Nick Noorani was chosen to be an Honorary Witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His role included hearing stories of residential school survivors, first hand.
Nick Noorani believes he hasn’t lived up to the responsibility that comes with bearing witness.
In 2013, Noorani was inducted as an Honorary Witness at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) event in Vancouver.
“I had a lot of trepidation,” Noorani told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay, “Suddenly you walk into this place where everyone stands up for you, and they’re clapping, and you’re wondering, ‘I’m a fraud. I have done nothing to deserve this.'”
Noorani is one of more than 60 Honorary Witnesses – from politicians to artists and grassroots activists – chosen from across the country and internationally because of their leadership and work toward peace and justice.
“I scratched my head,” he said. “Why me? I certainly don’t have the depth of knowledge.”
Noorani was selected because of his efforts as an immigrant advocate who champions and works with newcomers.
Tackling racism across cultures
Noorani immigrated to Canada from India more than 20 years ago. Based on his experience, he said many newcomers to Canada arrive not knowing much about Indigenous people and history.
“The perspectives [we] are fed are minimal at most and inaccurate,” he said. “We as newcomers constantly got these subtle messages. My children got these subtle messages.”
Noorani describes those messages as racist. He saw it first-hand when, as a child, his son came home from school one day using a derogatory word he’d learned from friends to describe Indigenous people.
“Racism against anyone shouldn’t be perpetuated or allowed,” Noorani said, noting stereotypes immigrants adopt about Indigenous people often go unchallenged.
Acting as a bridge
According to the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the specific role of the Honorary Witness is “to recall, remember, and care for the history witnessed and experienced, to share it more widely once they are back home, and to carry the knowledge of it with others into the future.”
Noorani said it’s his “duty as a Canadian” to accept that responsibility. He sees his role as a bridge between immigrant and Indigenous communities, to help educate and combat racist stereotypes toward Indigenous people in the places he lives and works.
Part of being an Honorary Witness involved hearing first-hand accounts from residential school survivors, according to Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).
“What was central in those events was so often a raw account of humanity at its worst,” said Moran. “But so often the inverse of that was also present. The grace and humility with which survivors shared their statements so courageously. The clarity of their calls for change and for justice.”
Noorani still remembers hearing those stories and describes the moment as impactful and difficult to handle.
“After listening to one person, then the other person, then the other person, you’re cringing. You’re saying, ‘How much more can I handle?'”, he said. “You’re trying to be protective of your own self. Then I came to the position that no, I can’t be protective of myself because there was no one to protect them. I have to understand. I have to take [it] in.”
‘I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge’
Moran said bearing witness to these stories was transformational for many Honorary Witnesses. Noorani agrees and described how it changed him in many ways, including expanding his understanding of Canada’s history and the present context of Indigenous people.
“I cannot change the past,” said Noorani. “The only thing I could do as someone who is bearing witness is commit that I would pass on the truth of what an entire group of people went through.”
But he admits that doesn’t always feel like enough. He said he still feels like a fraud.
“I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. And I still don’t know that. I don’t have that answer,” he said.
“I saw something that was from the depth of people’s souls and the only thing I can do is talk about it to people I meet. And that to me is not adequate… It’s not helped any community get fresh drinking water.”
This story appears in the Out in the Open episode “Bearing Witness“.