Category Archives: Indigenous–Indian Residential Schools

Torn from Her Family at age of 5

 

At the Pat Porter Centre on September 27, 2022, we were lucky to sit beside Vivian Barkley, sister of Jennifer Wood, one of the presenters.  Vivian came all the way from Kitchener Ontario to support her sister Jennifer Wood today. I was impressed. Both of them are residential third school survivors. That means 3 generations of their family went to a residential school.

 

Vivian told us how she had been swept into an Indian Residential School at the age of 5. She explained that the authorities had really gone into their community to roust up older children, but when they came to their house she was included. She said it was a shocking day when she was torn away from her family and community at such a young age for totally inexplicable reasons that she could not understand. Her family was very poor and could not afford to pay for her to come home for her school holidays so mostly for 5 years she stayed in the school separated from her family. Can you imagine what reasons the educational authorities might give to justify their actions of ‘kidnapping’ these children and taking them away from their homes?

 

It is not without reason, that such actions are considered by the UN Genocide Convention to be genocide. This is how that international convention, which has been signed by Canada, defines genocide:

 

In Article II of that Convention:

 

“…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

 

“(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. [emphasis added]”

 

Was Canada guilty of genocide.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called it “cultural genocide.” Was that qualification necessary? It also says that everyone complicit with such acts can also be punished along with the perpetrator.

Christiane and I were both struck by how much Vivian was free of rancor and resentment notwithstanding how she had been treated by Canada.  How would you feel if Canada did that to your children? What would it take for you to want to reconcile with such a country? Is it something that can be done in a couple of weeks? Or a couple of years?

For Christiane and I this was a remarkable day. We learned some harsh Canadian truths by watching the program.

A National Journey for Truth and Reconciliation

 

Frankly, I had hoped to attend a Truth and Reconciliation event this year like I did last year. I remember how people thanked me for coming. Total strangers came up to thank me for wearing orange or coming. It was an amazing experience.

This year a cold is keeping me at home.

At the Pat Porter Seniors Centre on September 27, 2022 the old people there, including Chris and I and a surprisingly large contingent of old Steinbach and area people, were shown a film I had seen last year at the inaugural Day for Truth  Reconciliation. The film was called A National Journey for Truth and Reconciliation. It was worth seeing again.

You can get to see it online at no cost. The price is right. And it is a very short film—less than 10 minutes long. But there is a lot packed into 10 minutes. Gruesome stories are left out. Strength and freedom are on display.

The film consists mainly of the voices of survivors of residential schools. One of them said,

“I had these skeleton keys. And I went through a door in my mind. And I would go to each door. And I would open them. This one was fear. And this one was low self-esteem. And this one was sexual abuse. And the list goes on and on and on…I am proud to say, I opened those doors and I forgave.”

 

Ted Fontaine, a residential school survivor from Manitoba said this:

“I went through sexual abuse. I went through physical abuse. Mental, spiritual. And I will tell you, the one thing that we suffer the most is the mental and spiritual abuse that we carry the rest of our lives.”

 

Fontaine admitted that for the last 50 years he hated the perpetrator of the sexual assault on him. He said,

“I wanted to kill you. That came from me! But that wasn’t me speaking. That was a 6, 7, 8-year-old boy. Getting out what was still bothering him after 65 years.”

 

Fontaine could not believe that he had hated so much. That was not who he was. But that was who he became.

Ethel Lamothe another survivor said this with quite grace:

“My mother and father had 13 children and every single one of us had gone to residential school. I longed for the smell of spruce boughs. And the smoke. Wood smoke. I longed for the taste of the dried meat and the dried fish. I was hungry for all of that time. For my own food. And there was such a longing in my heart. Such a loneliness. For my people.”

 

And why could she not have that? Was she asking for too much? Her own people and her own food?

 

Lamothe also described how her brother died as a result of injuries suffered in residential school. She said,

“It was about my mother. And me. It was about us. And it was about the children who never came back.”

 

I paused to think. Children who went to school and never came back. In what kind of a world is that acceptable?

In the film A National Journey for Reconciliation, Joe Clarke, the former Prime Minister of Canada had some moving words to say about reconciliation:

“The Commission Chair, the eloquent Mr. Justice Murray Sinclair, borrows a phrase that was used by the leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement. That phrase is, “Keep your eye on the prize.” That sets a challenge for all of us. Indigenous and non-indigenous. Commissioners and Citizens. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will help to define the prize. We as Canadians, as citizens, have to mobilize the eyes and help the larger Canadian population both see and act. Reconciliation means coming together as a whole with one purpose being to hear and to heal  and then a critical common purpose which is to move forward together. And if we fail to do that, if we fail to go beyond apology and regret, if we admit the truth and ignore the reconciliation that would be to repeat the profound offences of the Residential Schools themselves. I believe that Canada as a broad and generous country can find the will to repair the damage of that past and build new partnerships if enough of our citizens know and if their eyes are turned to the prize.”

 

I think that is what reconciliation looks like.

I too think Canada can do this. I also  think of what Angela Merkel said when she proposed Germany accept 1,000,000 Syrian refuges: “Wir machen das.” We can do this.

 

Dropped from the Sky

 

This is reconciliation week in Canada. Christiane and I are participating in a number of events as part of this week. We want to learn more.

The Pat Porter Active Living Centre (‘the Centre’), in Steinbach  of which Christiane and I are members, hosted an afternoon of learning the history of Indian Residential Schools on Tuesday.  The Centre is geared to seniors over 55 years old. Old people like us. That day we also enjoyed an authentic indigenous cuisine lunch of bison stew, Bannock, wild rice, and summer berries with ice cream. That lunch was  followed by a ceremony and cultural teachings, drumming and dance.

Frankly, Christiane and I were surprised that the Centre had sponsored such an event.  We had never heard of them doing such a thing before.  There was pretty good attendance too.

During the day we learned that Jennifer Wood the Indigenous leader the Centre invited to bring to us a couple of hours of entertainment and knowledge was also very pleasantly surprised that the Centre had done this. She  said she was  very impressed that Steinbach’s seniors would be interested in that. Added to that, she was surprised by how many of us wore orange shirts to identify support for the cause of indigenous children under the banner of ‘All Children Matter.’ Frankly ,I was proud that we were a part of this event. Wood said that 25 years ago this would never have happened. I am not sure it would have happened 5 years ago.  Wood said, “The era of change is what you represent here today.”She also said that “by inviting us to speak we were participating in reconciliation.” People like her are accustomed to non-indigenous Canadians showing little interest in such matters.

 

After the opening water ceremony, we heard from Jennifer Wood, an Ojibway woman from Neyaashiinigmiing First Nation, Ontario. She was the Coordinator of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement for nearly a decade for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. She has organized some of the largest and most important Indigenous conferences in Canada. We were lucky to have her come to Steinbach to tell us old folks her perspective on indigenous issues, particularly reconciliation.

 

Here she was a third-generation survivor of Residential Schools, yet she thanked us profusely for inviting her. She was clearly excited about seeing such interest in Steinbach. Who would have believed it?

 

Added to that, Wood said to those of us wearing the orange shirts that alluded to our support for the Every Child Matters movement, “When you wear an orange shirt you are wearing a bit of justice.” I liked that. That made Christiane and I who were wearing our orange shirts very proud. Wood appreciated our little gesture. I don’t think she was expecting to see a lot of orange shirts in Steinbach.

 

She opened by saying, she was not there to blame or make people feel guilty. She just wanted us to learn the truth.  That was why we were there. For generations the indigenous perspective has been ignored. As she said, “It is a heavy subject, but I want everybody to know the truth.”  Without truth there can be no reconciliation.

 

She told us about how her and her 4 siblings including her sister Vivian who was sitting with Christiane and I, had been seized by government officials and taken away from her loving home without her consent when she was a very young girl. 5 family members were swept up in one day. Imagine the terror!

She knew no one there and could not see her siblings. She was deliberately separated from them and, of course, her parents.

It reminded me of what we had seen in the short video presentation we saw earlier. A residential school survivor told us about her first day at the school. She said,

“When I arrived at the school, far from home, I felt like I had been dropped from the sky. Strangers around me. I don’t know them; they don’t know me. I didn’t know how to socialize. I don’t even know how to love.

 

 

As I have learned, there was a reason for this. It is a harsh Canadian truth.  Separating children form parents and siblings was done on purpose It was done deliberately to destroy the Indigenous Family. They wanted to do that. And this is one thing they were very good at.

 

Genocide Repudiated

 

The Indian Residential Schools established by the Canadian government under the provisions of the Indian Act were instruments it used, often through its church partners,  to ensure dominance over indigenous people. Even if the Popes had disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery, the basis of these notions were also the foundation of that doctrine, which I have called vile.

Here is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  said in its report to the Canada in 2015,

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.””

 

Since that report was delivered many critics have said the TRC was too gentle with Canada. They suggested the word “cultural” should be dropped from that destruction. They say, Canada was guilty of genocide. Pope Francis on his recent visit to Canada said he thought it “genocide.” The subsequent report of the 2019 Inquiry into Missing and Murdered  Women and Girls, said the actions reported on in that report amount to “genocide.” There was no qualification. It may be that the reticence of the TRC was a consequence of it not being authorized to accuse people of crimes, and genocide is a crime.

The TRC said this about genocide:

“Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.”

 

 

And then the TRC added, “In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.” If Canada did all 3 things necessary to be classified as genocide, then the TRC is saying, Canada committed genocide in its dealings with its Indian Residential Schools. According to the TRS, and was amply justified by the evidence revealed in its report,

 

As if that was not enough the TRC also said this,

“Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity. Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.   In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s First prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

 

But as if that was not enough the TRC added,

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”

 

Who can possibly deny that taking children away from their parents for such a vile policy is not genocide? I think the conclusion is clear and unassailable.

In my opinion these genocidal policies are incompatible with the statements made by Pope Francis in Canada. He spoke plainly and clearly. This was a most welcome message from a Pope.

 

Targeting the Unvaccinated

 

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s Chief Medical Health official announced on Friday  that Manitoba was re-imposing significant instructions on the unvaccinated that would take effect today.   Was that fair?  Some people have suggested they have been surprised by the amount of hatred shown by people who are vaccinated to the small number of people  people who are not unvaccinated.

I am not in favor of hate.  That never helps. I renounce hatred and do not want be in the camp of the haters.

But I do want to explain that I think people who have been resistant to vaccines are unwise and causing significant risk of harm to themselves and others.  It’s all right if they expose themselves to risks of harm; it is not all right to expose others to such risks without their express consent.

Dr. Roussin commented that the new restrictions are only onerous on the unvaccinated. The people who are vaccinated are enjoying the benefits of taking the vaccines. In particular these new restrictions are designed to protect our health care system.  Currently 30,000 medical procedures and surgeries have been postponed and are getting urgent, so that Manitoba could protect its Intensive Care Units in case they are needed.

 

With Chris finally having had surgery after waiting for more than 6 months, we were overjoyed that surgeries were available again. That might have saved her life. It certainly, eased her mind tremendously.   Every day she thought her brain  aneurysm might burst. That is a lot of psychological baggage to carry around. It was a great relief to get it done.

 

The province released an astounding statistic.  They reported that, “As of Friday, all Covid-19 patients in ICU were not fully vaccinated, and half of those were from southern health.” That one sentence tells a big story.  No on currently in an Intensive Care Unit in Manitoba for Covid-19 has been vaccinated!  Not one. How can people say the vaccines are not effective?  Secondly, half of the people in ICU for Covid-19 have come from southern Manitoba, where we live. Southern Health district has the lowest percentage of people who have been fully vaccinated, and has only about 15% of the population of Manitoba, but has half of the people who are in those ICUs with Covid-19. Who can deny that regions with a high vaccine rate are not getting a huge benefit from the vaccines?

 Dr. Roussin also had a comment on Manitoba’s strategy. He said, “We also believe there’s a need to ensure that we minimize the impact to non-Covid care for the majority of Manitobans by reducing the surges and Covid demands on our system.”

In other words, people who resist taking Covid-19 vaccines are causing significant harm not just to themselves but others who have a right to be protected from the actions of the people who are refusing to get vaccinated. Getting vaccinated matters, for people who have been vaccinated and those who have not.  As a result, as Dr. Roussin said, “We are quite intent on our need to preserve surgical capacity at this time and ensure that Manitobans have timely access to care, and especially those who cannot postpone their surgeries any longer.” Until Friday, that included my wife Chris. That’s why for me this issue was personal.

As a result, Dr. Roussin when he says actions against people who are not vaccinated are not matters of “blaming and shaming. They are matters of public health. The actions are taken to protect the public. No matter what people who are opposed to restrictions say, such restrictions are justified to protect people, not just from Covid-19, but many other conditions.

The Colour of Reconciliation

 

I don’t know what reconciliation will look like. I know it’s important and Canadians must figure it out. What colour is reconciliation?  Is it white? Do white people have to figure it out? Yes, but not alone and not in such a way as we try to impose on others what it means. We tried that approach to relations with Indigenous people and it did not work very well. In fact, that is what got us into trouble.

Is the colour of reconciliation red? Yes, in part. We need indigenous people to actively engage in this process. I think they are prepared to  engage, provided  the white people are serious in their discussions and respectful in their intentions.

Is the colour of reconciliation red and white. Yes, in part again. It is more than that. It involves all Canadians and that means an array of colours.  It involves an abundance of colours. We have people of all colours in Canada. That is great. It is what makes Canada great. We don’t need a great white hope to “make Canada great again.”  Canada is not a great power. We have no goal to be that (I hope). Canada  has made many mistakes, but it also has learned a lot. It has learned enough that others can learn something from us. We just need to understand and respect what we have and what we can do.

Is the Colour of reconciliation orange? Yes, in part. We must learn from that colour. That colour was chosen because of the experience of a 6-year-old Indigenous girl going to Residential School for the first time with her grandmother. Her name was Phyliss Webstad. She had chosen an orange shirt for her first exciting day in school because her shirt was bright and shiny and  smooth and she was very proud of that shirt. But the shirt was taken away from her on her first day in residential school because the school administrators, for some reason did not like it. She never got to wear it again.

When she got older and remembered the incident and how unjust it was, she helped to start Orange Shirt day, on September 30 so that she could demonstrate that she could wear an orange shirt if she wanted to. As she said, “When I see people wearing an orange shirt or an ‘Every child matters pin,’ for us survivors, it’s like a little bit of justice in our life time.’

I don’t really know what reconciliation looks like. I hope to learn.  But I hope it is the colour of justice. A little bit of justice.

 

Canada’s First National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

 

Today was Canada’s First National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. I went to the event in Winnipeg where I met my son Nick, daughter-in-law Debbie, grandson Nolan, and granddaughter Stella.  This group was less enthusiastic about having their photo taken by me than some of the other people I met.

I went to the event to show support to Indigenous people, and in particular the  Indian Residential School survivors and thrivers as some prefer to be called. I was not sure what to expect from this day.  First, the sound equipment was poor.  You could only hear the speakers or performers if you went close-up. To get close to the speakers and performers I had to get too close for comfort. After all, this is still a time of Covid-19.

This young girl asked me to take her picture. I also wanted to support those who have a connection to residential schools. But then I realized, we are all connected to the Indian residential schools if we live in Canada, whether we realize it or not. Just like we are all treaty people.

At first I was shy, but then I just went up to some of the people and asked if I could photograph them. None said no. All were pleased to pose and proud to show themselves. Some even asked me to wait while they adjusted their clothes to present their best selves.

 

I thanked everyone I photographed.   I was surprised when some of the people thanked me for taking their picture.   Some people just thanked me as I walked by. Why was that? I was just an ordinary white guy in an orange shirt. I think it was because they liked seeing white people out to support them. It made me feel good.

I asked the guy with the flag if I could take his photo and he asked me to included his whole family.

I think people would have enjoyed coming out as I did. It was wonderful. I recommend you try it next year, if you didn’t this year. You might be surprised too.

Our Lady of the Bog

 

The swamps of Manitoba are amazing places.  Some people think I am nuts for saying that, but I think it is true.  Our swamps I (I really should say wetlands because swamps are just one type of wetland) contain some phenomenal beauty—like the Showy Lady’s-slipper. What could be more beautiful?

The scientific name for the Showy Lady’s-slipper is Cypripedium reginae and the second part of the name is Latin for Queen. This is indeed the queen of the wetland. It is one of the showiest and most splendid of our native orchids.

 

Religious Sexual Predators

 

Most students came to Indian Residential Schools with little knowledge of sexual activity and were very confused by what was happening to them. As the TRC  described it,

“Abuse left them injured, bewildered, and often friendless or subject to ridicule by other students.  Many students thought they were the only children being abused. This confusion made it difficult for them to describe or report their abuse. Some were told they would face eternal damnation for speaking of what had been done to them.”

 

Some students did not report the abuse because they feared (often with justification) that no one would believe them. Some students who reported abuse were told it was their fault. After all good Christian leaders would never do such heinous things that were being alleged. Former students told of how betrayed they felt when nothing was done about their complaints. Many felt ashamed of what happened to them. Many felt it was their fault. After all they had been taught how unworthy they were. As the TRC reported,

“Family members often refused to believe their children’s reports of abuse, intensifying their sense of isolation and pain. This was especially so within families that had adopted Christianity, and could not believe that the people of God looking after their children would ever do such things.”

 

There was no safe haven for the vulnerable children in residential schools. Some students were “assaulted in the church confessional.”

 If there is no special place for religious predators in hell there is no  justice. I don’t really believe in eternal damnation, but iIf anyone deserves eternal damnation these religious predators did.

 

Sexual Terrorism

 

In Canada’s Indian Residential Schools some of the abusers stood out.  Arthur Plint who worked as a boys’ supervisor at the Alberni residential school for 2 five year periods between 1948 and 1968 (between the year I was born and the year I went to First year university) pleaded guilty to 198 counts of indecent assault.  When Justice D.A. Hogarth sentenced him he called Plint a “sexual terrorist.”

Students were subjected to the gamut of abuse—from touching to the horrendous. Sadly, where some people (not just men) were put in charge of vulnerable people they used their power to exploit the less powerful. That is something that happens over and over again in society, not just residential schools. The powerful take advantage of the vulnerable and it happens repeatedly. But residential schools were perfectly designed to cater to exploitation. Young children had been taken against their will away from their families that might have protected them. Their parents were often  were often far away and were not allowed to contact their children. Sometimes they were separated for months and even years without contact. They were cut off from their only protection. They were surrounded by others who disparaged them. The opportunity to take advantage of power was difficult for some to resist.  As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  reported, “There was no single pattern of abuse of students: students of both sexes reported assaults from staff members of both the opposite sex and the same sex.”

As the TRC explained,

“First-year students, traumatized by separation from their parents and the harsh and alien regime of the school, were particularly vulnerable to abusive staff members who sought to win their trust through what initially appeared to be simple acts of kindness. In some cases, this might involve little more than extra treats from the school canteen. This favouritism, however, was often the prelude to a sexual assault that left the student scared and confused.”

 

Many students were raped. One student reported a moment of terror when a lay brother at the Fort Albany school cornered her and she couldn’t call for help. Some dormitory supervisors used their power to organize dormitory-wide systems of abuse. Many students feared being called into supervisor’s rooms at night. Many tried to always be with others. Some older students tried to protect the younger students.

Often the abusers used religious feelings to set the stage for abuse. Many victims thought their abusers were instruments of God. Many victims had been trained to believe they were inferior and unworthy making resistance difficult. The victims had no one they could turn to for support. It was a problem from hell.