Catherine Desbarats (Chair, Department of History and Classical Studies)

I often share with history students some of Primo Levi’s words, which I loosely remember as follows: “we lie whenever we speak for another.”  These are stark and sombre words, borne of twentieth-century horrors. I read them long ago, in a French translation of the original Italian. As historian, I find them important to think and teach with. They come to mind again on this first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, when we reflect on the legacies of Residential Schools and of colonialism more generally. There has been so much “speaking for” Indigenous peoples, past and present, in languages not their own. Speaking for, speaking over. Silencing.  

There can be no reconciliation, surely, without listening.  

If you are in Montreal, I ask you to go visit the new permanent exhibit at the McCord-Stewart Museum, right across Sherbrooke Street from our University: Indigenous Voices of Today: Knowledge, Trauma, Resilience. For a month or so, Innu Jean Saint-Onge sat with some 16,000 Indigenous objects in the Museum’s collection. He chose those that acted upon him, or somehow stayed with him. This is what you will see. Nearly a hundred things, made by skilled hands, from plants, hides, minerals; their vibrancy rekindled. Huron-Wendat curator Élisabeth Kaine spent nearly a decade gathering Indigenous testimonies throughout the territory we now call Québec. “Nos connaissances ont été outrageusement enlevées de l’histoire de l’humanité,” she has said, taking terse stock of loss. She has used her anger productively and committed to amplifying the words that she recorded. You will read or hear these words, as you walk through the exhibit space. Listen, watch, and amplify in turn. Look at the land you inhabit in a new way. 

Catherine Desbarats 


Department of History and Classical Studies, McGill University. 

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