Alicia Schlag
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When you hear the term "Indian Residential Schools," what comes to mind? No doubt, something dark, painful, regrettable. But also past, remote, perhaps even irrelevant – not likely part of the Canada most of us identify with, in our modern Canadian society, fair and free.

I admit that this was my own perspective until spending a hard, important, enriching and paradigm-shifting day in the Silent No More dialogue circle at Tenth Alliance Church April 20. The workshop, led by Don Cowie and other members of the inter-denominational Ecumenical Advocates Committee, is part of a series designed to engage church congregations ahead of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Indian Residential Schools, an historic event hosted here in Vancouver this September. In affiliation with the TRC and its advocacy group Reconciliation Canada, its purpose is to allow school survivors (and survivors of generational issues stemming from the schools) the opportunity to share their experiences with non-Indigenous people – people, like myself, who quickly realized I had only the vaguest notion of what happened to the (estimated) 150,000 children stolen from their families, at the age of five, over the course of a century. And little better did I see what is happening to their descendants today.

 

"We're not here to accuse anyone. We're here to talk about things that were never dealt with. We're here to explain why we are the way we are. To explain what we lost, and what we are trying to gain back now. In doing that, we're saying things we're not comfortable saying.”   – Rennie Nahanee, Squamish, Ecumenical Advocates (Catholic)

 

Having only scratched the surface of this issue now, I can barely stop thinking about it. It has been hard getting to sleep this week (not unlike Don's story here, http://themosaic.org/blog/dont-take-my-child), registering the depth and degree of this awful shadow, stretched over an entire nation, my country. Who can ever know the full extent of it? And how do its effects continue to ripple through us, in ways most non-Aboriginal people don't realize?

 

Here is what we know: The federal government stated its intention to "solve the Indian Problem" through assimilation in the 1867 North American Indian Act (the document on which, in fact, South Africa's Apartheid policies were wholly based). Among its most diabolical laws (and there were so many – but that's another story) was to entrench the Indian Residential School System. Although similar church-run schools had been operating since the 1830s (modelled on the French missionary schools of the 1600s), a formal system began in 1883 under the stewardship of the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United churches, whose mandate it was to "evangelize" (assimilate) the Indian.

 

"In order to educate the children properly, we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that." – Sir Hector Langevin, 1883. Langevin was Minister of Public Works, the Interior and Indian Affairs, and after whom is named the imposing Langevin Block, facing Parliament Hill, site of the Prime Minister's Office and Privy Council. . . (Are you getting a sense yet of how unresolved these issues remain?)

 

At first limited in its scope, the Indian Act was given new powers and stronger legislation in 1920 to compel all Status Indian children to attend the schools until the age of 16. Parental consent was not considered. Indeed, many parents were jailed for not giving up their children. Of the 130 residential schools built, most were shut down in the 1970s and the last closed in 1996.

 

What happened there? The children, forcibly taken from the reserves, were transported to the schools, often long distances away, where they were stripped of their traditional clothes and had their long hair (a spiritually significant attribute) cut short. They were given English or French names and forbidden from speaking in their own languages (although they knew no other). Boys, girls and siblings were separated and not allowed to communicate.

 

"The assault on Aboriginal identity began the moment the child took the first step across the school’s threshold."   – They Came for the Children (TRC-commissioned document, 2012)

 

"Education" meant rote memorization and copying. Students suffered from cold and heat in ill-equipped buildings, and from hunger and malnutrition from insufficient or spoiled food. Severe punishments (public shamings, beatings) were delivered routinely for any number of violations – speaking to a sibling, wetting your bed, crying, coughing. . . Beyond the intense loneliness and pain caused by emotional and psychological abuse, were the untold effects of widespread sexual abuse and violence. Many girls were impregnated by staff and subjected to forced abortions.

 

It is estimated that 60 per cent of children never came home from the schools. Disease, spread in close quarters, took many. Suicide also. An accurate number can never be known because many schools kept no records, their grounds scattered with unmarked graves.

 

With this context in mind, let's return to the dialogue circle, and the astonishing grace heard in words like those spoken by Gordy*, an elderly Squamish member and school survivor (and fiercely proud grandfather), holding a sacred talking stick thoughtfully while introducing himself to the circle: "I don't want to make anyone feel bad, feel sad or feel guilty. I just want to share. I love all of you."

 

Just as amazingly, Marie, an elderly survivor whose jovial demeanour belies her horrific past, tells us: "It's not your fault. It happened. Let's work to change it for the coming generations. We've got such a big problem. We have to work together."

 

That big problem is rooted in countless experiences like this one, which Marie shares through tears: "One of the girls had a bed-wetting problem. The nun would gather us around her bed, take the sheet and force her to stand, with that sodden, stinking sheet stuffed in her mouth, for 15 minutes. . ." She shakes her head and shivers, "That was no good for her. No good for any of us."

 

She also shares the incredibly brutal account of an Aboriginal groundskeeper who was digging a potato cellar one day and uncovered "a pile of babies' bones. . . He started drinking after that. Little wonder."

 

Patrick, a Cree member, is the last survivor of his peers at the Alberta school he attended in the 1960s – several have since died from alcoholism (Patrick is a recovering alcoholic). He, too, tearfully recalls the trauma of being a young witness to heinous abuse: "You can never forget the cries, coming from the bathrooms. . . 'No!. . . No!'"

 

Dorothy, a 73-year-old Cree woman, also from Alberta, calls her arrival at residential school "the saddest time in my life" – leaving the farm her father had cultivated for years. As she and her siblings were taken, one by one, her father turned to alcoholism, and eventually lost his land. She describes returning home at 16: "I hated to see what this was doing to my family. So I ran away."

 

Broken homes (broken by the very nature and intent of the system), runaways, alcoholism, violence, suicides and many, many other issues reverberate down the generations into the realities Aboriginal people face today, long after the schools closed. Alana, a young woman in the circle, was a troubled foster child, "ashamed of my people." She was taken from her alcoholic parents – themselves school survivors – at the age of four. Once addicted and now clean, she is confronted with the need to "break the cycle" for the sake of her four children. But she is doing so having lost so much – sharing, for instance, the pain of not knowing the Cree language.

 

This loss of cultural identity is an profound challenge. One of the most poignant moments in the dialogue is when another young woman, Deanna, shares how she was adopted and raised by a white family, and only discovered her Aboriginal heritage six years ago. Reflecting on a lifetime of seeing her own people as "other" than herself, she breaks down, grieving the pain and confusion of being kept from a world of meaning, belonging and potential healing. Her friend Alana rushes over, hugs her for a long time and tells her that she is loved.

 

I am a settler. My family came to Canada in the 1950s. I am white, and I benefit from living on unceded indigenous land. And yet, somehow, I can grasp the pain felt by people like Alana and Deanna. When my grandparents fled the Soviet invasion of Estonia and spent several years in a displaced persons camp (where my mother was born and where hers died), followed by lifetimes being seen as other in an alien society, bearing so much unresolved trauma, I do not wonder at the high incidences of alcoholism and brokenness in my family. When everything you know is suddenly gone – when a culture is lost and its people go on living – the damage is so loud, it echoes.

 

"This is about everyone. What has the world missed, because the Aboriginal people have been silenced? We have lost the stewardship of the land. We have lost kinship values, understanding and respecting how we are related to all things, to nature through God the Creator. We have lost spirituality. All of us have lost these things."  – Mary Fontaine, Cree Nation, Ecumenical Advocates (Presbyterian)

 

It is so hard for these survivors to share their stories. Relatively speaking, it is so very easy for the rest of us to listen to them, to hear to their truths and absorb their weight of meaning. But what comes after?

 

As the circle came to a close, we were asked to each share one word, expressing how we felt about the day. Mine was hope. Not just because I'm aware of my place in history – one where the school survivors could take Canada to court in order to have a Truth and Reconciliation process come to fruition this year – but also because of the God-given resilience, grace and capacity for love found in people like Gordy, Marie, Patrick, and so many others I haven't met. I thank Jesus for their witness and pray for their healing. I thank Him for Dorothy, beautifully recounting her life-long struggles and this moment of truth:

 

"I was looking at a picture of Jesus on the cross, a painting by an Aboriginal man in prison. His eyes were full of suffering. And I said, Jesus, I accept my suffering. That's when I began to heal."

 

If Dorothy can accept her incredible suffering, what remains for me to do is to accept that she suffered. Neither scenario is simple or easy. The truth rarely is. In accepting hers, I am tasked with advocating for her and what has been lost. Inherant here is a worldview through which I begin to see justice and environmental issues in new and challenging ways.

 

In the same way, once we believe the truth of Jesus and understand his suffering, we are tasked with following him. In doing this, a profound shift takes place, and we are never the same again.

 

When it came to Gordy's turn to share a word to close the circle, he shared this:

 

"I've always dreamed that we could look at this, that every person in Canada would know and understand, in their hearts, what happened to us. And that the church would step up. Then reconciliation could finally happen."

 

 

*Some last names have been omitted.

The National Truth and Reconciliation event will be held on the PNE grounds in Vancouver September 16-21, 2013, followed by the March for Reconciliation led by Reconciliation Canada on Sept 22.

Come, be part of redemptive history!