White Girl Listening : Beginnings

by Sandra Vander Shaaf

This is part one of a series about finding my way into meaningful engagement with the process of truth and reconciliation in Canada.

It is not an unfamiliar feeling, this disorientation, this unsettling sense of loss that hollows me out and leaves me in a heap. Something I thought I knew is not at all what I thought it was and my perspective can no longer be trusted. I can no longer be trusted. This time it has been more gradual but it is no less disorienting. Broken trust cuts deep and recovery seems impossible when the grief is flowing bloodred and there is no easy solution, no easy way to heal.

I lost my family once. Now, I’ve lost my home, my country.

Heroes have become villains, truths have become lies. Everything is exactly as it was and nothing will ever be the same. I cannot go back to seeing things as they were and I do not know the way forward.

A decade ago, over the course of a summer, a heartbreaking cascade of unveiled secrets revealed a multi-generational history of abuse in my extended family. Relatives I thought I knew became strangers to me. Threads of trust, and love, and common history became illusions. It was as if my life in this family—my whole life, over forty years—were a lie. I lost it all. At least I wanted to.

The problem was that the abusers in the family—and those that knowingly turned a blind eye to the abuse—were not only evil. They were the same people who cared for my parents in a time of need, the ones who worked hard to contribute to their communities, the ones that grew corn and rhubarb and pole beans, brought casseroles to shut-ins, mowed their neighbour’s lawn. I wanted to reject them completely as monsters. I knew it was more complicated than that.

I had long loved this quote by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn but had never imagined it would apply so perfectly to my family life:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

This is how I lost my family.

And how I keep my family.

This is the challenge I stumble through in grief and agony as I hate, and love, and try to figure out how to hate well, and how to love well, and how to live my way into the the uncomfortable truths of good and evil. I try to keep humility and grace and hope close at all times. My anger still runs hot. My grief still undoes me.

I lost my homeland more gradually. I was oblivious to Canada’s dark past for most of my life, too. The path of awareness probably started most definitively in the 1990s when assorted leaders offered public apologies for systematic wrong-doing in the Indian residential school system. Then there was the class action suit against the government and the resulting Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2006. Then five years of excruciating truths revealed through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 2008 and 2012. By the time I walked the four kilometre route of Vancouver’s Walk for Reconciliation in the fall of 2013, I was well on the way to doubting everything I’d learned about Canada’s history. It was a powerful experience, that walk. I committed then to learning more and finding a way to contribute meaningfully to reconciliation. I had no idea then what that might look like, how much was at stake, how much grief and anger would rise up in me as I heard the story of “my home and native land” from the perspective of the Indigenous peoples of this place.

The seeds of awareness sprouted, took root, and cracked me open. I have been undone. I am a settler unsettled. The stories of the “discovery” of Canada, the stories of pioneers fighting against all odds to settle the land—these stories ring hollow now. Even my own family’s stories of post-WWII immigrant challenges and triumphs have lost their shimmer, mixed as they are, now, with the older, deeper stories of this land and her people. Once again, heroes have become villains, truths have become lies. Everything is exactly as it was and nothing will ever be the same. I cannot go back to seeing things as they were and I do not know the way forward.

Yes, there are a million things to love about Canada. This is the country of universal healthcare, marriage equality, the Great Lakes, Chris Hadfield, and the CBC. We were on the beaches of Normandy to liberate Europe from the Nazis and we have a long, long history of peacekeeping around the world.



Yes, and Canada has a very, very dark history, and the once-upon-a-time colonial practices of systemic abuse and racism are still manifest today in the policies and attitudes that undermine the health, safety, education, culture, and dignity of the true founding peoples of the land we call Canada. How do I hold these truths together? Canada’s good and Canada’s evil. How do we move forward in truth and reconciliation?

A few weeks ago, I came across a poem by Terry Leblanc (Mi’kmaq) called Awtiget (a clear path) and this phrase jumped out at me:

The trail we must take lies both ahead and behind,
and uncertainty doubtless will hang like a veil,
Yet hope compels us to journey ahead, for onward to generations, we must travel.

Here I am, under this veil of uncertainty. This is where I lost my homeland, and where I hope to find it again. It’s a shimmering in-between place, shimmering with tears and questions and a thin but determined hope that if I look with new eyes and listen with new ears I might come to a new understanding. I seek awtiget, the clear path, where I can put one foot in front of the other and embody everyday truth and reconciliation.

My anger still runs hot. My grief still undoes me. But here I am, white girl listening.

What’s next?


John 2017-07-07 - 11:02 pm

Write on white girl, write on.

Lois Boxill 2017-07-08 - 2:50 pm

Thank you Sandra for laying yourself bare. May we take courage from your example.

Ruth 2017-07-08 - 3:50 pm

Omg! Sandra this is profoundly beautiful! I can really relate to all these dimensions of shimmering pain and disillusionment

Melody 2017-07-08 - 8:15 pm

I eagerly await more reflections from you my friend!

Mary-Jo 2017-07-09 - 11:02 am

Beautifully written , thank you.

Sandra Quatell 2017-07-09 - 1:01 pm

I am also Sandra a name given to me by the amazing lady how adopted me from Haida Gwaii when I was 5 and a half months old. Raised in Vancouver B.C. lived with first generation Dutch family until my mother married a first generation Norwegian man who also had two older children by a native woman from Haida Gwaii. There my mother and father brought us up like Europeans living in a wonderful country that their parents immigrated to and loved. Our mother always told us children of our Native heritage however ignorant as she was regarding the history of the Native people and the Canadian government she always made us feel proud. From that my adopted siblings and I went on blissfully living our lives as Non-Native people and rarely saw Native people with the exception of the people who lived on East Hastings, the slum area of Vancouver. We were not singled out as Native by our peers or families either so we never thought about being Native at all even into our adult life.

I met my first Native friend in my thirties. I told him that I was Native and he laughed so why are you telling me I know. It was the beginning of my education into who I was. I met his whole family the first Native home I was welcomed in as a native person my ignorance of the significance of that was soon realized when I met his brother a staunch fighter for Native Rights in Canada. His brother’s name was Mo and he gave me a book about a Residental School Survivor. I too felt the full impact of Colonism I too was devastated. I too lost my bearings and I will never be the same. I have not come to terms with all of my feelings yet however my mother is in a home now and still my supporter at 93 her time is ending, perhaps when she has died i may spend the time to find out what the future holds for me as a Native person.

I married Mo and now live on the Campbell River Indian Reserve. I’m trying to get to know what it’s like to be native but so far only from someone else’s perspective.

Thank you so much for your article you put so eloquently what I feel but could not say.

Amanda 2017-09-10 - 4:36 am

You bless hearts, my heart, with your truthful words, White Girl. l.
Much love to you, Sandra.

Erika Koenig-Workman 2018-08-24 - 7:07 am


This post illumines so much for me as I think about how long we have known each other, how much we have shared and experienced together in community over the years. Not least of which is my youngest son Kagen Asher and you his G-dmother. I remember vividly the day we became friends all those years ago, in community. You had short brassy red hair and were tall, I looked up at you, which I mostly do with people who are taller than five foot three inches!

I’m very grateful for Whitegirl Listening, the first post. I understand, outrage, anger, grief, vexing white hot emotions that persist when recalling abuses whether experienced personally or in extended family. Your words bring a certain dignity to every person who has been shattered by physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. I do not want to admit that it is a unspoken ‘norm’ in familial relationships, yet we are living in the time of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’. It demands a candidness of us regarding our lives both private and public relationships, a full disclosure of equatorial admissions, essentially, confession with a capital C.

Presently, we are in this period of human history in North America we are witnessing the toppling of memorials and idols to ‘important men’. The removal of John A McDonald is a case in point, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/john-a-macdonald-statue-regina-vandalism-1.4795082.

It’s weird I think, how at certain points in history, various people are memorialized. I end up thinking we make and give great importance to individuals for random reasons. Then if enough people are on board to support the idea, artists make items for the ‘Board of directors of such and such’ which then is placed before society to help them recall what a persons achievements are and why it’s important (to some) to remember.

I wonder if it’s all about the handling of money ‘to make it happen’, we see this all the time with public art. That being, that it is a few individuals who are trumpeting a particular part of a story. Then the few people make ‘it’ happen. The ‘it’ being an object that represents that person. Art making is all about bringing the invisible into the visible realm.

We must fell our own private idols and additionally public idols that misrepresent and tell lies about a person. Most importantly we must tell the truth before a reconciliation is thinkable and eventually actionable. You have told us the terrible truth. Aboriginal people are telling their nefandous truth and the Church is telling her abominable truth to the world.

Previously under a ‘cone of silence’ all of these poisons are nowerupting around us for a purpose. For healing and wholeness. There is no other way of living or loving. In order to go forward the laws of nature are followed since in a garden growing is the necessary routine.


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