By Sally Barnes
How sad that it took the discovery of the bodies of 215 kids in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to shake up a nation — and people like me.
Unlike most Canadians, who have probably never met a First Nations person, I have long held a deep interest in their place in our history and society, despite growing up in a generation when little was spoken of about their past and living conditions.
In my youth, what little we knew came from Cowboys and Indians movies and passing mention of Louis Riel in high school history books.
I’ve had more connection with First Nations people than most and I’ve read more than most about our failure as a society to address the racism and deplorable living conditions most of them continue to experience.
But it was the confirmation of mass graves at the residential school in Kamloops and knowing similar sites exist elsewhere that confirmed the horror and brought me — and so many others — to tears.
Maybe it’s Canada’s George Floyd moment. A video documenting a black guy being slowly killed by a police officer caused the public to react to the stark reality of police violence against minorities in America.
We tortured little kids and caused intergenerational trauma up here in Canada.
We can pretend otherwise no more.
Thanks to media coverage and an outpouring of victim stories online, the Canadian public has reacted with anger that decades pass and commissions and studies come and go and politicians make big promises and talks drag on and change is so slow and measured that you can hardly see it.
My mother was of French-Canadian roots, born and raised in Deseronto, 45 minutes west of Kingston. Her half-brother married an Indigenous woman from the nearby Tyendinaga Reserve (now renamed the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.)
My grade two photo at The Prince Charles School in Napanee includes two brothers (possibly twins) with bad haircuts and matching plaid shirts. I forget their names but I remember they were called Indians and they looked very poor.
It was too long ago for me to remember how we treated those little boys but I recall that a few years later when two Hungarian sisters moved to town we gave them a hard time because they wore long pigtails and had embroidered clothes and high leather boots we’d never seen before.
Because of my interest in Tyendinaga and its people, while working as a young reporter at The Whig Standard, my editor agreed to me spending two weeks on the reserve. My stories and accompanying photographs filled a full page in the paper for five consecutive days.
Distinguished author and historian Donald B. Smith, who has spent a lifetime researching settler-Indigenous relations, told me the series and its in-depth look at life on a reserve was unprecedented in the mass media at the time.
To quote a new book by Smith, most Canadians harboured a “long-established blindness to the Indigenous peoples” and their history and living conditions remained unknown, “a closed book”.
In more recent years, reserve conditions have come to light: polluted drinking water, substandard housing, lack of health services, and a rate of imprisonment, joblessness, early death, crime, addiction, and suicide that far exceeds the general population.
We’ve learned of the misery, hunger, abuse, sickness, and mistreatment of thousands of kids at the government-established and church-administered residential schools that operated for more than 100 years. The last one was finally closed in 1997.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by former judge and then-Senator Murray Sinclair, was told by former students about graves of kids who had died or gone missing. The horror stories included disposing of the remains of babies born to young girls and fathered by priests.
It’s all in their report issued six years ago. Were we listening?
Sinclair submitted a proposal for funding for a full inquiry into the deaths and burial sites but the government denied the request.
Now, we have staggering proof of deaths that some argue amount to nothing short of manslaughter and part of a policy of cultural genocide.
We’re understanding the despair of kids — some as young as four — who were removed from their families for months, sometimes years, on end. The sexual, mental, and physical abuse at the hands of men and women who pretended to be acting in the name of God.
We’ve witnessed the intergenerational effect of the trauma the kids and their families experienced and the horror they witnessed in efforts to make them assimilate — to be more like us.
Canada, the land of opportunity and populated by such nice people, is being viewed differently these days by people around the world.
The Chinese are labelling us hypocrites for criticizing them for human rights abuses while having blood on our own hands. Well, at least we admit our failures and are trying to make amends while the Communist Chinese government hides and denies its atrocities.
The Kamloops school was operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. With 500 students, it was the largest of the 57 under the religious order’s administration and part of the network of 139 residential schools across the country.
Pressure continues on Pope Francis to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church but neither he nor his predecessors have agreed to do so. The heads of the Anglican, United, and Presbyterian churches, which also operated residential schools, have all apologized for their involvement.
One columnist has suggested Pope Francis is relying more on advice from lawyers and insurance companies than he is on the contents of his Bible.
Actually, more important than another apology would be the Catholic Church’s assurance that all school documents will be released to help a national investigation.
It is encouraging that Murray Sinclair continues his long battle on behalf of his people. In my books, he is saintly and remains the fair, wise, reasonable, strong hand on the tiller.
I also find encouragement in Marc Miller as Minister of Indigenous Services. He’s a relative newcomer to politics and maybe that’s what makes him excel. He is not yet worn down and intimidated by process or the scars of past failures.
Interestingly, neither Sinclair nor Miller is a proponent of tearing down historic statues to help this cause.
There are more than 600 First Nations in Canada and some 60 original languages. Consensus is near impossible on everything from control of education to supporting pipelines. Some welcome economic development; others oppose it. Some consider themselves citizens of Canada while others regard themselves as citizens of their respective nations.
The non-Indigenous world is in a hurry to change, ramp up technology, expand, and move on.
The Indigenous people place more value in honouring the past and protecting the present and future.
Jaundiced bureaucrats refer to the frustration of Indigenous clients who operate on “Indian time” and are not enslaved to the hurly-burly of life in the white man’s fast lane.
It’s easy to blame politicians for not keeping their promises. But in some cases, those promises remain unfulfilled because their Indigenous partners insist on long and complex consultation and cannot reach consensus among themselves.
Right now, Indigenous leaders are calling for a national investigation into unmarked burial sites across the Canada. But they insist it must be independent and not done under federal auspices. Some Indigenous groups will cooperate; others will reject any interference with sacred burial grounds.
This frustrating relationship between First Peoples and our latest governments will not change soon — if ever.
It calls for goodwill, determination, wisdom, patience, and strong leadership on all sides. And compromise.
A tall order but worth working and waiting for.
Residential schools are a great example of an idea that began by some for what they thought were the right reasons and maybe even with the best of intentions — but which went hellishly and tragically wrong.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The policy would not have lasted for more than a century without support of the Canadian public of the day.
This is our day and we will be judged on what we do with it.
Sally Barnes has enjoyed a distinguished career as a writer, journalist and author. Her work has been recognized in a number of ways, including receiving a Southam Fellowship in Journalism at Massey College at the University of Toronto. A self-confessed political junkie, she has worked in the back-rooms for several Ontario premiers. In addition to a number of other community contributions, Sally Barnes served a term as president of the Ontario Council on the Status of Women. She is a former business colleague of Doppler’s Hugh Mackenzie and lives in Kingston, Ontario. You can find her online at sallybarnesauthor.com
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