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Rights + Justice

The Path from Residential Schools to the Downtown Eastside

Michelle Good on telling the story Canada refused to hear.

Jen St. Denis 6 Dec

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

[Editor’s note: This story contains discussion of residential schools and may be triggering to some readers.]

It’s common to hear politicians and commentators pin many of the problems of the Downtown Eastside on the closure of Riverview Hospital, a provincial facility located in Coquitlam that provided mental health services from 1904 to 2012. Without proper community supports in place after it was shut down, former patients ended up in the Vancouver neighbourhood, often becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.

The effects of residential schools are mentioned much less often, if at all.

But in her 2020 novel, Five Little Indians, lawyer, author and '60s Scoop survivor Michelle Good dramatizes an experience that was common in the 1960s and ’70s: Indigenous youth being released from residential schools with few life skills and broken connections to their families, culture and home communities. Many ended up in the Downtown Eastside, with no acknowledgement of their trauma or any help to deal with it. And there was little understanding from mainstream white society that anything was amiss at the so-called schools.

Good will be reading from Five Little Indians at the Firehall Arts Centre in the Downtown Eastside on Saturday, Dec. 10. The free event, organized by YWCA Metro Vancouver, will include a community discussion in honour of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, an annual international campaign.

Good’s book provides an accessible way for readers to become absorbed in the stories of five residential school survivors, following their path from the cruel Mission School on the coast of British Columbia, to their transition to young adulthood in the Downtown Eastside, where several of the characters meet again but struggle with mental illness, drug use and the trauma from the abuse they’ve all suffered at residential school.

“What was happening with these kids, as they go home — they’ve been away for 10 years — all those relationships, both with their community, with their relations, have all been so profoundly eroded, they no longer had a place of belonging,” said Good, who spoke to The Tyee from her home in Saskatchewan.

“And so then we see this exodus to the urban centres, and there are all of these assumptions that are coming out of all of these notions of who Indigenous people are and why their children had to be taken away to be educated — because of course Indigenous people are inferior. All of those false notions combined to create a judgment of people then and now, who are basically imprisoned in the Downtown Eastside.”

The book shows the five survivors caring for each other in the midst of a society that is oblivious to what they’ve experienced and often criminalizes them. Some of the characters reach a place of healing as they reconnect with their culture and ultimately seek justice for the harms of residential school.

Good said there is still a huge need to show Canadians the damage that colonial practices such as the residential school system and the '60s Scoop did to Indigenous Peoples.

“It's really amazing how many non-Indigenous readers have reached out to me to express their absolute shock,” Good said. “One reader sort of encapsulated it: she said, ‘I just never knew, but now I'll never forget.’"

“So many people have written to me and said, ‘I lived right down the road from a residential school when I was growing up, and I had no idea what was happening.’”

That unawareness contrasts with what Good — a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation — experienced as a young Indigenous person in the 1970s. She had just aged out of foster care, her mother and many relatives were survivors of residential school, and she was working in Indigenous organizations in Vancouver.

“Virtually everybody that I was working with at that time was somebody that had, recently or not so recently, aged out of residential school,” Good said. “These stories were not something I had to research. My life was immersed in these stories.”

Good has given a lot of thought as to how non-Indigenous people remained so oblivious to what was going on in residential schools, and the attitudes towards Indigenous Peoples they internalized from their own parents and the Canadian government. Residential schools developed and persisted over decades, where the Canadian government was focused on gaining and maintaining control over land that had once sustained First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

“These institutions were total institutions,” Good said. “The total institution of course is an institution where there is no oversight, where the people that are running the institute have absolute control over what information goes out or comes in for that matter.

“And so the narrative at the time was that these were well-intentioned institutions meant to assist Indigenous people to get an education and to be able to blend into the larger Canadian society. That was the narrative.”

Good says she has also heard from survivors and intergenerational survivors of residential schools who say her book has reflected their own experiences. One survivor told Good: “I saw myself in every single character.”

An intergenerational survivor said the book helped her understand why her dad was the way he was.

“I don't know how many times I've heard survivors talk about that they just need to be heard,” Good said. “The whole drive behind litigation and settlements and all of those kinds of things were survivors, feeling this profound drive to have those stories known in the world.

“In many ways, the book is a love letter to survivors — for them to know that those stories have been heard.”

Michelle Good will be speaking at Truth and Resilience in the Downtown Eastside — a community gathering of reflection on the impacts of colonialism. This free event takes place Saturday, Dec. 10, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. at the Firehall Arts Centre, 280 E. Cordova St. Good will also read from her book, 'Five Little Indians.' Reserve your spot online.  [Tyee]

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