Yesterday, in my city, my government issued a statement through a federally assigned commission, called the Truth And Reconciliation Commission of Canada, concerning the history and impact of Canada’s residential school system on First Nations communities. The chair commissioner, Justice Sinclair, was filmed for APTN National News, giving the following absolutely shocking statement:
“The indoctrination of children into another race, for the purpose of eliminating the race that they come from, is acknowledged by the United Nations as an act of genocide. And in previous comments, I’ve already said that. But that doesn’t mean that the crime of genocide has occurred, it just means that it is a category that is recognized in the defintion of genocide.”
The commission also released this 30-page document outlining what it’s been doing with $60 million over the past five years, to investigate the truth and what can be done to reconcile with First Nations communities today–20 years after the last residential schools were finally closed. The residential school system perpetrated an efficiently executed cultural genocide against the First Nations across the country for approximately 140 years, in remote locations, by means of government sanction and funding. This was accomplished by forcibly extracting indigenous children from their family homes, moving them clear across the country to eliminate ties with their families and communities, and placing them as residents in religious institutions where they were forbidden to engage in practising their traditional spirituality, culture, or language; while their racial identity was indoctrinated out of them.
A typical internment period could endure for as long as 10 years. I repeat the words in my head. “Ten years.” I flash back to being 10 years old in school, unable to form or maintain meaningful friendships. I remember being bullied by everyone in my class, and ignored by everyone else. I think of all the time I spent alone. All the time I spent going hungry. All the time I spent trying to prolong my walk home by any means possible because I was afraid to go home. All the time I spent alone and in silence.
The exact number of aboriginal children who were extracted from their homes is unknown (a conservative estimate of 150,000 has been offered as a baseline). The number of children who died in these conditions is also unknown. Some were murdered, some committed suicide, and some perished as a result of “accidents”. My mind floods with information and statistics, about children who needed to be taken from their families because they are being abused, battered, or murdered while child services workers look for ways to avoid doing more work than they are committed to doing. I think of how I needed to be taken from my family. How my siblings needed it, too. How doctors waved their hands at my mother and I, every time I had to be taken back to the office or the hospital because of a severe bladder infection. How no one in my childhood neighborhood dared pick up the phone and report the disturbing behaviours they witnessed to social services.
Children who were brought into residential schools had their hair cut off and all their belongings taken away. They were put in uniforms that erased their individual identities, and were assigned new names or an identifying number in place of a name. I repeat the words in my head. “Hair cut off. Uniforms. Belongings taken away. Number in place of a name.” Every depiction I have ever seen of an emaciated Jew staring back in silence from behind the barbed wire at Auschwitz echoes in response. I think of the identity cards issued by Belgians to Hutus and Tutsis, with somewhat arbitrary assignment. I am reminded of the horror of learning for the first time last year, that the streets of India ran red with Sikh blood throughout the year 1984; and that not only was this action was sanctioned by the Indian government, but justice has yet to be seen as well.
Residential school children were abused, battered, or isolated for speaking their first language, practising their traditional culture in any capacity, or acknowledging their own spirituality in any way. I repeat the words in my mind. “Abused, battered, or isolated.” I flash back to my childhood and remember the experience of having this kind of silence and tyrannical fear enforced on me and my siblings within my own home. I remember being deprived of food as punishment. I remember being yelled at and bullied over matters I didn’t even have the skill to understand. I remember having my hair pulled so hard, if felt like my entire scalp was going to be ripped off. I remember being struck so hard that a wooden spoon broke across my tiny body, at which point it was dropped and an open palm slammed so hard into me that my skin was still swollen and erythematous for hours after the fact. But I wasn’t subjected to this because I tried to indulge in my forbidden culture. I was subjected to this because it was my culture.
Time spent captive in a residential school meant that resident children failed to develop parenting skills or the skills to survive when they were released. “Skills.” I don’t remember learning that word, or what it meant. I just remember trying to survive without it. I remember the day I realized, because she told me that her father was an alcoholic, that my mother didn’t have these skills either. I remember the day I started to speculate whether or not my father had these skills, because I read a letter from his sister about how her struggle with drug addiction (previously unknown to me) ended when she discovered God.
Because of the duration of the residential schools, the trauma incurred has been transmitted through multiple generations of aboriginal families, causing poverty, unfulfilled potential, mental illness, and other health and social problems. I repeat these words in my mind. “Transmitted through multiple generations.” I think back to my grandparents, because I never had the opportunity to know more than names, dates of birth and death, and countries of origin in the generation previous. I flash back to symbols of my maternal grandfather’s chronic alcoholism. I flash back to when I realized that I never knew my maternal grandmother, because she was already mentally deteriorating by the time I knew anything of her existence at all. My mind floods with memories of my mother as the self-centered Adult Child of an Alcoholic, when I most needed her. I flash back to the afternoon my paternal grandfather told me that he learned German as a survival mechanism during the occupation of Denmark.
I flash back to times with my paternal grandmother that now hit me with the same emotion as my memories of my mother, when I needed her, and she was too busy being self-centered. I flash back to watching my father’s perfect behaviour turn off, as if on command, to reveal the reprehensible person he always was behind closed doors with his wife and children. I flash back to the day my oldest sibling, 16 years old, called social services the day after she had run away and been taken from the safety of her friend’s home to be returned to our parents. It’s the last thing I remembered until I found out she finally left (permanently this time, and with the same friend) and the rest of us were moving away. My mind floods with memories of my other sibling’s criminal and antisocial behaviours, of her being yelled at (and I don’t even know what else) behind a closed door, and her alcohol and drug activity.
Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse was perpetrated against aboriginal children, in addition to spiritual abuse, in residential schools. I repeat these words. “Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.” Every word in this aspect of the shared experiences of aboriginal children in residential schools echoes my own experience in a dramatically different world. I try to think of what I sought to learn and express independently, about aboriginal cultures in North America, when I say to myself “spiritual abuse.” I recognize what it must feel like when I had to keep my spiritual path private or face ridicule in my own home. I flash back to when one of my siblings, completely ignorant about the spiritual path I was setting out on, attempted to terrify me with a Christian interpretation of what I would be doing later on my own and in private. In the dark and in silence. My memories, of church sermons ridiculing and degrading my spirituality, flood into my consciousness. Many resident aboriginal children were also traumatized from watching other resident children suffer abuse. And I too, have trauma to deal with, from watching my siblings being subjected to battery and abuse. Because everything that happened to me happened to them in front of me first.
There is still more, to both sides of this subject matter. There is still so much more that happened in those residential schools, and so much more that happened in my home. Like the residential school survivors and their communities, it seems my experience and that of many similar survivors is shrouded in secrecy, flat-out denied, or answered with “get over it.” My experience is trivial in magnitude, compared to the cultural genocide perpetrated against the First Nations. When I watched Justice Sinclair give the above statement on APTN National News, I wept. Nothing could be further from an effort to unveil the truth, educate Canadians who are as-of-yet uninformed about what happened in the residential schools, and work towards reconciliation.
I had the choice to cut all connection to my perpetrators, but the First Nations live immersed among the living descendants of the people and culture that has perpetrated against them. But there is nowhere for the First Nations to turn to, except towards each other. Into the grief and struggles of other survivors. The only answer that shows respect and dignity towards these communities, is acknowledging the truth and demonstrating empathy. The Canadian government has just spent $60 million and 5 years to accomplish little more than raising minimal awareness, at the same time magnifying the existing sense of alienation and isolation many survivors already experience daily.
I am so ashamed of this country. Every day.