I had a really difficult conversation this past week, one that had incredible timing because it was the day before the bodies of 215 Indigenous children were found in a mass grave under a Residential School near Kamloops, British Columbia.
I was speaking with a group of people of mixed generations from Baby Boomers to Gen X to myself, the cusp of X and Millennial. It started with an article that had been read by one person discussing how colonialism wasn’t bad to near the end having someone defending Residential schools.
I left the conversation, for lack of a better word, crushed, because these are people I believe to be caring, intelligent, compassionate and generous. To hear the lack of understanding and unwillingness to acknowledge the damage created by the Residential school system was shocking, and had me in tears.
I acknowledged my own lack of knowledge and empathy to the Indigenous while growing up in our country. I believed all the lies I was told, these lies included:
- Indigenous can easily go to post secondary school, they will even have it paid for
- Indigenous choose not to help themselves
- The reserves are terrible places by choice
- Indigenous abuse gas, drugs, alcohol, they are ungrateful
- We live in a Mosaic of a Country, unlike the United States where you must assimilate
The last point is one that makes me so angry, because I was indoctrinated in that sneaky way, a way that didn’t open up for critical thinking, it didn’t acknowledge our treatment of the Indigenous, First Nations, Metis and Inuit people. Ya, ya, we are a mosaic, as long as your piece is white, aligns with our views, speaks a language of commerce and believes in profit over people.
The stated purpose of Residential schools was to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ – the goal was Cultural Genocide. This was done by forcibly taking children from their homes and placing them in the schools where they could have no influence of their own culture. The schools did not allow students to speak their native language, to acknowledge their heritage or practice their culture. Making students wear uniforms and cut their hair, they dehumanized them.
They ensured compliance by mental, physical and emotional abuse. It has always been known that children left and did not make it home, however this week’s discovery solidifies this truth and shows the complete lack of respect for these children.
Picture having your child forcibly taken from your home, under the guise that this will be good for them only to never have them come back.
I vividly remember when I first learned about these schools, it was not more than a decade ago. I was walking with a friend that was studying Social Work and they described the 60’s scoop. I was aghast, so much so I remember saying ‘That can’t be possible, that can’t be right, our Government wouldn’t do that. No one would let someone take their child away from them like that’. So I went home and I searched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I went down the rabbit hole that is understanding the atrocities that happened. For reference I would have been 13 the year that the last Residential school closed in 1996, there are people in my generation that attended these schools.
It is not enough to just read what happened, you must read it with the goal to understand our Indigenous, First Nations, Metis and Inuit people. To understand and imagine the trauma, the response, and resulting intergenerational trauma. You must read it and think how you would feel act/react if put in a similar situation. How would your children?
I feel if I had been placed in a Residential school, I would not have faired well. Being a child that spoke their mind constantly, one that never bowed to authority just because, a child that questioned everything – I would likely have endured many abuses and possibly death before submission.
Children as young as 4 years old were placed in these schools. I know Aoife would be similar to me with the hardships and Bowie would not mentally survive the abuse. His tender heart and desire to be loved would see his spirit crushed. Cael, I think would survive his time, but would hold deep resentment and suffer PTSD.
So now when I think of my interactions, or my past judgements of Indigenous, First Nations, Metis and Inuit people – I work hard to recognize my prejudice.
I remember working a position at a hotel where from time to time I had to ask individuals to leave. I remember an Indigenous women, mid-forties, possible intoxicated (this was my assumption at the time), was being rowdy and I had been asked to step in and ask her to leave the premises. I approached with the same level of respect as every guest, I explained the cost to stay, asked if she could afford that, at which point she declined and I walked her out. I think back and I remember her being near tears, she knew I assumed she was drunk. She tried explaining her life, and I tried but I don’t think I really listened. I remember feeling good that she was peaceful, and I think felt heard. In replaying the situation in my head, I wish I had asked more questions, listened more and said I am sorry.
Did I send her or her family to a Residential school? No. Is there benefit to understanding another’s struggle? Yes. Is there good to be done in showing another person love and compassion? Yes. Is it necessary to acknowledge our prejudices? Yes. Is it our Responsibility to acknowledge just how bad and unjust we have been to the Indigenous, First Nations, Meties and Inuit people? Yes.
If we can not acknowledge the truth, the facts, we can not take accountability, and we will not do better or grow; We will be destined to continue the systemic issues and failures.
I tell my children all the time that if they are not willing to be accountable for their mistakes or hurtful behaviour than they are bound to repeat them.
We have done an excellent job as non-Indigenous, First Nations, Metis and Inuit people of ignoring our past. Of covering up, glossing over or minimizing the impact of the actions of our ancestors; It is not serving us.
I more often than not have experienced the push back of, ‘Well I haven’t had it easy either’. How does that line of thinking serve anyone? If you experienced pain, why would you want or be ok with someone else experiencing it? What part of you needs that?
An example was having an accent as a child and being teased. For one this is no where near comparable to having your hair forcibly cut, not being allowed to speak your language, being physically abused for having an accent or different language, those are on a very different level than being teased.
It needs to be said that if you are making comparisons of your life in hopes of justifying or making the abuse and systemic racism ok, take a step back and really understand what happened, as well your own privilege and perspective. These bodies that have been found are proof of what has always been known and not wanting to be believed.
I for one, never want someone to suffer as I have or at all. I know I am an imperfect parent, I yell more than I want, I have slammed some doors, but I am trying to be a better parent than my parents. I don’t want my children to feel of me, how I feel of my parents, I want them to always feel safe. The same is said at work, why would I want someone to suffer sexism, ageism, or unfair treatment that I have? I want everyone to feel respected and be treated fairly.
The same principle applies here, why would we defend un-defendable actions with our own stories of trauma? Should we not listen, find common ground/empathy, look for solutions to try and lift others up.
It is important to know the story of Residential schools, as it is also important to know the stories of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the murder of Colten Boushie and the RCMP handling of the case, how many reserves are sill without clean water – these are all very real recent examples of our living prejudice.
Right now, my hope is that this discovery has opened some eyes and hearts. That everyone can have hard, truthful conversations about what has happened and is happening. That we can take ourselves, our own guilt out of it, in order to show compassion to the Indigenous, First Nations, Metis and Inuit community. The Community that deserves our ears, our hearts and our minds in order to heal.