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.