Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Catching a Dream

As a child growing up on the prairies, my impression of First Nations people (called natives in those years) was that they were a destitute and desperate people who struggled with alcohol dependency, and who lived on the fringes of society.  I was accustomed to seeing First Nations people drunk and begging on street corners, or sitting in the audience at local Mission when my sister and I would be (unwillingly) brought there to play or sing a duet at one of their evening services.  It was also a period of time when one heard a lot of stories about native children adopted by caucasian families, with mixed 'success.'
Throughout my growing up years, I heard stereotypical, and often racist, comments made about native peoples.  Early on in those years, I must have believed those stereotypes to be true...it was the only perspective I was exposed to.  But something changed for me, somewhere along the line.  An early niggling that these stereotypes were not the full or accurate representation gradually began to take root.  Perhaps it was the few First Nations friends that I had in my later teens and early twenties, or the metis roommate I had for year when I was in bible school; perhaps it was the terrific First Nations manager I worked with during one of my summer jobs who talked to me about the struggle he had being accepted in either of the First Nations or caucasian cultures.  I also know that I was influenced towards compassion and acceptance by taking a two-day aboriginal awareness training program early on in my human resources management career.  Years later, when the territory I covered as an HR Manager expanded to include a small group of aboriginal employees, I deepened a bit again my exposure to a different perspective on life and culture.  These days, when I work with people of aboriginal origin in a mediation context, I am filled with a sense of respect for the gentleness and humility I have seen evidenced over and over again, as well as with a sense of awe for their determination to incorporate into their understanding concepts such as 'mediation,' when such terms or ideas do not exist in their first language.  
Last Wednesday afternoon, I had an unexpected opportunity to add to my perspective, by attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools.  My understanding of its purpose is to provide residential school survivors an opportunity to share with the aboriginal community as well as the general public the impact of the residential school experience on their lives.  Ever since I heard about the plans for the Commission a couple of months ago, I had hoped that I would somehow have an opportunity to take part in it.  Something about it pulled at me.  However, given how busy the week had become, I was uncomfortably resigned to having to learn about it on the news and via internet.  But on Wednesday afternoon, something I was supposed to be involved in got cancelled and, given that I had already arranged for child care, I immediately thought about attending a few hours of the Commission's first day.  I picked the event that I wanted to attend and was able to spend that time listening to people share their stories.
Below, you can see the sharing circle at the centre of the tent; people sitting in the circle took turns sharing their story:

Statistically, I already knew that over the course of about 150 years, 150,000 children had been interred in these publicly funded schools, and that many had been terribly treated and often abused.  I already knew, factually, that the mandate of these religiously-run schools was to 'take the Indian out of the child' and to assimilate them with 'civilized' culture.  These things I remembered hearing in years past.

But what Wednesday afternoon did for me was to put a dozen or so faces to those stories I'd heard in my early school years.  I cried throughout most of the stories I heard, and felt my heart expand with compassion as I heard men and women, ranging in age from their early forties to their late seventies, talk about their experience of being forced to assimilate to white culture and to Christianity, and how that has impacted their entire life.  They recalled as if it were yesterday being ripped from their parents at the age of six or eight or thirteen, and sent to a residential school, sometimes never to see their family again.  They were beaten, raped, severely disciplined, and subject to such insanitary conditions that it led to the spread of fatal diseases such as tuberculosis.  Equally devastating was the experience of being forced to abandon both culture and language, something that left them as young adults feeling that they belonged in neither world: aboriginal or white.  Several described eventually leaving the schools already addicted to alcohol or drugs, full of rage towards others and themselves, and lacking any hope about their life's prospects.  Some described their desire and attempts to end their lives, and how they lost many of their friends to suicide or other violent deaths or dependencies.
If that weren't bad enough, the legacy of the residential schools continues to this very day.  Both men and women described their inability to parent their own children; they themselves had not been parented and they learned no parenting skills themselves during their residential school experiences.  So how could they possibly do an better with their own children?  A few acknowledged openly, and with tears, about living with the guilt of not having parented well, despite loving their children with all of their hearts and wanting to protect and nurture them.  "I was not a good mother," said one woman, brokenly.  "I didn't know how to be a mother," she continued, after pausing to gather her emotions.  Surely, surely, the numbers of aboriginal children and youths in institutional or foster care today could be traced to exactly these types of heart wrenching reflections.
After I'd heard four or five people speak, I took out of my purse the little black notebook that I always carry with me, and I took a few notes through my tears, not wanting to forget some of the words that came out of the depths of experiences that I can in no way appreciate or judge.
One 79-year-old gentleman cried as he recounted the horrors of the school in his life and how it had impacted him throughout his entire life.  He said that it took him this long "to share dark, ugly, painful, degrading, dehumanizing secrets."  He described himself leaving the residential school already a "raging bull, so angry." He spoke about his journey towards healing being motivated by his desperation not to pass along his sadness and rage to future generations; and yet, he knew he had.  I can't imagine being his age and still having to try to process, understand, forgive, and heal from those things which happened in his childhood. 
A woman, representing one of three generations in her family who survived the residential schools, spoke of being sexually and physically abused.  She was raised with "no hugs, no love, no one saying 'I love you,'" and ended up so filled with self hatred that she began to abuse her own body through involvement in the sex trade, struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction and teen pregnancy.  She, too, struggled with tears as she recounted her struggles to parent her children.

So many stories.
I have a deep sense of sadness for what was done to aboriginal boys and girls in the name of assimilation and civilization.  How civilized can we be if we subject other people to such degrading treatment that assumes we know best for them?   What will it take for us to learn from history so as not to repeat such mistakes?
Two years ago, Stephen Harper offered an apology to the aboriginal peoples of Canada for the government's role in the residential school system.  I echo that apology in my own heart, understanding fractionally better what the enduring impact has been and knowing, too, that it was at least partially in the name of Christianity that these schools were instituted.  I felt honoured to attend a few hours of the Commission hearings last week, and I hope that this will be the first of many steps involved in bringing about the healing that is still so desperately needed.  Today, Monday, is Aboriginal Day in Canada.  May we all learn the lessons that history has so tragically provided us, so that we all, aboriginal or non-aboriginal, use those lessons to move forward - past the point of healing, past the point of reconciliation or mere tolerance, to a place where we are able to embrace and benefit from the many colours of diversity that surround us all.  May we all, in the words of one man who spoke at the Commission last week, "resolve that the future will be better."

* Thank you for your comments, Sharla and Andrea...I'm glad that you found this post meaningful.  I found it quite hard to write, to be honest, and tried several times before it sounded even approximately like what I wanted it to.  Writing it also meant that I had to go back to acknowledge things about my own perspectives in the past, that were tough.  I'm embarrassed by some of my past thoughts on the matter because I think so differently now.  I wish we could have further dialogue on these issues because it truly every Canadian, whether we want to address it or not.  I'm absolutely convinced that a much deeper understanding of aboriginal cultures needs to happen before we experience real unity as Canadians.  Thank you so much for participating in the discussion.


  1. This echoes so much of what my history and understanding was and now is. I am a wee bit jealous that you were able to hear so many touching/heartwrenching stories first-hand. During our eight years as foster parents, we had to take Aborigal Awareness Training every year...16 hours the first year and eight hours every year following. I will fully admit that the first year, I thought it would be a huge waste of time and was not looking forward to going. I was shocked by how much I learned and by how emotional it was for me. Gleaning even just a little bit of understanding about the devastating long-term effects of residential schools on generations that followed is so important to understanding the reason that such a high percentage of kids in foster care are First Nations. The stats. are shocking but understanding what is behind them goes a long way in creating empathy.
    It's also very cool that you can now pass on your understanding to Matthew and your future children and that they will not grow up hearing the same racist views towards First Nations that you and I were surrounded by in our childhoods.

  2. I've come back and read this post over a few times and wanted to thank you for sharing your experience. I am so glad that you found and took the opportunity to participate in this process. We have sginficant parts of our Canadian past and present that are horribly sad/awful and I think these things often get forgotten and overlooked. I am glad for the profile this process is getting and hope it brings some peace to the participants and serves as a reminder to everyone else about the events of our past that continue to affect our present and that should not be ignored or underestimated in terms of their impact. We are only whole as a nation when we are all whole. A