr. Liza Lorenzetti, PhD, where he first came into contact with Michelle Robinson, Sahtu Dene activist who had been a leader in the campaign to change the name of the Langevin school.
He asked for advice and one of his suggestions was for the student to lead the effort – Makena and his peers were more than happy to take matters into their own hands.
“Even judging him by the standards of the time, he was not a good person,” read a letter Makena sent to the CBE. “He was the advocate and supporter of PRO-slavery activists. A recent National Post article reported that “During his career, Macdonald would pursue such a draconian native policy that even his contemporaries would come to accuse him of going beyond pallor.”
Halvorsen says he is proud of his daughter for taking on a leadership role that has seen her spearhead initiatives such as an out-of-school arts action last May, as well as several media appearances to support the cause. Makena herself reports that her peers and teachers have all been respectful and supportive, regardless of their stance on the issue.
Feeling frustrated: Indigenous activist Michelle Robinson
That said, a member of Halvorsen’s Reconciliation Action Group is not very happy with the experience. Michelle Robinson says that with the issue of the name change having now moved on to what she sees as another superfluous committee, the experience has left her frustrated.
Although she cites structural racism embedded in bureaucracies as a source of divisiveness, she is equally discouraged by Canadian settlers who claim to be allies but are unwilling to go beyond surface engagements. For example, they will participate in performative land acknowledgments but are unwilling to engage in serious discussions about land return.
“People are interested in our trauma and our grief, but not in our solutions, and it’s demoralizing,” says Robinson, who hosts the Native Calgarian Podcast and a monthly Native-themed book club.
There are many ways to share the land and have equity, but structurally we choose not to.
Halvorsen, however, strives to do better, going so far as to structure his doctoral dissertation on the alliance of white men. With guidance from Robinson and an advisory committee of Indigenous, Black, and racialized men and women, he came to realize that while he must learn, he also had to let go of previously ingrained assumptions.
“I had been taught that a lot of these things like colonization, race, gender, all these things were about other people, not me as a white man,” he says, recounting his previous degree in international development as well. than its missions abroad. he undertook as a then practicing Christian.
Since he embarked on a course of social work, he says he has tried to recognize his complicity in the colonial framework on which this country is based.
“I thought about my family’s story, coming from Norway, Germany and Scotland to settle and farm,” he says. “I thought, ‘Okay, we were just a family on a boat coming to farmland’ and I missed the truth about who owned that land and what happened… the genocide that happened to clear this land for my family.
“Adding these things that weren’t part of my family history really changed my whole perspective. Now I have the responsibility of reconciliation.”