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CBC radio host and producer Shelagh Rogers talked to Arthur during her stay at Trent University as the 2014 Jack Matthews Fellow.
The ease with which she intertwines stories with her personal accounts and precise facts in such an eloquent manner demonstrates how brilliant she is, and how lucky we were to have Rogers on our campus. I was so inspired by the interview that I decided to share it with you.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Ottawa and I love winter, so I’m happy to be here when there is so much winter going on. First thing I saw when I arrived at Trent was a sign saying,“Yes, we are still in this snowcopolis.”
I have been a broadcaster since 1974 – boy, that is a long time - and my field, for as long as I can remember, has been Canada. I am delighted to be here. I feel really lucky to be at the campus where my dear friend and mentor Peter Gzowski was the chancellor many years ago.
I have been at the CBC for a long time. It’s been 34 years. I host a radio program called “The Next Chapter” which is a show about Canadian books and writers, and it’s a lot of fun. I am still there because everyday is different. I sort of think that working on the radio is like this big buffet table, and if you really love something, you can go and take it, absorb it, and try to digest it; and then, the next day, you can try something completely different.
Radio is definitely one of your biggest passions. What aspects of it do you like the most?
I love the intimacy of radio. I love the fact that when you’re speaking into the microphone, you know you are going directly into someone’s brain. And one of the things that Peter Gzowski taught me was that, when you’re doing a program, you’re doing it for one person only, for one listener. There may be many thousands more, but you have to respect the intimacy of the radio, and so you always use the second person singular instead of plural. You do not say many of you or some of you, you say “you.” I remember really being hit by how right he was.
One day, when I was in the bathroom listening to the radio, someone came on the radio [that] morning and said, “Good morning everyone.” I remember looking around for everyone [else] as I was brushing my teeth.
I was reading about your career story and was wondering if you could explain your role as an “honorary witness” for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
It has been amazing. When I said “yes” to the really lovely invitation to do this, I really didn’t know what it would mean. I was inducted as an honorary witness when the TRC was gathering in the north in Nunavut in the North West Territories. There were 800 residential school survivors or former students, and some of the survivors were telling their stories for the first time, sometimes for the very first time in front of their families, too. It was an amazing honour and privilege to be there and to witness it.
I really believe that you need witnesses in the most important moments of your life, like graduations, weddings, and things, so you have someone to help you validate your story. I think that as an honorary witness, we are there to do just that, and we’re there to help carry the story along, to tell other people about it. So, when I was inducted, someone asked me if the TRC’s end next year was going to be the end for me as an honorary witness. And my [answer] was no because this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.
I’m already educating myself as much as I can about our colonial past, and really looking at our colonial present as well. There are still so many aspects of government policy that place Aboriginal peoples beneath non-Aboriginal peoples, and those policies extend to education and housing, which are very basic human rights. I see reconciliation as a human rights issue, not an Aboriginal rights issue; it is for all of us, for all of Canada.
I also don’t turn down any opportunity to talk about it, but I got involved with the Aboriginal healing foundation, which was an organization that promoted traditional healing for residential school survivors, and we put up a book together, which we will be talking about at Trent called Speaking my Truth. Nipissing University has chosen it as their “common book” so the whole campus has to read it.
So, I always take the opportunity to talk about these issues because some people, especially from my generation and the generation ahead of me, didn’t have this education, so it is really important that we know where we come from because it explains where we are now.
In terms of reconciliation, how far along are we?
I remember when the education minister for the North West Territories, Jackson Lafferty, brought a pair of little moccasins that were made by an elder in Yellowknife, and he used them both to show the very beauty, the great art [of them], and also to say that we are taking baby steps for reconciliation. He has made sure that the curriculum in Northern Canada, which is much further ahead than the South on this, includes residential schools, so that everybody in public schools in the North understands that this really happened.
I think in a way, it really does have to be baby steps, because if change happens at the grassroots level, I think it would really hold. If it is legislated, I’m not saying that there isn’t legislation that needs to be changed, but you cannot legislate this kind of change, you cannot legislate a change of heart.
You can, [however], create the conditions where that change can happen by, for example, national commissions of inquiry such as the TRC, which are great public vehicles to investigate our past or issues in our past and the present. And this has been a wonderful opportunity. I just hope that when the TRC wraps up, we will still be very active in creating places where we can get together and talk.
Dialogue is certainly a must, and these issues are not so well-known as they should be.
That’s absolutely right. Since I am so involved in it, sometimes I forget how some people do not read or even know about it, and these issues are very rarely a headline in the news. It was interesting, when Nelson Mandela died, there was talk about the truth and reconciliation talks in South Africa, and that gave Justice Murray Sinclair (the Chair of the TRC) a great opportunity to talk about what was going on in Canada. And I think it gave a little bump-up, and that is good since more people need to know that this process is taking place.
As far as the history itself, the way we were taught about Aboriginal people was that they were inferior to non-Aboriginal people. And while we were being taught that, so were the Aboriginal kids in residential schools. The force of this whole education process that was keeping them down, it still hurts to talk about it because it is such an awful thing to do.
So, Speaking my Truth is all about opening dialogue and discussion.
Yes, and I believe it has. It was published two years ago and it has gone all over the country. It has generated discussion. I had been in book clubs where some of the members of the club would say things like, “This happened a long time ago,” “My family had nothing to do with it,” “It is time to move on” or “Why don’t they just get over it?”And this last phrase can be broken down into many more parts. Who are they? Get over what? What is it? And why is it they and not all of us? We ought to do this together.
But I like those questions when we are in a book club because when we are in agreement, we are all comfortable. I think that change happens when you get uncomfortable, that’s when growth happens. If you start with the premise that children were taken away from their families, I don’t know how you make this a good news stories. I do love the discussions and really love it when someone’s opinion makes you think about yours, your feelings, and your thoughts about something.
Residential schools were placed all over Canada and it affected different Aboriginal populations. How does the reconciliation process differ from province to province?
I think Newfoundland did not have any residential schools, Prince Edward Island didn’t either, but there was a major center for Atlantic Canada in Nova Scotia. Labrador had day schools that were run by the churches, and, for example, the Labrador Inuit who attended them were not part of the agreement for settlement and compensation.
Depending on where you were, I believe that right now, there are more survivors of residential schools living in Alberta than any other place. But my understanding is that there were more residential schools in British Columbia. There are regional differences, but it was a federal program so they had many features in common, and we are now hearing about the kids that died in residential schools of tuberculosis or the flu, for example.
Your role as a witness must be a very touching experience. How do you go about learning from these powerful accounts?
If you understand that the very first abuse is to take children away from their families and communities with the explicit purpose of assimilation, it is impossible to justify it.
There is a very famous line that says that the purpose of the schools was to “kill the Indian in the child,” and it was to get rid of their language, their culture, their customs, and their diet, essentially everything that made them who they were.
The other thing is that what I have come to learn by listening and witnessing is that the survivors who have families have a hard time being parents because they did not have parents themselves. As a witness, what you have to make sure you do is remembering that you are there for a reason: to carry the story.
I am trying to work really hard on the word “empathy,”because it implies that we have had the same experience, which is not the truth at all. But what I am trying to appreciate a bit more is “understanding.” And, because you can never assume that you really had an empathetic experience of what a residential school survivor has gone through, the attempt to understand is so valuable.
The other thing that amazes me so much is the capacity for love and joy that they have. You are judged rich by what you give and the encounter with their resilience and incredible generosity is something that blows my mind.
Carrying the story, talking about issues is a great way of healing, and this also applies to mental health, for instance. You will also be addressing women and mental health issues during your stay in Peterborough. How do you go about carrying the story and talking about such delicate topics as mental health?
Well, I did not even know I had depression until 10 years ago, but now that I know what it was, I know that I was experiencing it for decades before. When I was diagnosed back in January 2003, I could not believe I was depressed because I love life, I felt so good, and enjoyed meeting people, but that was not always me. There were times when I would be off for two or three weeks and would avoid meeting people. Once I knew what it was, I could do something about it. But I [have] to say, it is really hard for people around that person [facing these issues], so it is really important that everyone learns some kind of literacy about mental illness.
Sometimes, it means no talking. Sometimes, it means just being in the same room, answering the phone or the doorbell for the person that can’t do it. It means patience, and it is not easy. If one in five of us have a mental illness, then at least two in five are dealing with it, and it may even be more than that.
My answer is about always getting it out there. Getting it out and looking at it, see what it is about, what triggers it. I do not find it hard to talk about it. What I can say is you should try to be there, that the person knows that they can call you anytime, because sometimes you feel really alone, so just knowing that there is someone you can count on is a big help.
One of the biggest problems is waiting times between diagnosis and referral to a specialized doctor because we do not put a priority on mental health. Another issue is that some people who have multiple disorders are not treated in a comprehensive way, but rather one disorder at a time.
Do you have any final words to share?
I was in a panel discussion with Thomas King, who wrote the The Inconvenient Indian, and I turned to him and said,“Tom, the truth about stories is…” and he finished my sentence with “…that is all we are.” We are nothing but our stories.