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Rights + Justice

For First Nations, These Are Precedented Times

The pain of loss. Forced isolation. Unimaginable grief. We know them all.

Hilistis Pauline Waterfall 22 May

Hilistis (pronounced Hee-lees-tees) Pauline Waterfall is a Heiltsuk woman who has lived and worked both within and outside of her community. She is an adjunct professor at Vancouver Island University and teaches in the First Nations Stewardship Tech program.

Many people have described the COVID-19 health crisis as “unprecedented times.”

They’re denying or dismissing the historical experiences of First Nations peoples in past pandemics.

Between 1780 and 1889, smallpox had a catastrophic impact on First Nations across B.C. and Canada. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver wrote of coming upon barren villages where human bones were scattered with no survivors.

Hailhzaqv have stories of how our people, as accomplished carpenters, helped in the construction of Victoria. It was from there on June 11, 1862 that the gunboat “Forward” towed 26 canoes full of smallpox infected First Peoples for more than 15 days to Fort Rupert. My grandmother Hilistis shared stories about this devastating time, when Hailhzaqv canoes returned with survivors who passed on a disease, from which there was no immunity. Our Oral History also tells of villages that were completely wiped out.

From 1847 to 1850, a measles epidemic took a great toll on First Peoples.

And in 1918, a Spanish flu epidemic wreaked further apocalyptic devastation.

My 93-year old mother, Peggy Housty, told me how her maternal grandmother lived through this epidemic. Her grandmother spoke of the nightmare of so many deaths each day that proper burials couldn’t be performed, nor mortuary ceremonies and customs practised. She witnessed the chaos, confusion and desolation that our ancestors of the day went through.

The removal of our children to residential schools far from home was also a form of plague. It devastated our people’s health and well-being as much as the diseases visited upon us. Residential school abuse spanned at least 160 years. In those five generations we felt very deeply what society is now experiencing. The devastating psychosomatic and health impacts continue to afflict many of our people since the last “school” closed in 1996.

In our Hailhzaqv experience, local control of education was returned in 1976, just 44 years ago. One generation is defined as about 30 years, so we have had our children remain with us year-round for a little over one generation.

During this one generation, we’ve had to relearn how to be a family, how to communicate effectively, how to parent and discipline healthfully — in brief, how to decolonize ourselves from insidious learned behaviours that rendered many of us to be dependent with a sense of helplessness.

Over the one generation, we have worked hard to rebuild our Hailhzaqv identity and place. We have revitalized our cultural ways. We have renewed our ceremonial practices. We are regaining our Hailhzaqv language. We work in solidarity to protect what we have left, including our homelands and waters and all life therein.

Five or more generations lived in the residential school era, experiencing what society in general is now experiencing. As a residential school survivor, I was removed from my family as a pre-teen and placed in an institution that was devoid of warmth and love. There was no model of family structure, and we were left to our own devices to create fragile and tenuous relationships in rigidly segregated circumstances. The abject loneliness that I felt was shared by my dormitory peers. Many nights we cried ourselves to sleep missing the warmth, security, affection and support of our parents and home communities.

So the loneliness experienced during this pandemic time that forces isolation is not new to me. What is unsettling is that the 64-year-old buried loneliness memory is being unearthed in these times. Self-talk and debriefing with my husband help to keep this demon at bay and reinforce that I am once again safe, secure, loved and supported.

So the issue of food security is not new to me — nor was it new to my father who attended residential school and told me about the unending hunger he experienced with the inadequate foreign foods that were forced upon them. I remember the deep longing for a feed of traditional marine foods — smoked salmon, fresh herring eggs, roasted seaweed and so on. All I could do was yearn and dream about what used to be my normal diet. Is it any wonder that my pantry shelves are well stocked with preserved foods including canned salmon, jarred deer meat and jam? Is it any wonder my freezer is full of traditional foods prepared and harvested for these very times when the grocery store shelves are empty? We will never be hungry again despite this pandemic.

So being unable to hug my loved ones is not new to me. In fact, because we were punished for showing emotion, we learned to build thick protective walls around our hearts. My 91-year-old father died without once telling me he loved me. Even though I knew that he did, I longed to hear him say it. In retrospect, how could he when he was punished repeatedly for showing any emotions? He was not even allowed to cry or show emotion while being whipped with thick belts. Building trust and relearning how to emote and express love has been a healing and necessary process for me. Now, I have to self-distance and not practise what I worked so hard to relearn.

I listen to others in the larger society express remorse and sadness about distancing from loved ones. That it is not new to me, and I have to work hard to remain empathetic to their plight and needs.

The most difficult challenge I have now is not to be able to hold my six-week-old great grandchild or be in her company. However, I can FaceTime with her.

Imagine how my mother feels in being socially isolated from the large family that she so lovingly and carefully raised, mentored and guided over these five generations. Imagine how her feelings are intensified as she recalls that five of her children were taken from her when they were very young and returned as young adults. In my case, I struggled to know how to fit into my family unit again after being displaced for so long.

When I see news reports of aged parents detained in nursing homes, only able to see loved ones through windows, I am grateful that we are able to take care of our mother and provide for her needs even though hugs are tabled until this is all over. I relate to the sadness that those families feel.

What is new is learning how to be in a relationship with myself. I’ve always been in situations where I was never alone. My formative years were spent with a large immediate and extended family and many friends. My teen years were spent in communal settings at residential school and boarding homes. I have three adult children, six grandchildren and one great grandchild and I have worked diligently for 53 years to build a foundation upon which my family can grow and flourish.

Now, there is the need to be separated, which is necessary and important. For the first time, I have the space and time to excavate buried memories and work through them. This is a healing time punctuated by moments of sadness and loneliness.

On the other hand, I am able to talk with my husband who understands completely the metamorphosis I’m experiencing. My father used to remind me that there are always upsides to downsides, and this pandemic is revealing that with mixed blessings.

So this is not an unprecedented time for us First Nations who have gone through many challenges and changes that have forced us to be strong, resilient and adaptive. As with all things under the heavens, life renews itself and good things are coming out of this time, as long as our hearts and minds remain open and positive.  [Tyee]

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