The Dunbow Residential School, High River, Alberta, circa 1890’s
(the institution Dennis’ grandparents attended)
The Honor Song Trilogy
Part One: The Psychology of Cultural Trauma
(The Indian Residential School Experience)
Dennis Lakusta is a Metis artist, singer/songwriter, photographer, author, producer, humourist, educator and activist currently living on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. For a number of years he has been traveling across the country presenting a wide variety of original programs to high schools and universities on such subjects as; Racism: A Scientific Perspective, The Indian Residential School System, Aboriginal History, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Guidelines for Developing Artistic Character. His recent work with university students has been so well received that he decided to take some time off and upgrade his presentation on Canada’s Indian Residential School System in order to render it more suitable for the university level.
The presentation is a powerful, visceral and unyielding investigation of the Residential School’s effects on Aboriginal culture. Dennis is not a casual bystander to these historical events as he and the members of his immediate family (on his mother’s side) were directly affected by the racist attitudes, the Indian Act and the institutions set up to destroy the Aboriginal culture in Canada. His approach to this issue is personal and he has a vested interest in writing a document of this magnitude and urgency. First of all, it is to inform the Canadian public about the humanitarian tragedy that occurred at the schools, premised upon the fact that far too many Canadians know little or nothing about the dark under-belly of their own history. Second, it is to help bring Canadian students up to speed on the current state of affairs within the Aboriginal community and the daunting challenges they face today in healing their culture after the Residential School tragedy. And third, it is a call for the Euro-Canadian mainstream to recognize and honour the strengths, values, humanity and Earth-reverent ethics of Canada’s indigenous community, which includes their inherent right to exist as a self-determining People; for the establishment of a native-friendly educational paradigm for self-governing Aboriginal communities and, most critically, the initiation of a concerted effort by all stake-holders to coordinate and co-manage a national campaign to stem the tide of suicide amongst Aboriginal youth.
Having a life-long interest in music and songwriting, Dennis considers ‘The Psychology of Cultural Trauma’ to be an honour-song dedicated to the members of his own family, especially his grandparents who had their rich cultural heritage and their Aboriginal voices silenced over the ninety-year history of the schools. The document is also an honour-song to the tens of thousands of innocent children who needlessly perished while attending the institutions, and an honour-song to all his young native friends at St. Mary’s and The Sisters of the Atonement Institution, many of whom he later reconnected with while in the Alberta prison system.
And, finally, it is an honour-song to his own personal survival and healing; the inner will, the courage and dogged determination to transform a most difficult and unusual set of circumstances into a life overflowing with beauty, creativity and artistic excellence.
The subtitle referring to ‘Solutions for Healing a Broken People’ (Pt Two) is as vital and important as the analysis of the tragedy itself. The ‘Trauma’ doc was designed to be solution oriented and, at the same time interactive, therefore the students are encouraged to engage themselves fully with the program – this is not a lecture per se. The presentation can be customized to suit the university’s time constraints. A short program could last two-three hours or could be extended over two or three days and include relevant films and documentaries on the history of the Residential Schools, and Dennis could also invite local Native elders or their family members to come in and speak about their experiences in the schools. The Psychology of Cultural Trauma is word-intensive and information-heavy but the presentation is also laced and interspersed with Dennis’ patented brand of earthy humour, original and topical songwriting and a display of his amazing photography. He guarantees his students that if they don’t laugh they will get their money back.
Chapter One: Establishing a Context
On December 26, 2004 the world witnessed the most devastating natural disaster of our time: the Indonesian earthquake and following tsunami. In the days and weeks that followed and in every region of the globe, people were glued to their TV sets or watched online as the scale of the tragedy began to unfold. The official death toll was eventually established at just over 250,000. Although the vast majority of the deaths were caused by the tsunami, it was the 9.1 magnitude earthquake that acted as the trigger for the ensuing disaster. Geologists and other scientists who are familiar with the dynamics of ‘plate tectonics’ were aware of the possibilities of earthquake activity in that region because Indonesia, and especially the Island of Sumatra, are situated near the volatile earthquake zone circling the Pacific Ocean known as the Ring of Fire.
(Note: For the following analysis of Canada’s Indian Residential School System and the subsequent trauma it caused, the Indonesian earthquake/tsunami provides us with a near-perfect analogy from which we can better understand the true meaning of the word ‘trauma’ as it relates to culture. These two seemingly unrelated events both share striking similarities and common characteristics, and therefore the earthquake/tsunami analogy will be referred to numerous times throughout the presentation.)
‘Terra firma’ is a misnomer – the ground we live on is actually moving about one inch per year and is part of a system of massive tectonic plates (broken sections of the earth’s crust oftentimes the size of whole continents) that ride on top of an ocean of red-hot undulating magma 30 miles below the surface of the plates. When these huge continental plates collide, moving at a rate of one inch per year, an immense amount of pressure begins to builds up along the leading edges of the two plates. The continental plates are so huge (the North American plate is 4000 miles across) that the activities along the leading edges where contact occurs has little or no bearing on the forward motion of the plates – they just keep moving. When the pressure between the two land masses reaches a certain peak, only one of two things can happen. Either the weaker of the two plates will buckle, creating mountain ranges, or the two leading edges will undergo a violent correction or slippage called subduction. Subduction occurs when one plate slips angle-ways or directly under the other plate. This geological event or slippage is more widely known as an earthquake.
What must be understood here is the sheer violence associated with this natural phenomenon. Geologists have estimated that the land mass in the vicinity of the Indonesian earthquake’s epicentre shifted fifteen feet – that’s fifteen feet in less than a second. Try to imagine the land underneath the building we are in all of a sudden shifting fifteen feet in less than a second. That’s why so many structures, especially those in developing countries made of bricks and mortar or stone and mud, crumble to the ground so quickly.
Newtonian law dictates that every action is equal to an automatic and equal reaction so let’s examine the chain of events before, during and after the earthquake. First, we have masses of people inhabiting small villages and communities around the fringe of the Indian Ocean who have lived for a long period of time in relative peace and calm, geologically speaking. Then a violent act (the earthquake) takes place in a very short time span. Next, the consequence of that violent act – the tsunami – begins to ripple out in a concentric fashion affecting all in its path. I don’t have to tell you about the aftermath of this violent event. It’s only been six years or so since it happened and I’m sure most of us saw pictures in the media. For many communities in the path of the tsunami it was total and utter destruction! For thousands of miles around and as far away as the east coast of India and Sri Lanka, entire settlements were wiped off the face of the earth. There was nothing left. The word I heard so often to describe the extent of human suffering usually spoken by the news reporters was ‘traumatized’. I remember hearing over and over again – “we have nothing left…our families, our children, our homes, our churches, our businesses and schools, our memories – all gone.” The entire region was in a state of shock. News clips showed survivors walking through the rubble that was once their homes in a dazed, trance-like state of disbelief. They were obviously traumatized.
Understanding the Meaning of ‘Trauma’
The word ‘trauma’ comes from the ancient Greeks and literally means ‘wound’. It is a medical term often used in the field of psychiatry. Webster’s dictionary describes trauma as “a psychological condition resulting from an injury to body or mind, usually inflicted by an exterior source”. I don’t recall hearing the word back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s when I was in school, but today the word ‘trauma’ and its past tense ‘traumatized’ have become commonplace in our everyday vocabulary, especially with the discernible increase of violence in societies world-wide. We are living in an age where the instances of school shootings, workplace shootings, family violence and drug-related crimes, as well as environmental and weather-related disasters, are escalating at an alarming rate. The increasing levels of death and suffering have spawned an ever-growing army of medical professionals called ‘grief counsellors’. Grief counsellors have only one function; they deal with the ‘trauma’ caused by the aforementioned acts of violence.
In all the books I have read on the Residential Schools, the Jewish Holocaust, the African Slave Trade and The European colonization of most of the planet, I have yet to come across the term ‘cultural trauma’. Yet it is the most fitting term to describe the aftermath of these historical events. The characteristics of trauma are the same whether they are experienced by individuals, families, communities or cultures. Yes, entire cultures can be traumatized by injuries inflicted upon them by exterior sources. During the one-hundred and twenty-year history of our Indian Residential Schools (1870’s to 1990’s) a deep and serious injury was inflicted upon the whole of Canada’s Aboriginal community. It is this injury and subsequent trauma that form the basis of today’s presentation.
A Historical Perspective
To fully appreciate the analogy of the earthquake/tsunami and the effects caused by the Residential Schools, some historical perspective is required. Cultural anthropologists have been busy over the past 100 years tracing the ancestral roots of Canada’s First Peoples, including my ancestors, the Woodlands Cree and the Blackfoot, and have uncovered a journey of epic proportions. These roots extend back 30-35,000 years to the Sino-Tibetan region of what is now Central Asia. During this period in history much of the northern hemisphere was still in the grip of the last ice age. Most of what is now Europe and Russia were blanketed by glaciers. As the early Sino-Tibetan tribes were establishing their cultural identities, some began slowly working their way north, following the edge of the receding ice fields and large game animals. Many of these large game animals, like the woolly mammoths, were more suited to the colder climate. They were also treasured by the ancient hunters as a reliable source of meat and fur.
Over many thousands of years the ice fields continued to slowly melt and recede in a northerly direction until they eventually reached the latitude that intersected with what is now the Siberian Peninsula. Because so much of the earth’s water was still locked up in the massive ice fields, the level of the world’s oceans were much lower than they are today (estimates of 150 feet lower during this period). This created a ‘land bridge’ about 100 miles wide across what is currently the Bering Strait. This land bridge connected eastern Siberia with current-day Alaska. The crossing of the Bering land-bridge by the ancient ancestors of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples is the main route posited by anthropologists. The nearest time estimates range from 13-15,000 years ago.
Many books and studies have been conducted into this west-to-east migration but what is essential for the purposes of this presentation is to try to grasp the time-span of the nearly 35,000 years that it took for Aboriginal Peoples to journey from central Asia and develop into the culture that they were when the first European settlers began to arrive on our eastern shores. This is key. Our understanding of history is usually measured in hundreds of years, sometimes thousands, and our books on the ancient history of the Greeks and Egyptians go back to maybe 3,500 years. That’s a long time, and yet it is only one tenth of the time span it took for Aboriginal culture to evolve.
In the earthquake/tsunami analogy this 35,000 years represents the period of relative calm before the violent act.
When Jean Cabot first reached the eastern shores of present-day Cape Breton Island, there was little fanfare and even less significance for the indigenous cultures existing across 4,000 miles of land west to the Pacific Ocean. As more and more Europeans followed and began filtering their way into the heartland via the river systems, a somewhat tentative relationship was struck with the natives they encountered. For a period of time after Cabot’s arrival, Aboriginals and Europeans co-existed and sometimes worked together in helping each other to survive. For example, it is a matter of public record that the early European settlers would never have survived the severe winter conditions without the help and knowledge of the Aboriginals. The First People taught the new settlers how to use winter corn as a protein staple, how to dig for roots and tubers, how to hunt, trap and preserve game, how to use fur for warm clothing and how to build snowshoes etc.
By the mid nineteenth century the industrial revolution was in full swing – Europe was bustling with the sound of machines, mills and factories. The new ideas and technology were beginning to spread like wild fire. India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the USA were just some of the entrepreneurial fledgling nations scrambling to get on board the gravy train. After 300 years of colonization, the wealthy land owners, business types and power brokers north of the US border had set up a strong commercial and political presence in both Upper and Lower Canada. Led by Sir John A MacDonald, Confederation was established on July 1, 1867. The creation of this new federation was fueled largely by the personal vision of Sir John A which was to become a major player in the Industrial Revolution. His intent was to build a trans-continental railway system in order to exploit the untapped natural resources to the west, especially that vast unexplored region west of the Ontario border known then as Rupert’s Land.
(Note: A reminder that this is only a thumbnail sketch of the events of this period – it is solely meant to provide context and motive for the creation of the Indian Residential Schools)
The Violent Act
Sir John A MacDonald’s far-reaching vision for the industrialization of Canada had a number of obstacles, the most pressing of which was what to do about the ‘Indian problem’. Exploitation of the untold riches that lay ‘from coast to coast to coast’ relied on unrestricted access to the land; land that was occupied by Aboriginals. It took an additional nine years (from 1867 to 1876) for the federal government to devise a plan which they hoped would guarantee unrestricted access. This was in the form of a new Act of Parliament called ‘The Indian Act‘. With little or no consultation with the native population, this draconian piece of legislation was passed into law in 1876. Thus began the darkest chapter in Canadian history.
The original 100 sections of the Indian Act were design to restrict and marginalize Canada’s Aboriginal community, to get them out of the way. It was a mean-spirited, paternalistic attempt to wrest control of the land away from the First Nations and turn them into ‘prisoners on their own land’. Through the Indian Act, all indigenous peoples were forced to become wards of the state, a euphemism for ‘welfare recipients’. They were essentially rendered fiduciary dependents of the federal government through the newly-established Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (D.I.A.N.D.). Little regard was given to the basic human rights and freedoms of an entire culture who had occupied the land for millennia. Through the Indian Act, the federal government cobbled together a series of deceptive and self-serving treaties, most of which were broken. They also created a system of ghettos called Indian Reservations, over-seen by white Indian Agents, where Aboriginals were confined and restricted by law to reside.
(Note: If time allows, a more detailed analysis of some or all of the original 100 sections of the Indian Act can be presented. This would give students a clearer understanding of just how many rights and freedoms were taken away from the Aboriginal community. The Supreme Court of Canada, on returning these rights and freedoms through the 1982 Constitution Act – Section 35 (a), ruled that the imposition of restrictions set out in the Indian Act, especially those regarding the ownership of land, freedom of movement, freedom to seek legal counsel, freedom of religion, rights to self-government and self-determination, were illegal.)
For the federal government, the wealthy land owners and the captains of industry, much was at stake here. They began to understand that the Indian Act and the reservation system were only a temporary fix to ‘the Indian problem’. A permanent solution was needed, which meant the Aboriginal culture itself would have to be taken completely out of the picture. This permanent solution came in the form of an insidious scheme hatched by the same think-tank that concocted the ‘Indian Act’. It was called The Indian Residential School System.
Part Two: To Kill the Indian in the Child
Suffer the Fools
(Note: There is much information available on the history of the Indian Residential School System. The most concise and comprehensive analysis is James Miller’s monumental work entitled ‘Shingwuak’s Vision’, which I highly recommend and often refer to when lecturing at Canadian universities. In addition, a second document, which follows The Psychology of Cultural Trauma, is titled “Healing a Broken People”, in which I delve more deeply into my family’s personal experiences in these institutions. Therefore I will not go into a detailed accounting of every aspect of the 90-year history of the schools. Instead, I will select those elements best suited to our main task, which is to examine the cultural trauma that these institutions created over the past 140 years, including the 30 years or so since the last school was shut down.)
In the earthquake/tsunami analogy we have arrived at the epicenter of the violent act. The Indian Act, the reservation system and the Residential Schools were all conceived and borne out of the same womb. The authors of these laws and the architects of these racist institutions harbored one singular intention: to destroy the Aboriginal culture. They realized that the most effective way to accomplish this objective was through the children. The simplicity of the concept was matched only by the perniciousness of the intent: remove and isolate all Aboriginal children between the ages of 5 and 17 from their traditional culture. This meant relocation to institutions sometimes thousands of miles away from their families and communities, then expose them to a strict, wall-to-wall indoctrination of a new culture. Voila! The Indian problem would be solved. The government-issued term for the process was ‘assimilation’. The reasoning was that if the state brainwashed the native children throughout their formative years with a whole new set of customs and cultural values, the children, upon reaching the age of 17 would simply adopt and retain the new values, carrying them on into adulthood. After three or four successive generations the assimilated ‘graduates’ of the system would displace all the old ways and the Aboriginal culture would die out naturally like a spent candle. George Orwell certainly would have had a field-day with this scenario.
On paper this scenario appears to be fairly simple and straightforward, but in reality it turned out to be an abject failure. Cultural anthropologists and sociologists now look back on the Residential Schools as a monumental blunder. It was the most ill-conceived and costly experiment in social engineering in Canada’s 400 year history and it was perpetrated by a cabal of narrow-minded, callous industrialists whose lust for wealth and power easily trumped the inherent rights of a 35,000 year-old culture to exist.
Integral to this attempt at mass-indoctrinating children and cultural genocide was the involvement of several religious denominations, including the Catholic, United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches. The churches viewed the Aboriginal children as a fresh, new flock of lost souls ready to be converted to Christianity, and therefore they became eager participants in the disaster. While the federal government would create policy and underwrite the cost of the Residential Schools, the churches were charged with administering, disciplining and indoctrinating the children.
After exhaustive studies and many independent inquiries, producing reams of documentation and personal testimonies, it has become only too clear the extent of the human suffering, death and degradation that was meted out in the Residential Schools, especially at the hands of the Catholic Church. Corporal punishment/beatings, intimidation, shame and fear were generally accepted teaching methods employed by many of the nuns and priests. Most unfortunately, many of the Catholic-run schools became a breeding-ground for child molesters, rapists and other psychopaths who shouldn’t have been allowed to come within a hundred miles of a school, let alone ‘teach’ in them.
(Note: The following is solely a personal view on this subject and it is addressed to the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the Pope. When one of the members of your organization comes into our community and rapes, molests or beats a child, sometime to death, that person is subject to our laws, the crime is committed on our land and must be dealt with by our criminal justice system. Your organization broke the cardinal rule of international law by assuming Church law supersedes Canadian law and that the Vatican somehow enjoys blanket immunity from prosecution for offenses committed by your employees working in Canadian schools and communities. But this blanket immunity has no legal bearing in international law. Included in the terms of the 1929 Third Lateran Accord that then Pope Pius XI signed with Benito Mussolini (which established the Vatican as a sovereign, autonomous state), Pope Pius demanded immunity from prosecution which Mussolini granted him. It must be remembered, however, that this provision only applies within the boundaries of the Vatican City and NOT to Canada.)
Molesting and brutalizing young children is bad enough, but by far the greatest and most damaging crime was committed by the Vatican itself. To protect their reputation and to avoid any scandal that would tarnish the Church’s ‘image’, the brain trust at the Vatican began systematically shuffling the offending clergy around from one school to another, from one community to another and from one country to another. This practice was not isolated to just our Residential Schools but was common in Catholic communities around the globe. The Vatican’s centuries-old code of secrecy – Omerta (silence or death) – and their practice of ‘protecting their own’ actually emboldened the sexual predators. It provided them with the Church’s tacit approval and there-by, the freedom to re-offend in other communities. The Vatican in fact aided and abetted the self-perpetuating, exponential growth of offenders and offenses and the predatory culture eventually evolved into what it has been for most of the twentieth century – an epidemic. If the problem had been ‘nipped in the bud’ – if offenders had been brought to justice early-on (Canadian justice), turfed from the Church and/or restricted from having any contact with children – the ‘epidemic’ would, to a large extent, have been prevented. The Vatican’s primary concern in moving sexual predators from one place to another was to avoid prosecution and scandal. No consideration was given to the victims, the Aboriginal children.
It appears the root cause of the Catholic Church and the Vatican’s credibility problems, especially in recent times, is that for centuries the organization has been so deeply locked into the archaic mindset of moral superiority and religious narcissism that it is now virtually impossible to see what’s going on outside the ‘Berlin Wall’ of its own self-importance. But in the current atmosphere of unyielding global pressure on the Vatican to be held accountable for crimes committed in the schools and to accept responsibility for its own failings and the failings of certain members of its clergy, their age-old, calcified attitudes of obstinacy and aloofness are beginning to soften. The concerted world-wide pressure is actually working.
Deconstructing the Aboriginal Cultural Paradigm
Cultural development is an organic process. Universal and natural laws have been at work for tens of thousands of years molding and shaping the psychological, biological/genetic and even spiritual characteristics of cultural identities. Over the 35,000 years of Aboriginal cultural development these unique characteristics have been indelibly imprinted at the deepest levels of the psyche, cell and soul – yes, it’s that deep. As cultures adapt, adopt and evolve over millennia, so too does the delicate genetic blueprint that reflects and governs who they are as a People. When individuals state that they are Aboriginal or African or Chinese or Caucasian, the source of this identification can be traced right down to the genetic code written along their DNA, to deeply-entrenched neurological patterns that govern how they think, their ethos, their worldview and even to the deepest level of their spirituality. This is why the Indian Residential School System failed so miserably. A group of very ignorant and foolish men, blinded by their lust for power, land and wealth, did recklessly and violently attempt to destroy what nature took 35,000 years to create.
If we acknowledge these facts to be self-evident, it is much easier to understand how cultural genocide would condemn the survivors of the Residential Schools to many future generations of dysfunction, damage control and identity crises.
In the second half of this presentation we will deconstruct the Aboriginal cultural paradigm and examine its basic components – components which are universal and common to all cultures – because by understanding the damage done to each component, we will better grasp the damage done to the whole culture. The following list is a rough sketch of several characteristics that define culture:
- Religion or Spirituality
- Social Customs (art, music, dance, dress, etc.)
- Food and Diet
- Relationship to Land and Environment
- Family and Community Relations
- History and Tradition
- Ethics, Values, and Justice
- Cultural Pride, Esteem and a Sense of Identity
(Note: The indigenous languages of North America were passed down from generation to generation through the oral tradition. Ancestral history, customs, moral teachings and ancient wisdom were kept alive and relevant through the wide scope of creation stories, legends and mythologies as told by community elders and all mixed with the rich, spiritual symbolism pervading their art, totems, carvings and petroglyphs. The Aboriginals’ understanding of the cosmos, their holistic worldview and their inter-relationship with, and deep reverence for the land, the air, the trees, the water and all living beings were inseparable from language. Simply put, Aboriginal language, being reverence-based, evolved over millennia into a life-long expression of acknowledgment and gratitude to the Creator, that life-force or Great Spirit existing within and inter-connecting all things).
When Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes, families and communities and shipped off to the Residential Schools, usually located in other provinces, they entered into an Orwellian nightmare that would last for the duration of their youth and beyond. For the most part the institutions were strange, sterile and often hostile environments run by black-robed adherents of various religious orders whose sole mandate was to convert the children, by whatever means available, to European and Christian ways. As touched on earlier in this document, physical violence and psychological humiliation were often accepted means of indoctrination and the church and the government’s first order of business was to destroy the Aboriginal language. Through interpreters, the children were essentially read the ‘riot act’. They were told that their traditional ways were evil and that their language was the language of the devil. These kids were forbidden to ever speak their native tongue again and that they would be severely punished if they did. At Residential School inquiries, survivors have testified at length about the beatings and verbal abuses they endured because by this edict. From Day One the children were forced to learn how to speak a totally foreign and difficult language, either English or French, spoken by the religious order.
Considering the psychic, cellular and spiritual depth to which cultural characteristics were instilled within the Aboriginal person, it was unconscionable and, some say criminal, for the federal government and the religious orders to subject very frightened, very young and very innocent children to such a long and tortuous ordeal. It is morally incomprehensible that, in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, certain members of a so-called civilized society would treat 160,000 defenseless little kids like caged animals, like so many rats in a maze where they use electric shock treatment to condition the rodents to ‘turn left or turn right’. The methods used to ‘break’ the spirit of the Aboriginal People, to ‘kill the Indian in the child’, harken back to the dark ages and were probably a carry-over from the Spanish Inquisition.
b) Religion or Spirituality
(Note: The world’s great religious and spiritual movements were incubated and borne out of cultural isolation. After the great African diaspora 70,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers wandered the eastern hemisphere for 30,000 years or so but eventually began to settle down and commence developing regional and isolated cultures. It took the indigenous cultures of the Americas an additional 20,000 years just to get here, but once they did they too set about establishing their unique identities. There are presently about 245 established and recognized religious and spiritual movements spread throughout the world, most with roots extending thousands of years back into ancient times. Each movement grew out of the basic human need to understand higher and more profound laws, principles and extra-physical realities.)
For North American indigenous cultures, the seeds of their beliefs, myths, creation stories and rituals were carried with them when they broke off from the Sino-Tibetan tribes tens of thousands of years ago. Little wonder that the spiritual worldview of western Canadian tribes, known as Omni-theism, closely resembles that of eastern-Asian spiritual philosophies, i.e. Taoism, Buddhism, etc. Omni-theism holds that the Creator is not separate from nature, is the under-lying, unified, and formless field of energy known as ‘The Great Spirit’ that permeates and sustains all elements of the temporary, finite and physical realm. Omni-theism runs concurrent with the basic tenet of quantum physics, which posits that all things, be they at the sub-atomic level or at the level of trees and humans, are directly related, akin and interconnected through this unified field – that all of creation is in fact one integral entity. Thus the phrase ‘All My Relations’.
(Note: Due to cultural isolation and over millennia, many indigenous societies around the world developed their own unique methodologies for making contact with the universal life-force within themselves. Each varied slightly in practice but ‘making contact’ was always the core and essence of what each culture tried to achieve. For the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot, my lineage, the method employed was referred to as the ‘Vision Quest’ in which fire, silence and solitude were used as tools to bring the mind into the present moment and into a state of complete stillness in preparation for the journey deep within themselves and their own divine consciousness. The Vision Quest was a serious undertaking taught by a knowledgeable practitioner, or shaman and required a life-long commitment and dedication.)
Back to Omni-theism – an Omni-theistic worldview is in many respects a truly ‘earth friendly’ way of looking at things, and undoubtedly had a lot to do with the pristine condition this continent was in when the first European settlers began arriving.
Christianity on the other hand is a ‘monotheistic’ worldview, and holds that God is separate and removed from nature, existing in some nebulous ‘kingdom’ beyond the far reaches of the known universe where good Christians go in the after-life. Monotheism is not an earth-friendly worldview for the simple reason that if you separate God from nature, then nature becomes God-less, a frightening scenario where land, trees, water, air and myriad forms of living organisms have no intrinsic value and thus can be exploited, plundered, raped and polluted with impunity. An Oglala Sioux elder who later died at the Pine Ridge massacre attempted to describe the onslaught of European colonization and the industrial revolution. His words, most prescient and succinct, were ‘they came to our land like darkness comes to the day‘.
Monotheism is the new kid on the block – Omni-theism predates monotheism by thousands of years. For most of the past 2000 years the Catholic Church has been bullying its way through the European continent stamping out all forms of opposition to its doctrine, opposition which chiefly meant Omni-theism, or to use their own term ‘paganism’. When members of the Catholic Church started arriving at our eastern shores with the first wave of French colonists they began to fathom the daunting task before them – how to begin stamping out Omni-theism/paganism in the new world. The churches therefore viewed the Residential School System as a ‘heaven-sent’ opportunity to accomplish this goal and, concurrent with the sinister intentions of the federal government, realized the benefits of specifically targeting the native children.
One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand the psychological damage inflicted on young children when they are told repeatedly that everything they think, do, say or believe in is the work of the devil. The residual effects of the shame and derisive abuse experienced in the schools, especially in respect to native spirituality, was recounted by thousands of victims during the Residential School inquiries. The sudden and violent imposition of European customs and Christian values, especially when combined with the deep-seated psychic and genetic influence of the children’s traditional inclinations, rendered many of the victims and their future descendants culturally and spiritually rudderless. When the children were eventually released from the institutions as adolescents, many of them entered a new and confusing reality, a state of cultural and spiritual ‘limbo’ where they were not really accepted by white society and at the same time were alienated – having had their language and spirituality beaten out of them in the institutions – by their own families and communities. There was then and still exists today a deep rift within the native community that stems from the violent tearing apart of the Aboriginal sense of cultural and spiritual identity.
We were warned as far back as Plato about the pitfalls of ‘state-controlled, compulsory, for-profit, run by professionals’ education. Since ‘The Republic’ was written 2500 years ago, many other visionaries and humanist-types have weighed-in on the issue, including Gandhi, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Jefferson, Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, Orwell, Huxley, Ivan Illich, John Holt and John Gatto.
Our current model of ‘factory schooling’, in which large groups of children (sometimes as many as 30-35 to a group) are herded from one cattle-car to the next, mass-indoctrinated by one, lone, over-worked authoritarian and then classified and graded like pieces of meat on a conveyor-belt, was created by the same folks who brought us the industrial revolution. It’s a sordid tale how we were sold this bill of goods, but we are now irrevocably mired in a system that was originally designed to manufacture ‘machine parts’ for the European military/industrial complex.
What does all of this have to do with the Residential Schools? A lot, actually – government-regulated, mandatory, factory schooling was hatched back in 1806 in Prussia after the country lost an embarrassing war to Napoleon, and was already up and running throughout Europe by mid-century. News spread quickly that the Prussians/Germans had developed a highly-productive system where the state took-over the responsibility of education from the parents and community, built tax-payer funded institutions and passed legislation requiring that every single child must be educated enough to guarantee gainful employment in factories, mines, farms and the military. The Prussian state even came up with a figure, a mandatory 6% of the youth, mostly children of the elite who would go on to universities and do all the intellectual, interesting stuff while the other 94% were seen as nothing more than worker bees in the hive. Yes folks, war – the production of war-machines and the human resources to operate them – was the motivating factor in creating our current system of education. By the 1850’s, the US had succumbed to the temptation and Canada followed suit – this was the general environment in which the Residential School System was created.
The cultural clash between two diametrically opposed methodologies, whether in education, spirituality, language, diet, etc. predestined the Residential Schools to be a heart-breaking and traumatic downer for Canada’s Native Peoples. The aggressive Eurocentric and religion-centred bent for total domination and subjugation, allowing no wiggle-room for compromise, literally guaranteed a disastrous outcome.
The Aboriginals had an education system. It wasn’t like the European’s but it was still an education system. The methodology more resembled that of ancient Europe, when children were taught more by the community and the extended family. Aboriginal education used a hands-on approach, where a child was taught the basics of survival, how to look after the settlement, how to hunt, trap, prepare and preserve food for the winter, how to care for the sick and the dying, etc.. The kids were not gathered in groups and taught how to perform the various tasks and then sent out at a later date to put their lessons into practice. Instead, they were included into the daily, on-going life of the settlement. The lessons were learned from any and all members of the community while they went about their daily chores and activities. The Aboriginal way of teaching didn’t end there. Threaded through the daily routines was another form of learning that dealt with higher principles, morals, ethics, social justice, great laws and the wisdom passed down from generation to generation by the elders. The older citizens – the elders – were highly respected men and women within the community and were looked-to constantly for advice and counseling.
Native education was a more holistic, organic and community-based system, lacking the rigid structure, compartmentalization and discipline of the Euro religious education model. Case studies have indicated that children subjected to factory schooling and mass-indoctrination often exhibit signs of behavioral deficits later on in their lives. As mentioned above, the cattle-car, ‘everybody downloads-the-same-data-at-the-same-time’ mentality prevalent in western education models undoubtedly deprives children of their innate, inherent capacities for wonder, investigation, individualism, creativity, free thinking and dialectic reasoning, not to mention the deprivation of the child’s emotional development. These deeply human capacities were frowned-upon and discouraged by the Prussian/European model because that vision of society relied upon a dependable, subservient and obedient work force that was preconditioned to not question the system and, more importantly, to not question authority. That preconditioning was accomplished effectively by the factory schools. (In another unrelated document I examine the tie-in between many of the current social ills endemic to North American culture and the ‘state controlled, mandatory, for profit, run-by-professionals’ education system – in many respects, the former is a direct consequence of the latter.)
There can be no doubt that the coercive methods employed in the Residential Schools in forcing 160,000 children to violently shift from their traditional form of education to the European model, in only ten to twelve years, caused a deep psychological trauma to not only the children, but to the future of their culture as well. Imagine a fully-loaded freight train high-balling down the track, an ocean liner cutting through the waters at full speed, or perhaps a packed jumbo jet cruising along at Mach .6. What would happen if somehow these machines were forced to change their direction ninety degrees to the right or one hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction in only a second or two? The sheer violence and physical stress caused by these changes would completely tear apart the superstructure of the vessels, and they would disintegrate. The Residential School experiment caused a massive cultural train wreck, one that could have been avoided.
Nine Percent: The Sandy Bay – Stanley Mission Dichotomy
Sandy Bay and Stanley Mission are two Aboriginal communities in Northern Saskatchewan. Sandy Bay is near the Manitoba border, while Stanley Mission is situated in the centre of the province, north of La Ronge. On two different school tours to that area over the past five years I’ve had the opportunity to visit both communities and work with the students. Since we are on the subject of education, I would like to pass along the following observation.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the one-hour documentary produced by CBC about Sandy Bay but this small, isolated native community is reputed to have the highest rate of youth suicide in Canada, even eclipsing that of Davis Inlet. Before entering the gymnasium filled with grade 6-9 students I was taken aside by the principal, Arden Smart, and reminded of the nine percent suicide rate – that’s nine out of every one hundred children in his school who would not live to see their twentieth birthday. It was a truly sobering thought. On my second visit to the school I spent a few days in the community and was billeted in a vacant building on the reserve. I spent many hours walking around the settlement and up and down the corridors of the school. I began to get a feel of what Sandy Bay was all about. It was depressing and stultifying. If dysfunction and hopelessness had their own particular smells, those pungent odours filled my nostrils no matter where I went. This applied to the adult community as well as the kids. I particularly remember the late evenings walking along the dirt roads amongst the cheap, prefab dwellings and seeing the blue, pulsating glow of televisions emanating from the ‘living’ rooms of most houses. Alcohol use was in evidence and I heard angry parents shouting at the kids from time to time. The adults rarely set foot outside the dwellings.
While walking down the corridors of the school I remember hearing frustrated non-Aboriginal teachers (almost all the teachers in the Sandy Bay school were non-Aboriginal) yelling at and berating students in the class rooms with phrases like ‘What’s wrong with you?’, ‘Sit down and be quiet!’ and ‘Why can’t you learn to do this?’ or ‘Why can’t you learn to do that?”. The angry tone of the teachers took me back to some of the institutions I was in as a child. The Sandy Bay students in my sessions were mostly uncontrollable, easily distracted and generally disrespectful. Most had little or no interest in the presentation, or even being in the auditorium to begin with. This was most likely the same behavior pattern exhibited back in their regular class rooms.
The Stanley Mission community and high school were completely the reverse. The students, also Grades 6 to 9, were focused, respectful and engaged in the sessions I conducted. The teachers were all Aboriginal. I was delighted to hear students and teachers speaking Cree in the class rooms and the hallways. Much genuine laughter and animated conversations among the students could be heard throughout the school. There was a general air of positivity, both in the school and in the community, as I was introduced to many adult band members at the local cafe. I truly enjoyed my visit to Stanley Mission.
I hope you’re getting my drift here. Sandy Bay, with most if not all non-Aboriginal teachers teaching the white man’s education completely devoid of native language, native spirituality and traditional Cree customs, music, art, etc., produces a substance abusing, tuned-out, disinterested and dysfunctional student body with a nine-percent suicide rate. At the other end of the spectrum, Stanley Mission, on the other hand, with all-Aboriginal teaching and administrative staff (the only non-Aboriginal on staff was the principal), a curriculum that incorporates and embraces the local native dialect, native customs and ceremonies openly practiced in the school, local native art and crafts covering the lobby and hallways and the main lobby with a gathering place resembled a tepee, and all students radiating positivety, respect and curiosity. And, one additional feature that was brought to my attention, most of the teaching staff were themselves students from the Stanley Mission community who had graduated from the school, gone on to university, then returned to their own community as teachers, role-models and healers. This internalized healing and support system extended outward into the community itself with many doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers, counselors and administers, etc. being from the Stanley Mission band.
If ever there was a light at the end of the Residential School tunnel it shines brightly in Stanley Mission. There are elements within the Euro/Canadian education system that can benefit native students but these elements must be balanced with traditional teachings with special emphasis on regional dialect, ancient wisdom, spirituality, traditional ways and appeal to native sensibilities. And, what’s most important, native education must be delivered, particularly at the elementary and junior high school levels, by the natives themselves. The Euro/Canadian system of education for Aboriginal children has failed. It was never intended to succeed. The paternalistic ward-ship structure in which the federal government ‘takes care’ of the First Nations, Inuit and Metis must be dismantled and converted to something resembling the Stanley Mission model and it must happen quickly. Far, far too many native children are presently falling through the cracks, disappearing into an ominous fog of drug overdose, prostitution, suicide and violent crime. It is the Euro/Canadian education system, essentially the same system that was taught at the Residential Schools, that is the root cause – this must be changed.
d) The Family
James Vital LeBlanc and Elizabeth Musgrove – Dennis’ grandparents
In the accompanying document ‘The Healing of a Broken People’ the presentation kicks off with a scenario in which I walk students through a visceral ‘you-are-there’ kind of introduction to the schools, much as the native children would have experienced them in the first few days. I have been told by many high school teachers and university profs that for them this is the most practical and effective approach to understanding what happened because it directly engages the students with the Residential school experience. I repeatedly encourage the students to use their imagination in trying to put themselves into the scenario, to imagine that this is actually happening to them and their families. So much of ‘The Psychology of Cultural Trauma’ is aimed at the native children’s experiences in the Residential Schools. What about the families themselves – the parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, siblings and extended family? To have their children taken away, stolen from them so abruptly and brutally with no notice or time to prepare – what must this ordeal have been like for them?
Much was stolen from the Aboriginal People – their language, spirituality, their land, their customs and art, their self-esteem and sense of identity – but the most precious items stolen from them was the children, the children, the children. I hear far too many people, mainly adults, say to me, ‘OK, shit happens. But that was a hundred years ago so isn’t it high time the natives got over it and moved on?’ This kind of response speaks volumes about the ignorance many Canadians have about their own history, an ignorance that undoubtedly fuels racist attitudes towards the Aboriginal community. Sadly enough, the endurance of these racist attitudes have in fact been aided and abetted by an education system that has, for most of the past 100 years been belligerently unwilling to include a reality-based accounting of the Indian Residential Schools or the Aboriginal experience into our history books. Governments set curriculum, not school boards, and I guess that says a lot.
The cornerstone of culture is the family unit, the familial bond of its members and the over-lapping bond with the extended community. Start tampering with these bonds and you’re asking for trouble. Personally, I’ve never had children myself (due to sterilization) so I don’t actually know what it was like for parents to have all their kids taken away. But I do have some empathy because I was taken away from my mother at 9 months of age and platooned through 17 Christian foster homes and institutions before I quit school in Grade Ten. For most of my adult life I have been a homeless, itinerant artist drifting around the planet trying to deal with personal demons and a full complement of self-destructive addictions, all of which were a natural progression from a deeply troubled childhood. My two brothers were also taken away as infants and today we are all complete strangers to one other. I was reconnected with my mother, who was Metis (Cree/Blackfoot/French), when I was 16 years old. With no familial bond established at an early age, she remained little more than an acquaintance whom I visited from time to time until she died of congestive heart failure back in the late seventies. It was clear from information gleaned from other members of my new-found family that my mother was heartbroken when we kids were taken away. What mother wouldn’t be? After her third child was taken, she left Edmonton for good and tried to start a new life in Vancouver. When I visited her in the mid-sixties it was obvious that she was quite deeply immersed in her own self-destructive lifestyle, revolving around alcohol, tobacco, television and junk food, and she was morbidly obese by this time. Looking back today, I consider my mother’s death to be a passive suicide resulting from an unconscious death-wish.
My family’s story is only one of a hundred thousand other stories of families who were negatively impacted by the Indian Act and the Residential Schools. What Canadians need to understand is that the dysfunctional behaviors spawned by the institutions were subsequently passed down from one generation to the next like family jewels. In retrospect I feel fortunate that I didn’t have kids because there is no doubt in my mind that I would have passed my demons on to them. They in turn may have kept the vicious cycle going. To their credit, Aboriginal communities across the country are doing commendable work in developing healing centers for native families and individuals who do need help.
The healing work is happening, I have no doubt of this because I have seen it in my own life, indicated by the prolific and magnificent out-pouring of art, music and writings I have enjoyed in the past ten to fifteen years. But my healing came from within myself. All the necessary tools and qualities were written right into my genes at conception and my life’s work has been to uncover and acknowledge them, to turn inside and mine this mother-lode of assistance from my Creator. The healing of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples must also be from within their own culture, not from without. Through the 1982 Constitution Act, Section 35 (a), the native community now has a legal foothold in the future of this country. With the entrenchment of Aboriginal Rights into the Canadian Constitution, together with land claims settlements and the establishment of self-governance, the Inuit, Metis and First Nations now have the wherewithal to lift themselves out of the 140-year welfare state that was so cruelly and violently forced upon them.
Here is a video selection of Dennis telling a story
and singing about his grandparents.
e) Relationship to Land
To begin to understand the Indigenous Peoples’ relationship to the land one must further understand the basic underpinnings of Omni-theism. Imagine a Christmas tree. A young child approaches the tree in awe of all the pretty lights – the blues, greens, yellows and reds – glowing in the winter’s night. The child would not be faulted for assuming all the pretty lights are separate and independent of one another for the child does not see beyond the surface of things. Anyone who can ‘see’ beyond the facade knows that hidden out of view is a power cord running throughout the entire tree that is connected to, and powers each and every colorful light bulb. The manufacturer of the Christmas lights paints the cord green so as to blend with the tree and thus creates the perfect illusion. Also hidden from view is a central power house – the one, single source of energy that brings the whole Christmas tree to life. (See attached essay titled ‘The Allegory of the Christmas Tree’).
In the Aboriginal worldview, this is generally how the universe is understood. All things, whether in the so-called animate realm (animals, birds, insects, fish, etc.) or the inanimate realm (plants, water, air, fire, earth, etc.) are like the multi-coloured light bulbs on a great and wondrous Christmas tree, each inextricably interconnected and each the manifestation and embodiment of one, single divine power source, or ‘Great Spirit’. The Native’s understanding that all things contain divine spirit accounts for their deep respect and reverence for the sacredness inherent in land, trees, water, animals, etc. The power that moves the atom, moves all things. Water, trees, rocks and earth are alive and teeming with this divine, atomic life force just as humans are. (According to Einstein, human beings exist – due to our superficial, wafer-thin understanding of the cosmos – in a general state of illusion. Where in fact what is perceived as a finite/limited, three-dimensional physical reality is actually under-supported by one unified and infinite ocean of light, atomic light as symbolized by the ‘c’ or celeritas in E=mc squared.)
All living organisms are borne out of, or ‘mothered’ by the earth, sustained by the earth and upon dying are returned to the earth. Therefore land/earth held a special significance for Aboriginals and provided them with a deep sense of kinship (to the land), of place and belonging. Land ownership was a foreign concept for North American Indigenous cultures (you do not own the land, the land owns you). This view was diametrically opposed to the Euro-Christian mindset of human beings vested with some sort of divine right or ‘dominion’ over the earth. Little wonder why Europeans and the Catholic Church were so intent on destroying the Aboriginal culture.
As with the other cultural characteristics listed above, The Indian Act and the Residential School’s campaign to separate the Natives from the land – whether through the reservation system or through the schools themselves – contributed greatly to the chaos and trauma experienced by Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Metis. The reservations themselves were small tracts of land, often far out of the way and deemed worthless by the white man, where Natives were imprisoned. No longer could they freely walk the land of their ancestors and perform the sacred rituals and traditional ceremonies at their special places. Their ancestral relationship to the land, more than any other characteristic, defined their balance and integration with the whole of the cosmos. The separation of Aboriginals from the land was just one more blatant assault on the culture over the past 140 years and leads one to wonder how these folks survived such a well-orchestrated onslaught of abuse and disrespect from the Europeans. It was coming at them from every direction, from every angle, disrespect heaped upon disrespect. The Aboriginal spirit, like so many other Indigenous cultures around the world, was trampled upon and desecrated by the jack-boots of European colonialism. Yet their spirit was never completely snuffed out.
f) Foods and Diet
(Note: During the Biafran and Ethiopian famines back in the seventies, the west, with the best of intentions began shipping boatloads of powdered milk to the region. The Africans, who had never consumed bovine milk products, mixed the milk powder with water and used it to white-wash their huts.
Earlier I referred to the ignorance and blindness of the minds that thought up the Indian Act and the Residential School System. Nowhere is this ignorance more evident than in the lack of understanding about food and diet. The science was out there if anyone had cared to look. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Europe was already two hundred years into the ‘Age of Enlightenment’, Darwin had published ‘On the Origin of Species’, science and the humanities were flourishing, the African slave trade had been abolished. Enough was known about human rights, human biology and nutrition to have set-off warning bells and sirens up and down the dusty halls of the Conservative think-tank that dreamt up the idea of forced cultural assimilation in Canada.
Like all the other characteristics of culture, it has taken nature tens of thousands of years of genetic adaptation to acclimatize organisms to their unique and regional dietary regimens and this acclimatization occurs at the cellular level. Over time, the coded gene-sequences in human DNA adjust and respond ever-so slightly to the types of foodstuffs consumed by the organism. Certain proteins, bacteria, enzymes, specific molecules and even some germs become ‘friendly’ and ‘natural’ to the gastrointestinal tract and the various organs that process food. When a ‘foreign’ substance is introduced into this genetically-sensitive system it triggers a negative or allergic reaction.
I call them the ‘five whites’: white flour, white milk, white sugar, white lightning and white cigarettes. These foreign substances were introduced and forcibly imposed upon Canada’s Aboriginal community, especially through the Residential School System. They were mostly in the form of foods that simply did not exist in the western hemisphere prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Grains like wheat, oats, barley and rye were peculiar only to the eastern hemisphere and were shipped over and planted by the early settlers. Today they have become staples of the Canadian diet. As in Africa and most of Asia, cow’s milk and its by-products were not consumed here. There were no cattle in pre-Columbian North America, or horses for that matter. And the sugar cane plant was indigenous to Central and South America so it was not part of the North American Native diet. Eventually white, processed sugar would make its way to Canada via trade routes. (Google white sugar and find out just how poisonous this substance actually is – it is one of the leading factors contributing to diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, depression and other chronic mental and physical health problems existing in North America today.)
When Aboriginal children first set foot in the Residential Schools they were immediately forced to switch to the European-based diet. This seemingly innocuous act would eventually cause more suffering and death than any other single element in the ninety-year history of the Residential School experiment. Sadly, many of the diet-related problems originating in the schools still plague native communities to this day. Over the past 30 years since the schools have closed there has been an alarming increase in the cases of diabetes, morbid obesity, food allergies and high mortality rates in the native community, almost entirely attributed to poor nutrition. In James Miller’s ‘Shingwuak’s Vision’ he examines at length the deplorable living conditions in the institutions: the under-funding and over-crowding, the lack of heating in the winter, the stressed-out, over-worked physical and mental state of the native children, the lack of morale and hope, and most importantly, the substandard level of nutrition and its effects on the children’s health. Although many factors contributed to the children’s declining health, it was the negative and allergic reaction to wheat/grain by-products (mostly white bread), milk and cheese and the ravages of white sugar that exacerbated the evolving tragedy.
(Note: For most of the 90-year history of the schools Native children only attended classes for half the day (three hours in the morning) – the rest of the day was spent working as farm laborers (for the boys) and domestic help (for the girls) and none of the children were ever paid. The reason for this ‘forced labor’ policy established by D.I.A.N.D. and the churches was to help make up for the shortfall in government funding – the children had to work to help pay for the running of the schools. The official government spin at the time was that the children were out in the field, learning a trade. Forcing poorly nourished and under-aged children to work as laborers and chambermaids was not only illegal and immoral, but further added to the deterioration of their health.)
The schools became an ideal breeding-ground for infectious and communicable diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, tuberculosis, influenza, etc. The American Association of Minorities, a United Nations affiliate, conducted an inquiry into the schools in Vancouver in 1995. After much testimony and poring over thousands of documents it estimated that tens of thousands of native children died in the Residential Schools or as a direct result of them. In 1909 Dr Peter Bryce, the D.I.A.N.D’s chief medical officer, blew the whistle on the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the schools. He wrote “The Residential Schools are a national crime, the mortality rate in some schools often exceeds 50%”. In 1994 Corporal Gerry Peters of the Port Alberni RCMP detachment stated “We couldn’t even begin to investigate all the deaths at the Port Alberni Residential School. The investigation would be too huge”. The kids were dying like flies and no one (other than Dr Bryce) seemed to care.
The government knew what was happening in the Residential Schools and did nothing. The Churches knew what was happening in the schools and did nothing. All things considered, would this act of ‘doing nothing’ in light of the extremely high death-rate constitute genocide?
Although the churches were responsible for many of the sexual crimes and human rights abuses in the Residential Schools, the Canadian government bears a large responsibility for the high death toll in the schools because of the reckless disregard and ‘bottom-line’ mentality of some of its department heads, most notably Duncan Campbell Scott. According to James Miller, it was Mr Scott’s responsibility as Deputy Superintendent of D.I.A.N.D. to set fiscal policy for the schools. The funding for the Residential Schools was originally set up on a requisition basis, where the needs of the children were paid for generally as they occurred, by submitting a requisition. But one day Mr Scott and his staff were crunching some numbers and they decided that too much money was being spent on the schools. So they devised a new policy called the ‘per capita funding system’. This system authorized a pre-determined funding cap for each student (say $75 per annum) and the students’ entire yearly needs would have to be covered and kept within that cap. Miller estimates that the per capita system provided only 60-70% of the outlay incurred under the requisition system. This shortfall seemed to be completely acceptable to Duncan Campbell Scott and his department. The living conditions at the Residential School had always been substandard but under Scott’s regime they sunk to a new low. Food, heating, clothing, medicines – in fact everything that was required to adequately look after the children – was cut back to conform to the new restrictive funding policy. It can be verified, with historical accuracy, that the narrow-minded stupidity of one government bureaucrat with a penchant for ‘saving a few bucks’ wound-up contributing to the death of so many of our Aboriginal children.
Why didn’t the churches step in and take up the slack? The Catholic Church, for example, is the richest organization and largest land-owner in the world next to the US government. Under the terms of the1929 Third Lateran Accord mentioned earlier, Pope Pius XI was given $85 million dollars (that’s in 1929 dollars) from Benito Mussolini in exchange for control of the Papal States. The Church certainly could have done something to help alleviate some of the financial stress caused by Mr Scott. Even some of the Sunday donations from all the organization’s Canadian Churches could have been earmarked for the poor, starving and over-worked children in the Residential Schools instead of being shipped off to Rome.
‘Personhood’ and a New Understanding of Genocide
“Yeah, shit happens, but don’t you think it’s time the natives
finally got over it and moved on…”
(A sentiment heard far too often from mainstream Canadians when referring to the Indian Residential school experience)
In tandem with the evolution of western civilization came the development of a patently hyper-human phenomenon known today as genocide. The agricultural revolution, which fueled the accelerated growth of populations and the stratification of human societies (i.e. the elites in control of the masses) also touched off an explosion of synthetic and fundamentally poisonous ideas… ideas unprecedented in all of biological history. Ideas like greed, acquisition, hoarding and the lust for material wealth, land, property, gold, power, etc. that today have become the standards by which we define modern western industrial societies. Some of the lethal by-products of these synthetic standards and values (that evolved out of agrarianism) were expansionism, conquest, colonialism, globalization… and genocide. There are unique subtleties and nuances surrounding the meaning of the word ‘genocide’ and yet most English dictionaries tend to offer fairly rigid and inflexible interpretations of the term.
It is a question of semantics. For example, consider the two terms; genocide and cultural genocide (the latter term doesn’t even show up in standard dictionaries by the way). What do these words actually mean in relation to each other and to the world at large. The rigid, industrialized interpretation would more than likely define genocide as (for example) the campaign to exterminate the Jews during the Holocaust, the Rwandan tragedy or Spain’s brutal conquest of Meso-America. No argument on any of these accounts. But what about Canada’s Indian Residential schools? Would they not instead fall under the less-lethal category of ‘cultural genocide’? This is where the subtleties and nuances enter into the picture. The preceding subsection attempted to deconstruct and explain the basic characteristics of Aboriginal ‘culture’, i.e., language, diet, spirituality, sociology, music, dress, family, hunting practices, relationship to land, etc. If the intent of forced assimilation was to destroy the above-listed cultural characteristics (and thereby the culture) of Canada’s indigenous peoples then surely this would qualify the policies of the Canadian government and the Church as ‘cultural genocide’.
But here is where another more subtle dynamic needs to be considered. And that is the dynamic of personhood. There are qualities inherent within the human condition which exist at a deeper and more fundamental level… universal qualities that transcend ethnicity, territorial boundaries and cultural distinctions, and are as common to all as the breathing of air, the beating of a heart or the flowing of tears. These intrinsic qualities in fact constitute our humanity, our sentient foundation (our ability to feel) and our personhood. They include our capacity to care, to hope, to aspire, to love… to feel compassion, peace, intimacy, joy and pride…our will to exist, our pursuit of happiness and an understanding of higher, extra-physical realities. These innate qualities represent the quintessence of personhood.
The coercive and sometimes brutal treatment of 160,000 innocent and vulnerable children in Canada’s Indian Residential school system was an assault on, not only their culture, but their personhood as well. The many documented instances of psychological and sexual abuse, the tragic death toll, being screamed at, beaten and demeaned for being Aboriginal and the systemic vilification of their existence and validity as human beings presents a strong argument for the inclusion of the term ‘genocide’ into the Residential school narrative. Why? Because the Canadian government and the Church’s campaign to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ actually went far beyond ‘Indian-ness’ and culture. It cut right through to the heart and core of the child’s personhood – that is where the real ‘killing’ occurred. Whether the Church and the government were aware of the irreparable damage they were inflicting on the ‘humanity’ of the native children is debatable – their judgment was no doubt clouded by the notion of superiority, religious zealotry and lust for land – but what their mean-spirited campaign wound up doing, in essence was the ‘snuffing out’ of the child’s ability to care, to hope, to aspire, to love, to feel (see above). So when the survivors were finally released from the institutions they went back to their communities (and on into adulthood) as severely damaged goods – perhaps the term ‘zombies’ or ‘the walking dead’ might be appropriate – where they tried to conduct their lives as ordinary grown-ups, doing what ordinary grown-ups do (i.e., forming relationships, raising families, care-giving, finding employment, looking after their communities, etc.) but something inside them had died. They were empty shells just going through the motions. The lights were on but nobody was home…so to speak.
The culture of abuse, fear and intimidation that became the hall-mark of the Residential school experience was not the only factor contributing to the ‘killing’ of the Aboriginal’s sense of personhood. Other factors that compounded this human tragedy were the ravaging effects of alcohol, tobacco, alien foods, television, European diseases, systemic racism, etc. which, when all combined together, account for today’s high suicide rates among Aboriginal youth (five to eleven times the national average), the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginals in Canadian prisons, the spousal abuse and family violence, the epidemic of morbid obesity and diabetes, alcohol-related deaths, house fires, prostitution, predation and the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous woman.
This is why I am getting more and more comfortable with the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ when referring to Canada’s Indian Residential school system.
An accompanying document titled ‘Harper’s Apology’ is critical of the Conservative Government (and of the Catholic Church and Vatican in absentia) for the callous disregard of the above facts. Nowhere in the apology is there any reference to ‘criminal acts’, ‘criminality’, ‘national crime’ or ‘genocide’ (cultural or otherwise). Nowhere is there a mention of the estimated death toll measured in the tens of thousands. (Only once in the entire apology did Harper refer to the staggering death toll in the schools and when he did he chose the rather tepid phrase ‘some of the children died’… that’s like saying ‘some of the Jews died’ during the holocaust – define ‘some’). The repeated usage of the word ‘wrongs’ is an insult to my grandparents who spent their entire youth imprisoned at the Dunbow Residential School near High River, Alberta – I doubt they would have ever accepted, as I have trouble accepting now, Harper’s misleading, watered-down terminology and his government’s spin-doctored attempt at ‘whitewashing’ the whole ordeal out of the Canadian consciousness. And for Pete’s sake, why did Mr Harper have to bring ‘God’ into the apology? ”God bless you all and God bless our land”, what exactly does that mean… whose God?, whose land? After the sex crimes and the human rights violations committed in the schools in the name of God, you’d think that he could have been just a little more sensitive about his choice of words – I personally felt insulted. “Here, we stuck our paternalistic, Euro-religious knife in your back for the past 140 years, let’s give it one more little twist before we move on”.
The Canadian public deserves to know the ugly truth about what really happened in the Residential Schools and the apology was the perfect opportunity to tell them, but unfortunately we were spoon-fed the candy-coated, ‘kinder, gentler’ version, a version pre-designed to provide the maximum in ‘soft landings’. It was the government’s chance to get their hands dirty, to tell it like it was, even if this meant stepping on a few toes in the process. For example, nowhere in the apology is the Catholic Church even remotely implicated for the crimes committed in the schools or the Vatican’s conspiracy to cover-up those crimes. Why? Is it because nobody wants to step on the toes of the Church? Well, the Church’s toes need to be stepped on.
Serious offenses were committed in our Indian Residential Schools, so serious that if they happened today, the perpetrators would be hunted down and brought before the International Court of Justice in the Hague and charged with crimes against humanity. The time for political correctness and kowtowing to the Church must come to an end if we are to begin healing this country. In the text of the apology Harper states that the Residential Schools were a ‘joint venture’ between the government and the Church. Which means Ottawa and the Church were two equal partners working together, inseparably, like a hand in a glove. Which begs the question, why wasn’t the apology also a ‘joint venture’? Why was the Church allowed to get off scott-free, without as much as a mention. The heads of the Canadian churches, especially the Catholic Church must have had trouble keeping a straight face while listening to this weak-kneed attempt at side-stepping around the most delicate and controversial issues – the sacred cows – in an all-out effort to avoid ruffling any feathers. What the government and the citizens of Canada needs to understand is that feathers must be ruffled if we are ever going to seriously address this country’s abusive history and the deep-seated damage done to the First Nations, Inuit and the Metis by the Catholic Church.
In April of 2009 Phil Fontaine, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, together with a delegation of other Canadian Chiefs, traveled cap-in- hand to Rome to meet with the Pope in hopes of garnering some semblance of a much-needed apology. The appeal was flatly rejected. (Of the several religious organizations involved in running the Residential Schools, the Catholic Church is the only organization that still refuses to offer a formal apology.) A spokesperson for the Church, Archbishop James Weisgerber, said the Vatican would acknowledge the Aboriginal’s pain but that an apology was not forthcoming. Weisgerber said the Catholic Church’s good relations with Canadian Aboriginals over five centuries had been marred by “moments of sorrow, exploitation and cruelty”. Moments of sorrow? Moments of sorrow? Just how long is a ‘moment’ in the Vatican’s sense of time compared to generations of suffering and abuse for the victims of institutional racism? And, for the many thousands of children who needlessly perished in the schools, how many ‘moments’ were taken from them? And, for the mothers and fathers, grandparents, uncles and aunts, how many ‘moments’ did they sit waiting for their stolen children to return home, so many of whom never did?
An essential part of the healing process would be for Pope Benedict XVI himself to come to Canada, stand before the Aboriginal Peoples face-to-face, and on behalf of the Catholic Church and the Vatican, provide a full accounting of the Church’s criminal behavior and human rights abuses in the schools. Then he could formally apologize. A written apology, delivered by an intermediary or faxed-in will not do. The Pope needs to be physically here so he can look directly into the eyes of those people his Church has so grievously offended and sincerely apologize for the crimes committed, both past and present.
(Note: The Catholic Church is losing many of its followers due to its handling of the global scandal surrounding sexual abuse. The Vatican knows this. Unfortunately the Vatican, like other ultra-conservative totalitarian regimes, is reactionary by default. They will not change until they are absolutely forced to. This is sad but clearly reflects the true nature of paternalism and hubris. However, the language contained in the Vatican’s recent (Aug, 2011) apology to the Irish Catholics provides a glimmer of hope and perhaps an indication that the seemingly impossible, a fundamental change in attitudes within this organization, is beginning to happen.)
A National Monument
Personally, I feel there is something else missing from the Harper apology/truth and reconciliation movement of the past few years. It is an essential piece of a complex puzzle, whose absence renders the whole endeavor incomplete and unacceptable, incapable of reaching any true and final closure. This missing piece/peace concerns the circumstances surrounding the death and/or disappearance of thousands of native children at the Residential schools over its ninety-year history. I have stated in the accompanying document that I reluctantly accept Mr Harper’s apology because it is the only apology Canada’s Aboriginal community is ever going to see. But, I will never be able to put this issue to rest until the Canadian government comes clean about what actually happened to the remains of so many children, what they knew about it and why this vital information was never released to the Aboriginal community or the public. (Numerous un-marked and/or mass grave sites have been recently discovered on reserve land in the vicinity of the old Residential School sites – the Native community is currently pressing for a criminal investigation into this.) There is a consensus amongst a number of independent inquires that pegs the death toll to be in the range of tens of thousands. The Aboriginal community feels that figure is low because it doesn’t take into account the many children who died shortly after leaving the institutions. Granted, most of the deaths in the schools were caused by tuberculosis and other communicable diseases due to deplorable living conditions, but the key question is: what happened to the bodies, the children’s remains?
It would be ill-advised for the Canadian Government to assume that they can now ‘put all of this behind them’. On the contrary, the Indian Residential School tragedy and the accompanying apology must be placed not behind us, but prominently and openly ‘in front of us’, for the rest of history. The words and phrases contained in Mr Harper’s apology will ring hollow until they are backed up with action. The Canadian government, in concert with the First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities, must begin designing and erecting a National Monument and Memorial (along the lines of the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, The Vietnam War Memorial or our own National War Memorial) that honors the memory of the 160,000 innocent victims of the Indian Residential School System, and especially the tens of thousands of children who perished. As the French philosopher George Santayana once remarked: ‘Those who choose to forget their history are condemned to repeat it’. This National crime, what many quietly refer to as ‘Canada’s dirty little secret’, must now be opened wide so as to allow the healing rays of light, acknowledgment and acceptance to sear and burn its truth into the collective consciousness of all Canadians.
A National Monument, Memorial and Information Center situated on Parliament Hill would certainly help to achieve those ends.
On May 30th, 2005, the Canadian government signed a political agreement with the Assembly of First Nations initiating a compensation package for the remaining survivors of the Residential Schools. Under the terms of the agreement the government provides 1.9 billion dollars, most of which would be distributed through the C.E.P. (Common Experience Payment) program which allots $10,000 to each survivor for the first year and $3,000 for each additional year spent in the schools. An Independent Assessment Process (I.A.P.) was also established for separate cases of sexual and physical abuse.
I’m sure that for many of the survivors the money was a welcomed gesture and hopefully was used to improve their current social conditions as well as that of their families. If given in the right spirit, the compensation package was also commendable on the part of the federal government.
That being said, there is also a dark, under-side to this compensation package and that is the general perception – European-based at its core – that buckets of money can fix just about anything. Through the process of forced assimilation, the purity of the Aboriginal’s traditional system of values, spoken of so highly in this document, has been profoundly altered, distorted and contaminated by the European’s obsession with material wealth, proprietorship, acquisition and the all-pervasive importance of money. The measurement by which we gauge the effects of assimilation can be applied to the Aboriginal’s current view of the compensation package and its meaning – the degree to which they think another government cheque will fix all their problems is commensurate with the over-all effectiveness of cultural assimilation and its destructive nature. By accepting the Common Experience Payments, Aboriginals must endeavor to keep this short-lived monetary wind-fall in its proper perspective, and understand that any compensation package based upon the European’s illusionary concept of money comes with built-in limitations and caveats.
It must be understood by all Canadians, whether Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, that no amount of money will ever compensate for what happened in the Indian Residential Schools. The mere suggestion is obscene. How can a dollar figure be put on someone’s ruined life, especially a child?? What is the going price these days for cultural genocide?? And, of the many thousands of innocent children who perished in the schools, is there a dollar figure that would compensate them?? It is a sad testament of the depths to which western civilization has lowered itself when everything, including human lives and suffering can be bought, sold or compensated with money. There is something the Aboriginals need much more than monetary compensation and that is for Canada to begin respecting them for who they are.
Money will slip through the survivor’s fingers like sand – that is the illusive nature of the stuff – but, genuine respect tends to have a much longer shelf-life. In the apology, Mr Harper alluded to a ‘new beginning’ and ‘partnership’ with the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada – partnership implies an association between two equal parties. If his words have substance and conviction behind them, then he, his government and future governments of Canada must ensure that every effort is made to provide Aboriginals with the right and freedom, if they so choose, to return to the traditional values, the holistic worldview and the spiritual wisdom of their ancestors. And, these rights and freedoms must begin with the children, in the form of a native-friendly curriculum, taught in native-run schools within the existing Canadian education system. A native-friendly educational paradigm that incorporates the best of both cultures will require a major shift in government policy and attitude but there is no other way it’s going to work. Land claims can be settled, self-government can be implemented and money can change hands but if respect and empathy for the Aboriginal’s ancient wisdom and traditional ways are missing then we are in for another 140 years of racism in this country. The most practical and effective way to heal a broken and violated people is to return to them what was stolen; their sense of self-respect and cultural pride, their language, customs and spirituality and where better to start than with Aboriginal youth.
The Tough-love Approach
The topic of this presentation being trauma and, more specifically cultural trauma, is not a pretty subject to deal with. In fact, it’s down-right ugly. But in my travels across this country, speaking to high school and university students as well as adults, I am perplexed at how little is known about what really happened in the Indian Residential Schools. This general lack of knowledge and understanding, especially at the elementary and high school level, undoubtedly feeds the attitudes of disinterest, complacency and ignorance in the non-aboriginal adult community. Are the above facts too raw? Should they be watered down and glossed over so as to make them more palatable and less shocking to the general public? On the contrary. If Canadian society is to ever develop a lasting relationship of trust, cooperation and mutual respect with the First Nations, Metis and the Inuit they must confront these historical demons head-on, in a full-frontal, wart’s-and-all, and brutally honest fashion. A ‘tough-love’ approach to discussing these issues in our schools and universities would surely help to foster empathy for what the Aboriginal community has been through, the challenges they face today and why they are trying so hard to turn things around, heal themselves and provide a brighter future for their children.
Conclusion: The Quality of Existence
Miller’s ‘Shingwuak’s Vision’ begins with a most enlightening vignette of Canadian history. Augustine Shingwuak was a hereditary Algonquian Chief who lived in the early part of the nineteenth century. He had a powerful dream concerning the future of his people and their relationship to the European settlers. In the dream he realized that the Europeans had certain qualities that his people could learn from, and that these qualities would add to the betterment of their culture. By the same token, if the Europeans took the time to understand the Aboriginal culture, they too could benefit and the two cultures could share the land and both prosper from their mutual understanding of each others ways. He also envisioned this happening within the framework of the Indian schools that were beginning to dot the landscape. Chief Shingwuak spent the rest of his life traveling up and down the eastern half of the continent, speaking to politicians, educators and anyone who would listen, but the wisdom of his vision fell on deaf ears. It was shortly after his death that Canada’s Indian Residential School System was created.
The attitudes of cultural superiority – the zeitgeist of American colonialism – created an atmosphere that provided little room for even a basic understanding of who Canada’s Aboriginal People were, what made them tick, what were their laws, principles, their strengths, how they saw the world, etc. With the prospects of unimaginable wealth clouding the Europeans’ vision and the dreams of ‘we can take it all’ filling their heads, it was convenient, and in the colonist’s best interests to completely disregard the Aboriginal worldview. An important and fundamental question needs to be asked here. Were the indigenous cultures of Canada godless savages, a sub-species eking-out an uncivilized, brutish and inconsequential existence? Or, did the Aboriginals actually experience an appreciable quality of existence???
For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the answer to this question might have gone something like this. ‘No, of course not. The Indians live in tepees and huts covered with animal skins, their weapons are primitive and many still migrate with the seasons like nomads. They have no schools or books and they worship trees and animal spirits. They have no transportation system or any of the modern conveniences of European society, and they still haven’t invented the wheel’. The question wasn’t ‘how does Aboriginal culture compare to the European’s technological advancements, military might and machinery?’ The question was, ‘Did Aboriginals experience an appreciable quality of existence?‘ Quality of existence cannot be measured by all the stuff we have, the modern conveniences, advanced weaponry, the type of dwelling one lives in or whether one has invented the wheel or not. These are merely secondary extensions of our temporal/physical circumstances and have nothing to do with this issue. Quality of existence is measured by the intrinsic set of values and ethics that govern how we feel about ourselves, our families, our community and the world around us; our adherence to higher laws and principles; feeling content and satisfied with what we have; having a conscience and knowing right from wrong; our sense of peace, balance and harmony with nature and with our Creator, etc.
Today you can walk into any of the major book stores in this country and there will be whole sections dedicated to Native wisdom and Aboriginal history. The anthropological community deserves much of the credit for this as they have been busy over the past 70-80 years discovering and understanding who Canada’s Aboriginal People really are, what makes them tick, what are their laws, principles, their strengths and how they see the world. What they have found is that the indigenous cultures of North America enjoyed a rather well-developed but understated quality of existence, as evidenced by their quiet, but principled wisdom, their ethical and egalitarian social systems, their robust sense of humour, their genius in the areas of fine art and crafts, their knowledge of the healing properties of medicinal herbs and plants, their courage and disproportionate involvement in both world-wars, their earth-friendly worldview and respect for the environment. In a general sense, North American indigenous cultures were environmentalists long before environmentalism became fashionable.
The Indian Residential School System was the single, most tragic event to occur on Canadian soil. The Government of Canada, on behalf of the Canadian People, now has the golden opportunity to assist in the healing of the Inuit, Metis and First Nations. That assistance will come in the form of two essential ingredients that have been sorely missing for most of the past four hundred years. They are understanding and respect.
Perhaps, one day, Chief Augustine Shingwuak’s grand vision of the Aboriginal culture and the Peoples of Canada co-existing and sharing this land may become a reality.
(Dedicated to the memory of James and Elizabeth LeBlanc, my grandparents.)
September 6th 2011
(Editing by Sue Averill 27/09/11)