The Honor Song Trilogy – Part Two
Solutions for Healing a Broken People
(Canada’s Indian Residential School Experience)
“Racism is a lot like carbon monoxide…it is invisible, odourless and tasteless. We really don’t know it’s there until it kills us“.
The previous essay titled ‘The Psychology of Cultural Trauma’ touched upon a number of possible solutions for healing Canada’s Aboriginal community, though more on the infrastructural/political level such as; a native-friendly education system, a long-overdue apology from the Pope and the Catholic Church, a national memorial/monument (on Capital Hill) to the victims of the Indian Residential Schools, etc. This ‘Solutions’ document will concentrate more on the inner, psychic and spiritual level – that level that deals with feelings and emotions such as; shame, degradation, hurt, depression and suicide (on the negative side) and compassion, respect, understanding, self esteem, ethics and humanity (on the positive). The problems created by institutional racism (the Residential Schools, the Reservation System and the Indian Act) are complex, multi-layered and deep-seated therefore there are no quick-fixes or easy solutions that will right these historical wrongs or accelerate the healing process. By ‘multi-layered’ I mean that some solutions exist at the physical, mundane level, such as housing, nutrition, healthcare, employment, etc. while other solutions exist at the personal, psychological and spiritual level. These deeper solutions will need to address the Aboriginal culture’s damaged sense of ‘self and place’. It is helpful to understand that all of the solutions, no matter what level we are talking about are linked and integrated – the outward, physical manifestations of damage and dysfunction (i.e., drug abuse, suicide, obesity, crime rates, etc.) are a direct result of, and often proportional to the inner damage existing within the individual or cultural ‘self’. And, it can be said with certainty, the solutions that address the deeper, inner realm of the psyche and the self will inevitably promote the healing of the whole person.
An essential ingredient to the healing of Canada’s Aboriginal community is education… and by this I mean the education of non-Aboriginal students (and adults) due to their somewhat limited and skewed understanding of the history and psychology of First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures. Racism is a lot like carbon monoxide… it is invisible, odorless and tasteless… we don’t really know it’s there until it kills us. Education programs that provide a more balanced and reality-based portrayal of the many positive qualities inherent in traditional Aboriginal societies can equip non-Aboriginal students with a knowledgeable base from which to counter stereotypical attitudes and latent forms of racism that may lay hidden (yet ever-potent) within the mainstream culture.
“Get to them early… and get to them often.”
Educational programs relating to the history of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples can be customized to suit all grade levels, from university down to elementary. Information relating to Indian Residential Schools could be introduced as early as the elementary level for a number of reasons. Firstly, students at the Grade 4 to Grade 6 levels are mature enough to process basic concepts relating to the history of the institutions and secondly, as mentioned above, students need as much historically-accurate information as possible to counter the attitudes of racism that exists outside the classroom. Canada’s strained relationship with, and abusive treatment of its Aboriginal citizens is a ‘hot-button issue’ within the framework of the new millennium. Hardly a day goes by without local, regional and national media outlets reporting on such current issues as land-claims negotiations, treaty rights, constitutional amendments, cultural trauma, Aboriginal youth suicide, sexual improprieties by the church, reconciliation, apologies, alcoholism, poverty and the epidemic of predation, assault and murder of Aboriginal women. Because of the immediacy of these issues and the rarefied climate that exists in Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations today, any elementary-level introduction to Canada’s Indian Residential schools, even in the most basic of formats would be beneficial. It must be stressed that any specific introduction to the Residential schools should not be treated simply as an extension of existing history lessons which are standard within elementary school curricula. An elementary-level introduction to Aboriginal issues needs to be, first of all, handled with kid-gloves, secondly, be delivered by native educators themselves and, lastly, afforded special accommodation within existing curricula because these young students will inevitably interface (whether as students or later on as adults) with political and cultural realities involving Canada’s Aboriginal community.
Chapter One: A Mile in Our Moccasins
(Note: The following is a sample introduction to the Indian Residential schools that would be more suitable for the junior to senior high school level. Although the language and imagery used can be modified to suit university and elementary levels, the general drift of the following introduction – including its message and its ethos – is virtually identical).
To the Students: Today I would like to take you on a most unusual journey, to a place where most, if not all of you have never been before. First, I must ask you to remove your shoes (pause)… … . ahh… I meant this more in the figurative sense, not the literal… for it is easier to understand this journey if you can, through the use of imagination, walk a mile or two in some one else’s shoes… or in this case, someone else’s moccasins. I know this is a difficult thing to do because today we live in such a fast-paced, cyber-driven, self-centric society. But please try as hard as you can because the next subsection titled ‘The Scenario’ only works if you can see things through some one else’s eyes, through some one else’s perspective – that’s what ‘walking a mile in some one else’s shoes’ really means. I will be your guide therefore you will need to trust that I have journeyed to this place many times before and that I know the lay of the land and how to get back.
The place that we will journey to is not a geographical location (it cannot be located on a map) and cannot be understood within the realm of the human intellect where things are reasoned, weighed, analyzed, measured and thought-out in words and ideas. The place that I am talking about exists much, much deeper, within that region of the human body known as the ‘pit’ of the stomach… where people feel things. We can think about a lot of stuff with our minds but when we really feel things it comes from deep down inside our guts. So, if you have the courage to follow me and are willing to wear some one else’s moccasins for a little while then I think we are ready to begin.
Our destination is that place… deep, deep inside… … where human beings hurt.
I’m not talking about the hurt you feel when you bump your head or stub your toe, I’m referring instead to the level of hurt where a person’s deep senses of ‘self’, personhood and ‘humanity’ are violated or assaulted – this is what I refer to as ‘the big hurt’. For example, if any of you has ever been sexually abused, especially as a child, then you know the place I am talking about, you know what if feels like to really ‘hurt’ deep down inside. If you have been repeatedly bullied because of your culture or uniqueness or if you’ve been on the receiving end of racial slurs or hate crimes then you have experienced first-hand this hurtful place. If you have been physically abused, beaten repeatedly or screamed at and demeaned by adults over an extended period of time then you surely know what it’s like to be in that hurtful place. Hopefully, most or all of you students have been raised in good homes by caring, compassionate parents or guardians.
What I am about to tell you will be extremely hard to understand and accept because your lives have been relatively safe and protected… but in Canada’s recent history, a tragic event occurred where 160,000 Aboriginal children all experienced what it was like to be in that place where humans really, really hurt. 160,000 boys and girls (some as young as five years of age), over a 90-year period and through no fault of their own were forcibly removed from their families, communities and culture, then shipped-off to prison-like institutions for their entire youth, all because they were Aboriginal. Many of these kids didn’t just experience ‘the big hurt’ every once in a while, they actually lived there ‘all of the time’. Even after they were released from the prisons/institutions they were so badly damaged that they carried their ‘hurt’ on into adulthood and passed it on to their children and grand children.
This all happened right here, in Canada. The institutions were called the ‘Indian Residential School System’ and they were situated all over the country – I’m sure there was one close to where you are sitting right now as I speak to you. Canada, like many other countries ‘colonized’ by the Europeans, was built upon the foundation of racism, there is still racism here today and the Indian Residential schools and their legacy are the living proof of this. (I must add that there are many people in Canada who are fighting hard to get rid of racism).
I hope you are all wearing your moccasins because I would now like to walk you through a ‘scenario’, an imaginary re-enactment of an average day in the lives of those 160,000 children, especially their first few days after being forcibly removed from their homes and their families.
To the students: Imagine this is happening to you and your family – you are a young child again, say between the ages of 7 and 10 and you are at home having dinner with your family. Seated around the table are your mother, father, brothers and sisters and grandparents enjoying the evening meal. Suddenly there is a loud knock at the door and in walks two men dressed in police uniforms. One of the men holds out a piece of paper which is signed by the Government of Canada and this document authorizes the men to seize all the children between the ages of five and seventeen and place them in a vehicle waiting outside. (Try to imagine how upset you, your brothers and sisters, your parents and grandparents are as these events unfold). You will not be able to take any personal items with you except a change of clothing and a warm coat.
You and your brothers and sisters will then be taken to the nearest train station where you will be met by some other men in police uniforms. These men will document, tag and transport you off to a special institutions sometimes hundreds of miles away and usually in a remote parts of the country (the train trip can be two to three hours and can sometimes last up to two or three days. You and your brothers and sisters will be frightened, home-sick and very confused throughout the journey).
Upon arriving at the Indian Residential school all the children, including you and your brothers and sisters, will be forced to strip naked and your clothes will be placed in a big pile and burned – you will then be issued standard institutional uniforms. You will also be stripped of your names… you will be given strange, foreign names instead and assigned a number like ‘15’ or ‘24’ which the authorities will often use when speaking to you or referring to you. The schools are operated by religious priests and nuns and there are many strict rules that must be followed. In this institution, you and your brothers and sisters will be forced to learn a new language (you can no longer speak your own language and will be severely punished if you do). You and your brothers and sisters will be forced to learn a new religion (the religion or spirituality that you were born into, that your entire family has practiced all your life, is no longer permitted). You will be forced to have your hair cut short to uniform lengths (brush cuts for boys). You will be forced to eat new kinds of food, much different from the types of foods you have eaten all your life – many children will develop allergic reactions to white bread, white milk, white sugar and cheese (staples of the European diet but alien to the Aboriginal culture). These foods will make the children sick and many will die. The food will be poor in quality and you and your brothers and sisters will be hungry most of the time. All males and females, including brothers and sisters, will be separated onto two large groups and segregated from one another over the many years that you are in the Residential schools. The children in these groups will be forced to all sleep in one large, over-crowded dormitory (sometimes four to a bed) and eat in one large, over-crowded dining room – many children will eventually get sick and die from diseases caused by the lack of heating, overcrowding and poor ventilation.
You will be forced to learn a new kind of education, much different from the education that was taught to you at home. You and your brothers and sisters will spend half the day in school and the other half hired out to the surrounding community as forced laborers doing farm work (for the boys) and kitchen and domestic chores (for the girls). Although the priests and nuns will receive money for all the hard work you do, you will never be paid. Many children will be sexually, physically and psychologically abused by the nuns and priests in these institutions – some will commit suicide. And finally, children will be severely punished if they attempt to run away from the Residential schools (you may be beaten and/or have all your hair cut off). Many children will try to run away but will die of starvation or exposure because the institutions are sometimes hundreds of miles away from their home communities.
I mentioned that lots of children died in these horrible institutions, let me be more clear about this. A number of inquiries into the Indian Residential School’s 90-year history have been conducted by various human rights organizations including a 1995 investigation by The Association of American Minorities, a United Nations affiliate. The A.A.M. estimated the death toll in the schools to be in the tens of thousands. That means tens of thousands of Aboriginal children never, ever went home again… never, ever saw their parents or grandparents again. (The Canadian government has tried very hard to keep this information secret and hidden from the public but it was not successful). For those of you who still have your moccasins on and are deeply ‘involved’ in this scenario, this means that many of your own class mates, friends, cousins and even some of your brothers and sisters will die while in the institutions.
I have presented the above scenario to many students across the country and it never fails to evoke an atmosphere of total, pin-drop silence in the classroom or lecture hall. I then ask the students the following questions and attempt to engage them in discussion:
- How would you feel if this really happened to you?
- How would it make your parents and grandparents feel?
- What would you do if this happened to you?
- How would you feel if you were beaten for speaking your own
language and practicing your own religion?
- Do you think the children should have been taken away from
- Do you believe this happened in Canada?
- What do you think about so many children dying?
- How can we stop this from happening again?
The above scenario is one of a number of simple approaches that can be used as a ‘door-opener’ which can lead to a broader discussion on the history of the institutions. This approach is effective because it vicariously places the students ‘at the scene’ of the tragedy and creates for them a number of relatable crossovers between their own lives and the lives of the Aboriginal children who were victims of the Indian Residential schools.
To Acknowledge It, to Embrace It and to ‘Own’ It
(Note: The Canadian education system would be well served if the severity of the Indian Residential school tragedy is not glossed-over, white-washed or otherwise made palatable by those who set curriculum. Non-Aboriginal students (and adults) need to be ‘shocked’ into a state of awareness of the ugliness of institutional racism and nothing brings that awareness into focus more than the image of thousands and thousands of innocent children dying for no other reason than they were born Aboriginal. To that end I would like to finish off this chapter with the following).
The final death-toll at Canada’s Indian schools needs to be viewed in a broader and more realistic context… some mortality estimates are as low as eight or nine thousand while others have been pegged as high as thirty-five thousand. In terms of the final tally it would be grossly inaccurate to figure-in only those students who actually died while on school property and whose names therefore show up on school records. There are a number of secondary factors which need to be taken into consideration when attempting to reach a final death-count and they are as follows:
- The many children who ran away from the institutions, who died
and whose bodies were never found.
- The many children who died shortly after returning home and whose
deaths did not show up on school records
- The children who died of beatings and other abuses while in the trust
of the church. Some of these children disappeared and their deaths
were never reported to, or investigated by local police authorities or
- The children who died and were buried in ‘unmarked’ mass-graves
and whose bodies have only recently been discovered and exhumed.
- The many former students who went on into adult life and who died
tragic deaths which were directly attributable to the physical, sexual
and psychological abuses suffered while in the schools. These deaths
were mostly related to suicide, murder and other violent crimes,
alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, prostitution, drug abuse and depression.
- Many records were destroyed by the religious orders after the
institutions were closed. Other records were destroyed in fires.
It is safe to say the full scope of this cultural genocide will never truly be known, given all the ‘unknowns’ illustrated by the above factors. As far as the victims are concerned, it matters little whether the death-toll was in the thousands or the tens-of-thousands. What really does matter is that today governments, the churches and the citizens of this country have an opportunity to accept this dark chapter in Canadian history… to acknowledge it, to embrace it and to ‘own’ it. A simple and heart-felt acknowledgment is essential to the development of a workable ‘Nation to Nation’ relationship – based upon trust and mutual respect – between the government of Canada and its First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities.
Chapter Two: Aboriginal Wisdom and Traditional Values
In keeping with the central theme of this essay, which is to use public education as part of the healing process, it is vitally important to familiarize the Canadian mainstream (including schools and universities) with the many positive qualities of Aboriginal People. These many qualities can be best summed up by the terms; Aboriginal wisdom and traditional values. If there is to be any light at the end of the Indian Residential School tunnel it is incumbent upon Canada’s non-Aboriginal community to come to grips with the profundity contained within these two simple phrases. There needs to be a genuine respect, understanding and empathy for the laws, ethics, moral underpinnings, values and wisdom of an ancient culture that has occupied this land for almost fifteen thousand years (that’s seven or eight times the entire life-span of Christianity). There are many Canadians who still think the First Nations, Inuit and the Métis should be driven off the land, forced to assimilate into the Euro-Canadian mainstream and eventually disappear into oblivion.
This would constitute a second national tragedy!!
Why? Because in so many respects Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples simply had it right! We now know, thanks in large part to the efforts and studies of the global anthropological community, that the wisdom, values and traditional ways of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples were a just and conscientious means of existing on this planet. ‘Earth-friendly’… a term that best conveys the essence of those three underlined words… had it right! That although they lived simple lives and didn’t have a lot of ‘stuff’, the Natives knew how to look after the Earth, how to care for the environment… the trees, the water, the air, the animals and other human beings. Embodied in their values system and traditional ways were respect, consciousness and an unwritten law which dictated that no one should take more than what they needed. ‘Taking more than you need’ is the most destructive and poisonous ‘value’ that accompanied the Europeans as they bull-dozed their way through the Americas over the past five hundred years.
Today we have an opportunity to conduct a brutally honest and much over-due examination of the fundamental question; does Canada’s Aboriginal culture deserve to exist or should it be wiped out (i.e., absorbed into the mainstream)? When the first ships began arriving at our eastern shores four hundred years ago, they carried with them rats, smallpox and other poisonous diseases… but in addition they also brought with them two equally-poisonous concepts; Euro-centrism and religio-centrism. These two deadly concepts virtually precluded any possibility of forming a mutual and amicable relationship with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples – it was a cut-and-dried issue; we are the superior culture and the natives are inferior… end of conversation. With the Aboriginals already prejudged as inferior (as was the case in all other regions of the world colonized by Europe) why would anybody take the time to learn anything about them… their wisdom, knowledge and intelligence, etc.
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. Visit any of the major bookstores in this country and peruse the huge sections on Aboriginal history and North American Native wisdom and a completely different picture begins to emerge. The Aboriginal’s core values, once so callously ignored and written-off by the Catholic Church and the colonists, are now highly respected world-wide. Their egalitarian and democratic social structures… highly respected. Their high regard for women as decision makers, healers and keepers of the sacred wisdom… highly respected. Their understanding and practice of restorative justice… highly respected. Their understanding of the natural healing properties of herbs and plants… highly respected. Their Omni-theistic understanding of the universe, of quantum law and the underlying interconnection of all creation… highly respected. And last but not least, their ‘Earth-ethic’ and their ability to exist in harmony with the rest of the planet… highly respected.
There’s no point going into a detailed break-down of the commendable qualities of this country’s Indigenous Peoples because this was covered in the ‘trauma’ document. Suffice it to say that the ancient wisdom of Canada’s Aboriginal culture is well-documented, deeply-rooted, honorable and studied by scholars in universities all over the world. Traditional Aboriginal wisdom is holistic and nature-centric, and being thus will exist long after the ‘western’ values of profit motive, consumerism, dog-eat-dog, dominion over the Earth, etc. have turned to dust.
The following historical vignette is indicative of the high level of respect accorded to North American Aboriginal wisdom:
In the mid-1700s, when the American system was in its infancy the ‘Founding Fathers’ – which included the likes of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, et al, – were drafting up the ‘American Bill of Rights’, the single, most important document in American history and which today still holds the standard for the protection of civil and human rights in that country. Because they were a young upstart of a union the ‘Founding Fathers’ decided to look outside of themselves, outside of the union for a model which would guide them in the writing of this most revered document. They could have looked to the east, to the ancient cultures of China, Mongolia, India or Persia. They could have looked to Western Europe or Africa. But instead they found the model that embodied the highest and noblest of ideals right in their own back yard. Those highest and noblest of ideals came from the ‘Great Laws of the Iroquois’, a confederacy of six Aboriginal Nations situated in what is now the American Northeast and Central Canada. They included the Cayuga, Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca and the Tuscarora Nations.
Now let’s re-visit the question posed earlier; does Canada’s Aboriginal culture deserve to exist or should it be wiped out? Yes, most emphatically, it does ‘deserve’ to exist and the following attempts to explain why. The Iroquois Confederacy is just one of many ‘patches’ in the great and sprawling quilt that was, and still is the North American Indigenous culture. All the ‘patches’ or confederacies were connected and interwoven and many adhered to the same high ideals as those of the Iroquois. For some, these ideals have now become a beacon of hope and sanity in an otherwise chaotic and frenzied rush to destroy the planet. If the non-Aboriginal community could understand just how much of a beacon of hope and sanity the ‘Earth-friendly’ values and traditional ways of Canada’s First Peoples are, then they would also understand why it is vital to ensure that Aboriginal cultures across the country be given the support and the freedom to build strong communities which are under-pinned by their traditional values, their nature-reverent spirituality and ancient wisdom.
The word ‘return’ is used in the last sentence which is not entirely correct because it suggests that the values, knowledge and wisdom are somehow missing from Native culture and communities and must now be ‘returned’ so they can be re-implemented. Throughout the past one hundred and fifty years of cultural and religious persecution there has always been a few Aboriginal die-hards who have continued to practice the ancient ways and speak the language, even when they were outlawed by the federal government. The purpose of the Indian Residential schools was to kill-off the traditional ways, the spiritual knowledge and the language of Canada’s First Peoples and it almost worked… almost. But ever since the last school closed, together with the enshrinement of Aboriginal Rights and Title into the Canadian Constitution in 1982, there has been a slow but steady resurgence of the language, ancient knowledge and cultural values in some communities. I say ‘some’ because many Native communities are still reeling from the traumatic after-effects of alcohol, systemic racism, cultural genocide, the Indian Act and the Residential schools. It is a daunting task, a constant up-hill battle just to cope and survive let alone begin any meaningful and concerted effort to heal.
The Up-hill Battle
To elaborate a bit more on just how much of an up-hill battle confronts the resurgence of Canada’s Native culture, consider the following. Throughout the past five hundred years of European colonization of most of the planet, many inventive techniques have been devised to passively or aggressively kill-off the Indigenous inhabitants of the regions being colonized. Spain, for example, employed the ‘blunt-object’ approach, bordering on out-right genocide – the brutality of the conquistador’s ‘methods’ used to colonize Central America is to this day a source of deep embarrassment to Spanish nationals. One of the American techniques to ‘drive-those-pesky-redskins-into-oblivion’ was to kill-off all the buffalo, which was the Plains Indian’s main source of sustenance. Thus began the infamous campaign (another inexcusable crime against nature) that resulted in an all-out killing spree that wiped-out 60 million of the noble, sentient beings. The slaughter was of course fueled by a generous bounty provided by the US government.
Ok, but what about Canada, what kind of inventive techniques were used here? Besides the usual suspects (Residential Schools, reserves, assimilation, racist policies, etc.) our methods were, for lack of a better term, a ‘kinder, gentler’ version of the blunt-object approach to colonization. To soften, dilute and generally demoralize the local Indigenous folks out of their land-based raison d’etre, the Canadian government decided on a nation-wide campaign to ‘over-expose’ the natives to a barrage of European poisons – the Europeans didn’t view these influences as poisonous at the time, they merely viewed them as European. First it started with plying the natives with alcohol, a truly foreign substance if ever there was one and the imposition of ‘fire-water’ into every native community across the width and breadth of Canada proved to be a most effective method for contaminating the purity of the Aboriginal’s traditional lifestyle. Alcohol made the natives crazy, disoriented, passive and stupefied, all to the delight I’m sure, of the federal government, the land-owners and the industrialists.
Later, in the 1950’s came the ravages of television – no single European invention has done more to dumb-down or numb-down the knowledge-based, nature-centric intelligence of the Aboriginals. I once read that North American Indians believed that the early field cameras, like the ones used by acclaimed photographer Edward Curtis, had the power to ‘steal the soul’ of the natives. Sorry… we now know that it was, and still is television that claims that dubious honor. These soul-sucking, zombie-producing, idiot-boxes started showing up in Aboriginal communities all over the country and especially in the northern, remote settlements. The natives themselves were primed, having had the core of their self-worth and cultural pride beaten out of them at the ‘rez’, and they succumbed like docile sheep to the hypnotic, pulsating, electric-blue light emanating from the ubiquitous ‘boob tube’. Since then, and with the commercial explosion of myriad other cyber-technological distractions, native communities are now inundated with all sorts of mind-numbing gimmicks and gadgetry like the world-wide-web, you-tube, social networking, video-games, on-line gambling, porn sites, etc. etc. Whether you are Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, these mindless techno-distractions achieve the same result – they render the mind into a non-cognitive state, a state where people stop ‘thinking’.
Aboriginal Title and Poetic Justice
Over the past fifty years the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as many provincial courts have been siding with Aboriginals on the issues of land-claims, treaty rights and entitlement. To their credit the First Nations, Métis and Inuit have never given up (over the past 150 years since the Indian Act was signed into law) on their efforts to pressure governments into recognizing their legal and inherent rights to self-government, self-determination and entitlement (land and resources). The Royal Proclamation of 1763 (a still legally binding document) states very clearly that British colonists could not just simply walk in and take over the vast territories of the New World without first dealing fairly with the local indigenous tribes… that in fact, to do so would be illegal. In the terms laid out in the document, King George III declared that adequate compensation was to be extended to Native tribes in exchange for the use of the land. When Sir John A MacDonald and his cronies signed Confederation into law in 1867, they either inadvertently forgot or intentionally ignored the Royal Proclamation (to their folly) which virtually guaranteed the next 150 years of cultural and social unrest between the government of Canada and the First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
Canada’s Indigenous Peoples may appear to be simple, but they are not stupid. Being grounded in a nature-centric and understated intelligence, Native leaders knew all along that a great injustice had been perpetrated in 1867 and due to their savvy as negotiators, combined with a good measure of patience and dogged determination, they remained steadfast to their position that this great historical wrong would some day be righted. Their patience and determination over the past 150 years has certainly paid off. The Supreme Court of Canada has spoken… the under-handed methods employed by Sir John A, the church and the industrialists to steal the land and resources from the original inhabitants of this land were illegal. Given the above facts it should be no surprise to anyone that Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples are now gaining more and more control of their ancestral lands (along with the resources) using the mechanisms of the British legal system.
And a good thing too!
There is a new and growing sense within the Canadian mainstream that in order to effectively counter the senseless rape of this once-pristine paradise, the Aboriginals themselves must gain as much control as possible of Canada’s land-base and its resources. Talk about poetic justice. The very folks that the governments, the church, the land barons and the industrialists tried so hard to wipe out are now turning out to be our last vestige of hope that the destructive industrial juggernaut – led by the Weyerhaeusers, the Enbridges, the Monsantos, the Tar Sands Corp and the resource-fixated government of Steven Harper – can to some extent be abated.
Note: If Canada’s Aboriginals prove to be a last bastion of defense against the madness of the industrial state then they need to build strong communities that remain true to their traditional ideals. Not an easy task considering the powerful influences flooding into those communities from the mainstream culture. The greatest danger facing natives today is cross-cultural contamination. Aboriginal values, ethics, wisdom and spirituality were beaten out of the natives via the Residential schools… and in their place came the forced imposition of ‘western’ or European values. The Aboriginal’s primary challenge of the new millennium is to re-build and re-invigorate cultural identities that are grounded in the ancient wisdom and traditional values of their ancestors while in the midst of a mainstream culture that is largely floundering in a dubious value-system that champions the accumulation and hoarding of material wealth, consumerism, private and exclusive land ownership, waste, environmental degradation, etc. The ever-present and intoxicating allurement of ‘big money’ that has come to dominate western societies is a constant source of contamination in Aboriginal societies. The influence of money (and all its trappings) acts to undermine and infect the integrity of First Nation, Inuit and Métis traditional values.
Chapter Three: Aboriginal Youth Suicide
In the trauma doc the phrase ‘culturally and spiritually rudderless’ was used to describe the after-effects of the Residential schools – this phrase is also quite fitting in describing the plight of many of today’s Aboriginal youth, whether in the big cities or isolated Native communities. Most of the kids at Sandy Bay school (see The Sandy Bay – Stanly Mission Dichotomy in Part One) in Northern Saskatchewan are so ‘rudderless’, it’s palpable. They exist in a ‘waste-land’ where the only two realities available to them are ‘a rock’ and ‘a hard place’. Their community is broken, their school borders on ‘Dickensian’ and their life-nurturing traditional values and self-esteem have been trampled into the ground – that’s ‘the rock’. ‘The hard place’ is the dehumanizing effects of western culture and technology, the ‘mind-numbing’ vapidity of ‘cyber-space’ replete with ‘I-pods, chat lines, twits, porn and cyber-bullies’.
It is in this cultural and spiritual ‘waste-land’ that the Aboriginal child becomes overwhelmed with emptiness, hopelessness and emotional pain. They look for ways to dull their pain – maybe drugs, maybe alcohol, maybe crime but ultimately, some kids will choose suicide as the only way out of what they see as a dead-end existence. Yes, some schools will, out of necessity, bring in counseling, drug-awareness programs and local support-groups but it is often too little, too late – the emptiness is so pervasive within the whole community that any effort to stem the tide of youth suicide amounts to no more than applying a band-aid when open-heart surgery is needed. In so many Aboriginal communities everything is broken and addressing one specific facet only deflects from the greater challenge which is to over-haul the entire community itself – which certainly includes the adults.
On the bright side, there are many Native bands that have taken on this greater challenge by initiated their own community-wide healing programs centered upon traditional knowledge and spiritual wisdom, all grounded of course in the ‘Earth-friendly’ values of their ancestors. The current shift towards integrated, Aboriginal-controlled healing centers helps to address the multi-faceted problems of the whole community with a special emphasis on youth empowerment. It’s a monumental task to heal a whole community but the long-overdue renaissance of Canada’s Native Peoples hinges on the success of these initiatives. They are the ‘bright light’ at the end of a dark and seemingly endless tunnel.
(Note: Before we move on to the next section, it would be useful to say a few words about the extremely high suicide rate (five times the national average… eleven times in Nunavut) amongst Canada’s Aboriginal youth as compared to the mainstream. Suicide rates directly correlate with the dysfunction and ‘rudderlessness’ of the whole community, thus the most damaged and ‘rudderless’ communities will produce the most suicides. If whole Aboriginal communities are healing (which includes the adults) and if Native-friendly curricula are being implemented into band schools – which includes teaching regional dialects, traditional values, arts programs and cultural empowerment – then it stands to reason these communities will experience lower suicide rates amongst their youth. This is not hypothetical, but proven fact. Kids are impressionable and therefore very much affected by what they see around them and if the whole community exudes healing and strength, anchored in traditional knowledge and wisdom, then these core-strengths will undoubtedly rub-off on the children as well. This doesn’t mean that Native communities will rid themselves entirely of suicide but anything lower than ‘five to eleven times the national average’ is certainly a step in the right direction.)
Chapter Four: What Can the Non-Aboriginal Community, the Education System, the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church do to Help?
What can the non-Aboriginal community do to help in the healing process?
Respect and empathy cannot be legislated, the high courts and the governments cannot force Canadians to take an interest in Aboriginals or the dire state of their culture, therefore the general public will have to approach these issues on their own and of their own volition. There is an abundance of information on the values, traditional ways and Aboriginal wisdom that can be accessed through public libraries, book stores, films and documentaries and through the inclusion of Native studies programs into elementary and high school curricula. The non-Aboriginal community can greatly assist in the healing process by becoming better informed about who Canada’s Aboriginal People really are, what they have been through and what exactly is the basis of their ancient wisdom, traditional values and Earth-friendly ethics.
What can our public schools do to help in the healing process?
Over the fifteen years that I have been involved in the Canadian education system I have witnessed a somewhat disheartening trend concerning Native studies and ‘Aboriginal Awareness’ programs in our public schools, especially at the junior/senior high school level. The trend is most noticeable around June 9th, National Aboriginal Day when schools bring in members of a local Native band to give demonstrations of their customs and culture. There are demonstrations on how to erect tepees, how to weave baskets, how to make bows and arrows and how to build a canoe, etc. I’ve also seen exhibits on Native arts and crafts, dancing and music. These demonstrations and exhibits are helpful in portraying what Aboriginals did but they certainly don’t tell you very much about who they are.
Basket weaving and showing how to make a dream-catcher do not get to the core, the substance and the ethos of the Aboriginal ‘person’. The traditional values, ethics and ‘Earth-friendly’ consciousness… .the moral teachings and ancient knowledge of how to live in balance and harmony with nature… .the 35,000 years of wisdom kept alive by the elders – this is who Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples are and this is what I find sorely lacking in our public school curricula. If the public school system is genuinely interested in educating their students about what Canada’s Indigenous cultures are really all about and who the First Nations, Métis and Inuit really are then they need to introduce programs taught by First Nations, Métis and Inuit educators who know, understand and practice the above-mentioned values, knowledge and wisdom. There are many, many Indigenous authors, documentary and film makers, artists, educators, historians, story-tellers, healers and elders… .all quite capable of disseminating the ancient wisdom and tradition values of Canada’s First Peoples.
I think it’s fair to say that the current method of ‘just showing what Aboriginals did and not who they are’ actually does more harm than good in the long run because it continues to propagate and fortify the deep-seated racist stereotypes that many ordinary citizens still harbor about Native culture. “Oh sure, I know who Indians are… they paddle canoes, dance around fires, paint their faces, live in tepees, go on the war-path, stand in front of cigar stores”. With all the racist stereotyping that the Native community has had to put up with from just the movie-making industry alone, you’d think someone at Canada’s Ministry of Education would ‘twig-on’ to the need to include Native Awareness programs that provide a more honest and realistic portrayal of the ancient wisdom and traditional values of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.
(Note: While we’re on the subject, it should be added that the biggest obstacle Aboriginals face in regards to Native-awareness programs in our public schools is a generally-accepted mainstream world-view underpinned by ‘centrisms’. Whether one brands it ‘Euro-centrism’, religio-centrism or ‘ethno-centrism’, these attitudes of cultural superiority can be so subtle that they are virtually invisible and non-existent to the mainstream. (See section above on ‘carbon monoxide’). It’s that ‘we’re here in the mainstream and you’re over there at the margins’ kind of mind-set… or, more pointedly, ‘the demonstrations and exhibits were great but as soon as you pack-up and leave, we’ll just go back to being the dominant culture and tomorrow morning your baskets and dream-catchers won’t mean anything to us’. I’m sure that most public school students do not think this way intentionally or they are not aware that they think this way but many do because they have been subliminally conditioned by a centrism-based society to accept, as an unwritten law, that the mainstream culture is superior and the Aboriginal culture is inferior. Such is the insidious nature of ‘centrisms’. The Aboriginals have had the Euro-Canadian system of learning ‘rammed down their throats’ over the past one hundred and fifty years… they had little choice in the matter. There is a unique situation unfolding in our public schools today where the mainstream has a golden opportunity to learn from the Aboriginal culture but it will never happen if these imperceptible centrisms remain in place. Canada’s Native community has something important to say, their reverence-based wisdom and Earth-honoring values can actually help others to live more balanced and respectful lives. What’s needed is a change in mainstream attitudes.)
What can the Canadian government do to help in the healing process?
First and foremost, they need to get out of the way – the Indian Act, the paternalistic ward ship system and the constant interference in Aboriginal decision-making have always been stifling and counter-productive. The Canadian government, with its litany of broken promises, hidden agendas and shabby treatment of Native land claims has undoubtedly become the single, most aggravating source of mistrust for the Aboriginals – they need to stay away from the healing process, and that goes for the churches as well. They can play a supporting role from the sidelines but the real healing must come from deep ‘within’ the culture itself, not from without. The Aboriginals must be given the support, the patience and the tools to heal themselves and this will take many, many years and much hard work but that’s the only practical solution available in order for natives to rebuild their culture and provide a better future for their children.
In the ‘trauma’ doc I touched on the necessity to create a ‘Native-friendly’ education system for native-controlled schools – the government can assist in the healing process by implementing education policies that are sensitive and conducive to the revival of Aboriginal culture – this would mean the inclusion of regional dialects and traditional knowledge into the daily curriculum (right along-side math, English and lit, etc.). Another way to help would be to assist in the creation and maintenance of community data-banks which store as much information as can be gathered on local dialects, oral history, creation stories, the wisdom of the elders, etc. – basically, all things Aboriginal. Instilling in the children a sense of cultural pride and self-worth will surely help in fostering a healthy adult community later on.
What can the Catholic Church do to help in the healing process?
In the fairy tale ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’ the town was overrun by rats. The mayor, on behalf of the townsfolk, offered a reward to anyone who could get rid of them… a piper accepted the challenge and proceeded to march through the town while playing a tune on his pipe. The rats, being somehow entranced by the music, scurried out of their holes and followed the piper. He then led the rats out of town, never to be seen again. When the piper returned to collect his reward the mayor and townsfolk reneged on their agreement… the angry piper once again marched through the town playing the same tune on his pipe only this time it was the children who followed him out of town, never to be seen again. The pied piper had inflicted upon the townsfolk the ultimate punishment by taking away from them what they held most dear and precious… their children.
The forced removal of 160,000 Aboriginal children from their families, communities and traditional ways literally ‘tore the heart’ out of the native culture. Most of the trauma and dysfunction that exists in Canada’s native communities today can be traced back to this one senseless act of cultural barbarism committed by the church and state.
Better late than never. The Church can help in the healing process by abandoning its obstinate refusal to admit culpability in regards to its involvement in the Residential school tragedy. In fact, the sitting Pope needs to travel to Canada and meet face-to-face with the few remaining survivors of the Indian Residential schools (as well as the native population in general) and, on behalf of the Catholic Church and the Vatican, deliver a long-overdue and credible apology to them. I doubt my grandparents would have settled for anything less. And it must be the Pope himself… not an intermediary or emissary. The other churches involved in the cultural genocide, as well as the Canadian government have all formally apologized… it is now time for the Catholic Church to step up to the plate, to render itself accountable for its actions and for the current Pope to beg forgiveness from the Residential school survivors (and their decedents) for the damage caused by the policies of forced assimilation as well as the sexual abuses committed by the clergy.
‘One predator in a school or community is an epidemic’
Although the current Pope was not personally involved in the human rights abuses and rampant sexual predation (by the clergy) that occurred in Canada’s Indian schools, he, as presiding head of the Church, must assume responsibility for the organization’s failings and its history. And, the apology does not end there… the sexual crimes committed by the clergy were far eclipsed by the greater crime committed by the Vatican itself, which was its complicity in the unconscionable practice of relocating offending priests to different schools, different communities and even different countries in order to avoid scandal.
Over the past fifteen years that I have been researching my grandparent’s history vis-à-vis the Residential schools, I have pored over government documents, archival records and a fair number of books on the subject. One constant that seems to threads its way through the entire history of the institutions is the large number of photographs taken of the children. These photographic records stretch back to the 1880’s when the first schools became operational and I’ve seen some that are dated as late as the 1970’s. I don’t know why the government and the churches photographed and stored so many images of the children but I suspect it was to show what a wonderful job they were doing in civilizing the ‘little heathen savages’.
It occurred to me recently, as I was mentally flipping through the hundreds of black and white images stored away in my own head, that there is something strangely unsettling, almost eerie about the photographs. They were fairly straight-forward, rigidly-posed, institutional records… dark-skinned little tykes in standard uniforms and standard haircuts, all standing in neat rows in front of ordinary-looking institutional-type buildings. Dark-skinned little tykes in standard uniforms posing in class rooms, lunch rooms, dormitories and hospital wards… like I said, pretty straight-forward, institutional fare.
But the thing that gets to me, which I find most unsettling about those photographs is that I can’t recall a single image where a child is smiling.
Smiling, laughing, beaming, grinning, bursting, radiating, boisterous, joyous, mischievous, bouncing-off-the-wall kinds of expressions you would expect from children’s school photos. Nothing… just the blank, controlled, unemotional stares, as cold and lifeless as the bricks lining the institution’s walls. Walk up and down the hallways of any of today’s public schools and you’ll see what I’m talking about – lots of photos, especially the year-end class photo or school photo… take a close look at the kids.
This is what my essay is all about – what happened in this country and what happened to those 160,000 very unfortunate children??
The ways of my ancestors, the Blackfoot and the Plains Cree, were good ways, of this I have no doubt. The sudden onslaught of western values and religious tyranny greatly befouled the purity of their ways. I am one small voice amongst many who are advocating for the saving and honoring of the purity exemplified by an ancient system of laws and ethics that respected the Earth and her myriad inhabitants.
All my relations.
April 9th, 2012