The despair and loneliness; the innocence, crushed so deliberately and methodically by knowing adults; the wretchedness of human cruelty plain and simple -- I had struggled to sit and listen to stories of Indian Residential School survivors once before.
This past spring, I had participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's national event in Montreal, Quebec. There, in the strange setting of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, the sweet smell of ceremonial tobacco a welcome distraction from the staid and helplessly 'new world' décor of our surroundings, I sat and listened to testimonials of Canada's haunting attempt to stamp out indigenous cultures and kill the Indian in the child.
I became familiar with the quivering voices recounting the day they'd been taken from their homes and separated from their families with no explanation; and of the confusion, hunger, destitution and shame that often followed. I heard from those inter-generational survivors who grew up with parents "who never learned how to love."
But what struck me so pointedly in September when I attended the latest national event in Vancouver on behalf of the Broadbent Institute was how painfully similar survivors' stories from all over B.C. were to those of the first peoples I had listened to six months prior in Quebec.
The residential school experience is a common trauma indigenous peoples across this country share. What any participant at these events would recognize as an attempt at cultural genocide helped form some measure of group identity among disparate Aboriginal groups. Racialized violence has a way of doing that.
Yet the similarities I observed in B.C. and Quebec went well beyond the curriculum of forced assimilation experienced at the schools. It went beyond the brute punishments for speaking their language, the blunt Christian indoctrination and the belittling of their cultures, identities and sense of belonging in the world.
No, what struck me in Vancouver were the common stories of personal suffering found outside of the more structural, and institutional, brutality: the stories of young girls being convinced they were "dirty little Indians" by their sexual abusers; of elders mourning when their communities were literally emptied of children; of the shame, alienation and rage felt towards the parents of survivors upon exit from the schools; of the turn to alcohol and drugs that could never numb it all.
The real two solitudes
These are experiences shared by Aboriginal Canadians across Canada. Little wonder Commissioner Dr. Marie Wilson refers to the gulf between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Canadians as the "real two solitudes in this country."
Squirming in my seat, trying to wrap my head around it all, I experienced fits of different emotions at the hearings: How brave these children were, I thought, and how unbelievably resilient so many of these communities and cultures remain to this day.
As I stuffed tissues full of tears into the receptacles -- all to be collected by the commission as memorials to the children who never returned -- I became uncontrollably angry.
Where were the cabinet ministers, senators, and the prime minister? Every last elected official in this insufferably rich country ought to be listening to these stories, bearing witness to the truth of what this country did.
So too every smug pundit that has diminished or attacked the Idle No More movement, pronouncing from their privileged pulpits, reasoning about progress, resource extraction and the inevitable march of pipelines.
What hope for reconciliation can this country ... can Aboriginal Canadians, hold? Most Canadians, our politicians and elites included, can't be bothered to tune in, let alone acknowledge and reflect on this sustained ribbon of cruelty that runs thick through our collective past.
The issue of acknowledgement is pivotal. And this is precisely the problem. For so many in this country -- recent immigrants, first, second and third generation citizens -- this history of cruelty is difficult to incorporate into their understanding of Canada.
As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I find it particularly difficult. Canada has served powerfully as a "safe haven" and "refuge" in my imagination. Yes, Jews had been turned away during the War, and I learned of the Japanese internment. But my grandparents built a life here. I grew and flourished here, amidst a multitude of cultures, a proud believer in the strength of the Canadian mosaic I learned of in school.
This was my Canada, the imagined community I have reflected on and reinforced in my head time and again.
A 'safe haven' for all
I retain real difficulties reconciling that Canada with the country that I know also deemed it necessary to wrest Aboriginal children from their families and communities and which continued to do so well into the golden years of the post-war welfare state, that era so many progressives continued to look back on with such fondness.
Both parts are true, if that of Canada as "safe haven" to a much lesser extent.
My struggle, I acknowledge, is one, minuscule dimension of the complex and uncertain reconciliation process. I shudder imagining what those who went through those schools face day-to-day.
In order to heal and to begin to mitigate some of the ugly legacy of residential schools -- the poverty, the drug and alcohol addictions, the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal peoples on the streets, in the prisons, in the emergency wards and in the child welfare system -- will take careful, concerted and collective efforts over many generations to come.
It will also take political will right now, something that always seems in short supply when it comes to Canada's dealings with its First Peoples.
A good start would be for the Harper government to fulfill the commitment it made in establishing the commission and deliver all of the relevant documents from its archives to the commission without another fight in court. That it has failed to do so this late in the commission's mandate is unconscionable.
Getting provinces to make the teaching of the Indian residential schools a mandatory part of Canadian history seems another no-brainer.
What an incredible opportunity is being squandered to involve survivors and inter-generational survivors in the crafting of that curriculum.
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