Focusing on the poor would have benefited all of the affinity groups the Vermont Truth and Reconciliation Commission says it wants to help
by Kolby LaMarche
As the Community News Service noted on Friday, Vermont’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission held its inaugural meeting.
The Commission, established under Act 128 of 2022, consists of three commissioners, each of whom is slated to receive a substantial $80,000 for their invaluable contributions.
Commissioners Mia Schultz, Melody Walker Mackin, and Patrick Standen are now in charge. Their task is to investigate how Vermont statutes have impacted, specifically, people with disabilities, Black people, Indigenous people, other people of color, people of French Canadian heritage, and other populations and communities at the discretion of Commissioners. Try saying that in one breath.
I have a couple of concerns.
Contention I: The Commission’s approach is divisive, which will cause harm and exclusion to other affected populations, despite the presence of a clear, unifying alternative.
In my recent piece, I examined how divisions arise when factors like race, gender, and sexual orientation are used to cleave the public. I also proposed a vision wherein the economically struggling of America unite behind a banner of policy that transcends contemporary divisions.
The most useful approach the legislature could have taken when setting up the commission would have been a focus on Vermont’s economic struggling, which would automatically include all the populations that state law ordered and more.
But I’m not really the first to say this.
In 1996, South Africa launched their own Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This Commission’s primary goal was to illuminate the atrocities of apartheid.
In 1998, Speak Out on Poverty criticized the South African government’s TRC for not primarily addressing poverty, alongside apartheid. Speak Out would then organize independent and productive hearings to capture the voices of those affected by poverty.
In her study Speak Out on Poverty: Hearing, Inaudibility, and Citizenship in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Nicky Rousseau observed:
In a time of transition, Speak Out spoke from within and against the noise of the TRC. It aimed to make poverty and inequality the nation’s priority rather than reconciliation, or at least to challenge notions of reconciliation that did not have inequity and poverty at its center.
Regrettably, Speak Out’s initiative struggled to capture much public attention, as a portion of the public was more drawn to the explosive emotions of shame and racial animosity.
But apparently, a similar fate awaits anyone in Vermont who proposes a shift in the Commission’s focus. They have a well-defined agenda, and they appear determined to shield it from critique.
Contention II: The Commission – and other state government entities – should promptly halt their mistreatment of Chief Rick O’Bomsawin and individuals within the Odanak First Nation.
In March of this year, Chief O’Bomsawin, alongside others from the Odanak First Nation, convened before the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA).
Both the Odanak First Nation and Wôlinak First Nation, situated in Canada, contend that state-recognized tribes in Vermont have not provided genealogical or historical evidence to support their claims of Abenaki heritage.
In their corner, a review of a petition for federal recognition, conducted by the U.S. Department of Interior, found “less than 1%” of the individuals cited in the [Vermont] application demonstrated Abenaki ancestry.”
Commissioners of the VCNAA, feeling very hurt by the sentiments of Odanka citizens, went as far as attempting to expunge perfectly reasonable public comments from the record.
[VCNAA] Commissioner Doug Bent asked that the February comments of Isaak Lachapelle-Gill, an Odanak citizen, be removed from that meeting’s official record. Lachapelle-Gill had reminded the room of Odanak and Wôlinak’s active opposition to Vermont’s state-recognized tribes.
The people of the Odanka First Nation never received any substantive reply to their concerns aired at the VCNAA meeting. Rather, Vermont officials have only reinforced their position.
More recently, Chief O’Bomsawin learned about the launch of VT’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission, which is statutorily obligated to focus on Native Americans, had never contacted him or any member of the Odanka government, despite their previous requests.
In an interview with Vermont Public, Chief O’Bomsawin said:
The biggest disappointment is, we had no information until all of a sudden, here’s the people that are going to be on this…when it came to issues of ours, we definitely wanted to be involved, and we definitely wanted to be notified and contacted.
When the Vermont TRC’s findings do come out, it will not proactively benefit anyone. I think it will do quite the opposite. And their report would probably be better left in the back end of a horse.
Nonetheless, our glorious leaders in Montpelier will take their work as gospel, even as they continue to neglect the Odanak people and bolster divisive notions of ‘justice.
Well, if they were to delve into the state’s actions regarding poverty, they’d have to face the music. Barre? Motel voucher program? Does that sound familiar?
Burning Sky is dedicated to providing critique and commentary on the issues of the day from an unapologetic perspective, fueling change in the heart of Vermont. Authored by Kolby LaMarche every Saturday.