I’m going to do something I don’t usually do and quote from a Globe and Mail editorial (yesterday’s): “Close your eyes and imagine you are at home with your two children, a boy aged six and a girl aged eight. There’s a knock at the door. It’s a moment you’ve dreaded for weeks. You answer it and there is a man from the government and an RCMP officer who order you to turn your children over to them immediately. The children are led away and placed in the back of a truck in which you see other children crying. The boy and girl are screaming that they don’t want to leave you but, the minute you show any resistance, the policeman steps in to enforce the law. You are compelled to give up your children, because the state has judged you to be unfit as a parent on account of your race. That night, you are alone with your spouse in an empty house, brokenhearted, powerless and without hope, everything that matters from you stolen by the state.”
It goes on to state these facts uncovered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: “An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were stolen from their families and communities over the course of 100 years of Canadian history.” (I’ve since heard that residential schools existed in Canada for 140 years.)
I wasn’t taught this version of Canadian history in school. But the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hopes to change this—the commission filed its report this week after six years of listening to and recording the stories of indigenous Canadians forced to attend government-mandated residential schools, or whose parents or grandparents were survivors of this system; yesterday the end of the commission was marked with a ceremony attended by the prime minister and other dignitaries, and followed by silence from the current government, which appears to believe it has now done enough. Education is an important part of reconciliation; may this part of Canada’s history be taught in all schools and not forgotten, or worse, deliberately silenced. But what else can we do, those of us whose families came to this country as immigrants, as settlers, without much thought for the people who were here before us; and who have benefitted enormously from the wealth of this land?
I’ve skipped over the part of the editorial that describes what happened to many of the children in the residential schools, not because it isn’t important, but because I found myself, as a parent, stopped dead at that opening paragraph asking me to imagine losing my children. I had to cover my eyes and weep. Because my gut response was, this would end me. I would end here.
Everything that matters to me lives here in my family. When I think about my response to watching AppleApple race earlier this week, and genuinely feeling that it was the MOST EXCITING MOMENT in my life, I realize that all of my MOST EXCITING MOMENTS of PRIDE and PURE JOY arise directly from witnessing my children accomplish what I couldn’t have imagined for them (and it goes beyond measurable accomplishments, and includes the surprise of witnessing moments of generosity, maturity, empathy, thoughtfulness). That’s it. Nothing compares. Certainly nothing I’ve accomplished compares, and I mean that sincerely and absolutely. In fact, I’m convinced that my greatest job right now is as witness to my children’s development. So to imagine them stolen from me, by people who couldn’t even address me in my own language, to imagine them being hurt and beaten or worse by these people, to imagine them returning home months or even years later, terribly altered by their experiences, our mother tongue forgotten or beaten out of them, and being unable through it all to offer them any protection: well, it is too painful to imagine. I imagine that I would run after that truck screaming and yelling, that I would walk hundreds of miles to look for them, that I would find the school that housed them and stand outside demanding to see them, that I would try to steal them back and bring them home; but this is fantasy because even if I could do that, would it matter? If I was wrong in the eye of the law? If the government judged me unfit? Because of my race? It would not matter. And so what would keep me going?
I do not know. My ability to imagine ends here.
And what to do now, knowing that so many families endured this tragedy in our country, and that the reverberations of this policy continue to be felt and lived, and that so much is still so very wrong with the way Canada engages with indigenous communities? I don’t know.
I came across this link on Twitter to a web site that proposes planting a “heart garden” to honour children who died in the residential school system; maybe something like this would be a small gesture our family could offer. Kevin and the kids who were in the kitchen yesterday when I was making supper were all receptive to the idea. We talked about what messages we might want to share, what plants we could plant.
But I also think about how arrogant it was/is of the Canadian powers-that-be to believe that indigenous people needed to learn the white ways—that this would improve their lives and well-being. What if we spin that around and decide that the powers-that-be need to learn the values and systems and beliefs of indigenous people? Is it too much to hope that we could become a real family, sharing the best of our knowledge, changing and compromising for each other? And maybe, just maybe, if I look into my own life more closely, I’ll recognize that it’s my values that need shaking up and changing. Maybe more, more, more at any cost isn’t the answer. I’m thinking of the Lax Kw’alaams band in northern B.C. who recently turned down a deal worth $1.5 billion, offered by a gas export company, because the land that would be spoiled by the project being built has no monetary price. To think of the land as something that can be bought and sold is to think in very temporary, solipsistic, morally questionable terms. This is just one example of an indigenous community leading the way, by looking at the land and at money through a different and maybe unfamiliar lens.
All for now. I welcome your thoughts on this subject.
And I weep again reading this, Carrie. You are so right. I have been reading article after article and I applaud any people who could gather the strength and courage to not only survive but retell the horrors that happened to them, to our First Nations people and not just by past governments but THIS current government. You cannot help but weep. It is sickening, horrifying, astounding. And I believe it was not just ‘cultural’ genocide, but genocide. Period. So many died as a result of the Canadian government’s interference and lack of assistance/help/support/understanding/respect. Thanks for writing this. The heart garden sounds beautiful. I think this will inspire me to write to those reserves closest to where I live and ask them what I can do, what would benefit survivors and their families most (other than simply writing our government representatives that more funding needs to happen to improve the living conditions of those on reserves and improve their access to clean water, good schools and education, healthcare, etc. so that they can feel the benefits of living in this country that I do and I have had and my child has and will have. Thanks for writing this, again. x
The kids are I were talking about how First Nations kids on reserves receive something like 40% less funding for their education, per capita, per child, than they do. So it’s not history. It’s current affairs too. And that means our government is responsible for at the very least TRYING to do better. The silence from the PM drives me crazy.
ps And I agree that the education about Canadian History must include this so that it never happens again and to accord proper respect towards our First Nations people by acknowledging what has happened and teach children in schools about what happened. The racist attitudes still felt towards First Nations people in this country need to cease – if people understood better the endless attempts on behalf of the government and society in general to stomp out this beautiful culture of people, perhaps they’d recognize that any of us would suffer the consequences of what systemic abuse, shaming and torture creates: suicides, alcohol/drug issues, hopelessness. I love what you wrote: “But I also think about how arrogant it was/is of the Canadian powers-that-be to believe that indigenous people needed to learn the white ways—that this would improve their lives and well-being. What if we spin that around and decide that the powers-that-be need to learn the values and systems and beliefs of indigenous people?” Yes. Indeed. We have so much to learn, so much our Indigenous people can teach us about love and respect: for land, for each other, for family, for nature, for the environment, for our own spiritual being, for the Earth. We need to teach in our schools not only what happened, the history of this genocide, but also there should be Indigenous people hired to teach their own courses in Aboriginal history and culture so we learn better and open our eyes and so this amazing culture that existed before this country existed continues and is not lost or stomped out as our governments (past and present) have attempted to achieve.
lovely blog Carrie. I had a similar response, and I have persuaded our chair to offer a new course this fall, English 250: Truth and Reconciliation: the literature of the Residential Schools. It’s going to be open to all students regardless of major, and we’re going to look at the testimony from the report as well as books like Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, and National Crime by John Milloy. One of the few times that we in English departments can respond directly to public events, and maybe do some real good. I hope so, anyway.
What an excellent idea, Misao! I hope your idea spreads to other English Departments in other Canadian universities. And I’ll put those books on my own personal reading list — if you have more suggestions, please recommend them here. (I teach Eden Robinson’s story “Traplines” in my creative writing class — it’s brilliant; every time I read it I long to imagine a different ending for the characters, I’m filled with such grief.)
My family came here from another country, but I consider myself Canadian now and I am proud of this country, but then there is this terrible stain on our nation’s history.
As a visually impaired person, I have my own thoughts on the residential schools for the blind. This doesn’t really compre, but I shudder at the thought of any school that tries to segregate any group of people. I think it’s a bad idea and the ways in which the Native people were treated by white settlers is horrid. We must not forget. We must bring all this into the light of day and acknowledge what happened.
I have been reading recent news articles about the terrible state of water o First Nation’s reserves. No effort is being put into providing safe and clean water, but instead plastic waste is being made with the bottled water, a temporary and unacceptable substitute.
I love this country and I know we can do better, treat everyone as equal. Great post to bring awareness to the problem we must rectify, Carrie.