We Will Remember… Residential Schools!

People in Alberta (and hopefully Canada) have heard by now that a draft document was leaked to CBC about the Alberta UCP government’s proposed education curriculum. The expert’s (12 hand-picked people who spent 8 days together) advice was to erase Indigenous history from the Alberta school curriculum saying it was too disturbing for children to learn about residential schools. While I agree that education needs to be age appropriate, to erase the history around residentials school in education is taking a huge step backwards. I have sent letters to our Premier, Minister of Education and my MLA stating that.

While thinking about this yesterday, I read a Facebook post by Janice Makokis from Cree Nation. In it she shares a conversation between her father and her 6 year old son on this very topic. Janice has graciously given me permission to share her post here.

I’m inspired to share this for two reasons. First, it provides a unique perspective on this subject. How would YOU feel if it was your history being eliminated? Second, we should ALL be having this conversation with our kids. Imagine what our country would look like if our children grew up understanding the truth.

Janice Makokis’ post (Oct 22, 2020)

Just a quick rant on this ridiculous argument (it’s too sad/ hard for children to hear) the AB UCP government is using to essentially erase Indigenous voices/ perspectives on residential schools in the current AB curriculum review.

Last night, me and Atayoh (who is 6yo) went hunting with my dad. My dad always shares teachings or childhood stories when we travel together or when we go do land based activities. So yesterday, my dad starts to share some stories from his childhood about being in school at Blue Quills and in St Paul. He shares an incident when the teacher took his ear and pulled/ twisted it for punishment for doing something. Atayohs response went like this “Moosom poppa, why would a teacher ever do that? That’s cruel/ mean. Do teachers still do that today?” Then my dad has to explain [in] simple terms about residential schools and what they did there. Then Atayoh said “Mommy is that against the law to hurt children – like what that teacher did to moosom poppa?” And I said yes my boy. Then he said “Well if they broke the law and children were hurt shouldn’t something have happened to those bad people that hurt the children?” The questions and explanations carried on a little bit longer but he knew what was going on.

It’s a gross misrepresentation of the AB UCP to assume children are incapable of understanding and processing these moments in our history that are necessary for every child to learn/ know. This is how we change our collective futures so we co-exist together in peace and friendship, the way the Treaties intended for us to live. In fact, children are incredibly intelligent in connecting feelings, emotions and experiences when explained in a way they understand. We can teach them about social justice, anti-racism and indigenous history/ perspectives from a place of understanding and empowerment to dream a better future for all of us.

So I don’t want to hear the lame sorry excuse that children can’t or won’t comprehend this tragic complex history, because they can and they do. My 6yo is a testament to being the third generation survivor of residential schools and he knows what happened because we have taught him.

Alberta, do better – stop the excuses because you know better.

Yes, we can do better Janice.

I hope that every Albertan and every Canadian stands up and makes their voice heard. We need to learn the truth. We all need to remember the thousands of children who were abused and survived, and especially those who never made it home.

As Janice says, “This is how we change our collective futures so we co-exist together in peace and friendship, the way the Treaties intended for us to live.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation revealed the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools Monday at a ceremony in Gatieau, Que. A 50-metre long cloth bearing the names of the children who died was unfurled. The event was intended to break the silence over the fate of at least some of the thousands who disappeared during the decades the schools operated. (September 30, 2019.)

Photo source: Provincial Archives of Alberta – Students at Blue Quills Residential School

Does Every Child Matter?

Interesting question. I’m willing to bet that most people would answer “yes” immediately. But what about children from outside your family? Your community? Your ethnicity? Your religion? Do they still matter or does this enter into a gray area?

We are often taught to look after our “own” first and sometimes that means seeing the rest as “other” peoples’ problem. Or perhaps it’s the government’s problem. But what if the government was the cause of the problem, the “other” people victims and you directly benefited from this?

Hmmm…

Let me share a story which put us in another time and place, a way to look at this from a different perspective. The story may be emotionally difficult to hear but I encourage you to read to the very end.

Imagine you are the mother or father (or grandmother/grandfather) of two beautiful children – a four year old boy and a 12 year old girl. You love them both with all your heart and would do anything for them. You see that they are fed and cared for. You wake them with kisses and put them to bed at night with stories and hugs. You have a home schooling system that works well and you see they are thriving. You teach them to be kind and contributing members of your community.

You love watching your little boy play. He’s so strong and sure as he jumps from rock to rock along the river path behind your home, laughing at his bravery. Your daughter is growing into a young woman already and her beauty takes your breath away. She is quick minded and so kind to others. It fills your heart to see how happy they both are.

One day you hear rumors that the government doesn’t approve of your home school methods nor those of others in your community. It has created a new law which says all children like yours must attend a boarding school. They are not to come home for 10 months or longer. If you refuse, the police will take your children by force. You complain that your son is only four years old and that your daughter is thriving at home. You are told that if you resist in any way (verbally or physically) you will be put in jail for up to six months. Many men are sent to jail trying to protect their children.

The government is just too powerful. Your children are taken and you will not have any contact with them for the duration of the school year or longer. Your heart is broken. You fall to your knees and weep in frustration and despair. Your entire community is devastated.

Now imagine you are the 12 year old girl from this same family.

You scream and struggle as you and your brother are taken away by strangers. You don’t understand what is happening. You are roughly pushed onto a train and soon are moving quickly away from your parents and your home. The strangers speak another language that you don’t understand. Your brother is terrified and clinging to you.

After you have gathered enough courage you bravely ask in your own language, “Where are we going?” A man looks at you sternly, shouts and hit you across the head. You cower in the corner holding onto your brother tightly for the duration of the trip.

After what feels like a very long time you are at your final destination – a large brown building with many floors and windows. You are taken inside and immediately separated from your sibling. You cry out but are struck again. You watch helplessly as he is taken away down a long hall, crying and reaching for you.

A woman speaking the strange language takes you into a room and roughly strips off all your clothes. You are standing naked on a cold floor when she grabs your beautiful long hair and cuts it off. She washes you in cold water with a rough brush and you cry out from the pain. You are slapped again. You are given new clothes to wear. Different clothes than you have ever worn before. They itch and are uncomfortable.

You are taken to a place where there are more adults. Someone interprets the strange language and tells you to never speak in your native tongue again and if you do, you will be severely punished. They tell you that your given name is now dead. You are given an ID number and that is what you will be called from now on. You are at school to learn a new language, a new religion and will be expected to work. You are told to forget your home, that your parents don’t want you any more and this is where you live now. You cry and are struck again for crying.

That evening you sleep in a large room filled with many cots side by side with other girls. When the lights are out there are many quiet sobs.

The next day you are taken to a room with long tables and many chairs. You are shown where to sit and a very small bowl of gray mash is placed in front of you. It tastes terrible but you are hungry so eat it. It is not enough to fill your belly but there is no more food. You look desperately for your brother but can’t find him. You are so scared and just want to go home.

You are taken to another room with many small desks and chairs. You are told to sit still and be quiet. A woman is talking at the front. She looks very angry and strikes children with her belt throughout the morning. After a time you are taken to the washroom and given a rag and motioned to clean the dirty floors.

The end of the day comes. You are sad, confused and exhausted. You lie in your cot hoping sleep will come. As soon as it is dark, someone comes to take you to another room. There you see a man smiling at you. He looks so kind, you feel a small glimmer of hope. Maybe he is someone who will understand and can take you home to your parents. He motions for you to come over and sit on his lap. He says words you don’t understand but they sound soothing. Soon his hands reach down and lifts up your night shirt, He touches you between your legs. You struggle with all your might to get away but he is very strong. No one has ever touched you like that before. You are so ashamed.

Months go by. You occasionally see your little brother from a distance. He is skinny and looks unwell. You are not surprised though as there is never enough food to eat. It makes you sad to see that he has changed so much – from the energetic boy that jumped on the rocks and laughing to a very sullen boy with shallow eyes.

Nights are the worse time of all. You hear screams from the basement where they have taken children for punishment. You try to be as good as you can so you never have to go down there. When you are told to go see the man with the smile, you no longer struggle for fear of what may happen. You hate how he touches you and forces you to do things.

Many months go by and you haven’t seen your brother in a long time. You finally get the chance to secretly ask another boy where he is. He tells you your brother died and they buried him out back. You are stunned. You find a way to sneak outside and run to the back of the school. There are small mounds of dirt. Many mounds. You fall on your knees and weep.

Soon the year is over and many children are allowed to go home for a short while. You are told it is too far and you must stay behind. You know that you have a baby growing in your belly and wonder if that is why you must stay. You wonder if your parents know about your brother’s death. You think of him every day and say his given name in your head so he is not forgotten.

Soon your pains start. You are so scared. You give birth in a cold room with a stern woman standing nearby. She immediately takes your baby away. You never see it again. You don’t know if it was a boy or a girl.

Years go by and the hunger and abuse never stops. Finally you are 16 years old. Old enough to leave. They feel confident they have successfully driven the “old ways” out of you.

And in many ways they have. After so many beatings you no longer feel comfortable speaking your native language or living your old ways. Home has now become a strange place and your parents strangers to you. It scares you that they speak the old language.

You move to the city where they speak the language you were taught at school and try to fit in but people hate you there and spit on you. You try to get a job but no one wants you. They say you don’t have enough education to get a good job. You have no where to go but the streets.

There you find a man to be with and you have children of your own. But you have no idea how to raise them. You only remember the beatings over the years so you raise your children the same way. Your children grow and become angry and as lost as you. Alcohol and drugs numb the pain.

I would like to tell you that this horrific story is fictional but it is not. This was the experience of many Indigenous children between the 1800’s and 1996 when more than 150,000 children were taken from their families and attended residential schools across Canada (see interactive map). Over 2,500 children remain missing and more than 6,000 children died, buried in unmark graves. Those graves hold newborn bones as well.

The government did this (and I quote Sir John A. Macdonald here) to ‘take the Indian out of the child,’ and solve what was referred to as the Indian problem. ‘Indianness’ was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated. Indian children were to be assimilated into white culture from a young age.

Some people would say this happened years ago and “they” should get over it. I wonder if they realize that the intergenerational trauma continues today? Indigenous children continued to be taken away from families in the Sixties Scoop and even today thousands of babies and children are taken from Indigenous families and placed in foster care.

The loss of language and culture has meant a loss of identity for so many children and adults. Today the education systems for current Indigenous students continues to be subpar and many do not have access to proper health care or clean drinking water. There are a critical number of Indigenous children committing suicide today – some as young as ten years old.

Do these children matter?

Perhaps it is the governments problem to fix this but we all know that the government will only listen and take action when we are united and stand up for injustices.

This is your chance to do that.

Wednesday, September 30 is Orange Shirt Day, a day to raise awareness about the Indian residential school system in Canada and the impact it had on Indigenous communities for well over a century. An impact that continues today.

Their message is Every Child Matters.

%d bloggers like this: