I didn’t really know what I was going to. All I knew was that it was some type of First Nations conference and it was in Montreal. I met with my supervisor the week before and she told me that she wanted me to go to the conference not knowing anything, having a blank slate. So myself and three others that I met on the way to the conference, headed to Montreal for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
There were lots of seminar options to attend so we were free to pick and choose. Three of us decided to spend our first morning at the conference attending a showing of the film We Were Children. At this point I still wasn’t sure what the conference was really all about. The next two hours were an absolute smack in the face. Throughout the next 2 days I would come face to face with a part of my Canadian history that I never new about.
What was I attending exactly? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the TRC “has a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools. The commission will document the truth of what happened by relying on records held by those who operated and funded the schools, testimony from officials of the institutions that operated the schools, and experiences reported by survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience and its subsequent impacts.” So I was at a nation wide TRC event. Here's a little more info. about the issue...
“Residential schools for Aboriginal people in Canada date back to the 1870’s. Over 130 residential schools were located across the country, and the last school closed in 1996. These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children.
During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents’ wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.
On June 11, 2008, the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government of Canada, delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons to former students, their families, and communities for Canada’s role in the operation of the residential schools.” (click for link)
This is the history from the TRC website. However, it’s one thing to sit and read it, it's another thing to hear the stories in person. From the moment I began watching the film, I realized that I have been completely ignorant of a genocide that happened in my very own country. The film depicts the life of two children who were sent to two different residential schools. They are stripped of their entire identity, forced to learn and speak a language foreign to them, forced to adopt a religion unknown, and made to feel shame and guilt for being born a Native. The film also reveals the horrible physical, sexual and emotional abuse done to the children by the clergy. There were several points during the film where I wanted to throw up because the treatment towards the children was so brutal to watch. At the beginning of the film it was announced that there were health aids standing by if anyone needed to talk about what they were seeing. About halfway through the film one of these health aides came down our row and sat down beside our group, we weren’t quite sure what she was doing. I glanced at her through the corner of my eye; she put her hand on the gentleman sitting in front of us. The man was large, well built and looked to be in his early 60’s, and he was also part of the First Nations community. The woman put her hand on his shoulder and it was then that I saw the tears that were streaming down his face. I watched this man for the rest of the film, and tears continued to fall from his eyes. It dawned on me that while I was watching a film, this man was reliving very real events that happened in his life. This wasn’t just a movie; this was the story of his people. I can’t get that picture out of my head.
What followed that afternoon was an opportunity to be a part of a sharing circle. A large group of people gathered, many from the First Nations community and many who weren’t. We sat in a circle of chairs. Many of us wore earpieces to hear the discussion in our own language because the conversation went back and forth between English and French. It was a time to discuss reconciliation and how we get from here to there. There was a moderator but people were free to speak, and each person was allowed up to 5 minutes. I listened intently and took notes. I heard many survivors of the residential schools speak and share parts of their stories. I heard some speak who were very angry at the government, at the church, at the white people who are ignorant of the history. I heard the message over and over again that an apology means nothing if there is not a change in treatment, if the actions of the party apologizing do not change.
The next day our group sat in on one of the main sessions where a very large crowd gathered to hear a panel of people from various walks of life discuss reconciliation. Again, I listened intently and took down notes. After this seminar we attended another seminar where we heard a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide speak. There was a short time for responses and questions afterwards.
I also took some time to walk around and look at some of the different rooms that were set up. There was one room that was called the “church’s listening area”. This was a room where the four main denominations (Catholic, United, Presbyterian, and Anglican) that were involved with running the residential schools set up tables with pictures of the classes and information available for members of the First Nations community that were trying to find and identify family members. This area was also for the churches simply to listen to members of the First Nations community.
There were areas where different organizations set up tables promoting healing and social justice. There were large boards being displayed that gave the history of the First Nations people in Canada. There were boards that showed what life was like in the residential schools.
These were a couple parts of the boards that gripped me…
A little Aboriginal boy in his uniform.
I’ve been trying to write about my experience in Montreal all week. In part I feel like I still don’t know much at all. Another part of me has been trying to work through the tension that this happened and I didn’t know anything about it. Why didn’t I learn about it? Are we even teaching it in our schools? Do most Canadians even know that this happened? I took pages and pages of notes but to summarize them, these are the thoughts and quotes that have stuck with me the most:
- The church was instrumental in seeking to assimilate the Aboriginal race. They did it in God’s name. They taught the children to speak “God’s language”. They also raped and molested and beat and mocked innocent children. They went against their own holy scriptures. There was no love, no respect, and no justice. One native man angrily said that it’s either that your institution is evil or your God is evil, which one is it? He demanded that we clean out our church.
- One woman said that what the residential schools created was a “diocide”. This is killing the idea of God in the child so that they spend their life looking for him.
- One man said, “there is no one and nothing that can give us back what we lost over this tragedy. I wonder what I would have become.”
- The government and the church used the school as a venue to destroy the human spirit. Another woman said that there was nothing left of her when she came out of these schools.
- “They did a good some at assimilating some of us”. “I didn’t want to be aboriginal.”
- “I was ashamed but I forgive myself for believing what I was told about me.”
- A non-aboriginal that has worked in high levels of government commented that if white people had the type of living conditions, limited access to clean water and education that many aboriginal people do today, there would be hell to pay.
- Perhaps the comment that shocked me the most was that “our present life is actually built on a cultural genocide”.
I guess there was a big realization for me that many, if not all of the issues surrounding the First Nations community today are a result of the residential schools. There were generations leaving these schools with no identity and with so much hatred for themselves and others. Many turned to drugs and alcohol and suicide. There were thousands of people who were robbed of a childhood and who didn’t know how to be parents. All they knew what the abuse. There’s a reason that things are the way they are today.
Once you know it, you can’t unknow it. One non-aboriginal woman said that this is deeply uncomfortable, but have we ever been comfortable when we grow? Another man commented that “reconciliation is not a spectator sport, it’s a contact sport…or initially a collision sport.” Both of these individuals are correct.
Several people have asked me what I’m going to do with this information, with the things that I’ve learned? I’m still figuring that out. But for starters I’m going to encourage you to watch this film and talk about it with others: We Were Children
I’m going to tell you to read about the First Nations history and educate yourself and others. Check out the TRC website. Or read articles...check out this one from the CBC website.
You see mutual respect means that we all have the same opportunities. Aboriginal children need to have the same right to life and hope that we want our own children to have. These things that happened were not dreams or myths, they were real events that occurred in our history. And unless we want this dark history to be repeated, we need to educate people on what happened, why it happened and why we can NEVER EVER let it happen again. We need to promote consciousness and social awareness. In the words of one woman that spoke “why wait for a big disaster to happen before we help each other?” Let’s start now. Let’s begin in our everyday lives, in our everyday relationships and contact with other human beings. Let’s start with educating our children, our friends and our family. Let’s ask questions.
For someone who loves the Church, it absolutely broke my heart to learn about the role that the church had in these events. More than that, as someone loves God, it breaks my heart that the church was instrumental in forming an identity about him based on lies and hatred. It’s my prayer that reconciliation will happen not only on behalf of the government and the country but on behalf of the church.
One thing is for sure, God did not do this. I believe God’s heart was and continues to be broken over this tragedy and over every single child that was robbed of their innocence and their childhood. I also believe that God is in the business of reconciliation and of putting people back together.
So may we become people who are not ignorant of our own history. May we commit to becoming humble reconcilers and promoters of peace. May we let the stories of real people move us to action and may we idle no more.