Dark times

Who am I?

It has taken a while to write this blog as the stories on which it are based shocked me and troubled me for days. They still do. I have wept while reading stories and spent hours and miles wondering at how on earth it could have happened. Once again, as in the Aleutians while hearing the tales of dwindling Aleut populations and their struggles through time and presently, I questioned my identity and what it means for me to be British, considering my country’s colonial past. I remember a similar feeling watching the brilliant and brutal ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ over ten years ago, feeling sick for my country’s historic part in the treatment of aborginal families in Australia.

The Indian Problem

Until spending time with Ann Maje Raider in the 1,000 community of Watson Lake, I had only heard allusions to Canada’s dark history of Residential Schools. Meeting me red-faced and grinning as I pedalled uphill into the morning sunshine, Ann whisked me straight up to a women’s shelter in town where we had lunch and chatted about the centre and life in the commnunity. I knew that addiction, drink and drug-fuelled violence and abuse were all problems in Canadian indigenous communities but didn’t know why. Through an afternoon and evening with Ann the answers were filled in with stark, terrible stories.

Herself a residential school Survivor, Ann told me how thousands of children were forcibly removed from their families and whisked away to residential schools over a 150 year period, with the aim of ‘aggressively assimilating them’ into white, modern society, started in the 1800s as pressures on land and resources brought traditional indigenous livelihoods into the furore of expansion and explotiative plans by the government and industry. The Establishment perceived they had an ‘Indian Problem’ and the way to deal with it was to break up families and ‘educate’ children through mandatory schooling between the ages of 6 and 16, hand and hand with the Church. Children as young as 4 were taken away from their tribes, herded into cattle trucks and placed in what have been described as more prison camp than school, institutions scattered about the country.

The Church in Lower Post. As an institution it has a lot to answer for in Canadian history.

The Church in Lower Post. As an institution it has a lot to answer for in Canadian history.

‘I remember I was 6. I didn’t want to go and clung to my Dad’s leg. The Agent said he would be put in jail if I didn’t go and I didn’t want him to go to jail. So I went,’ said Ann. Boys and girls were separated, stripped, heads shaved into identical hair cuts, given identical uniforms to wear and given numbers instead of names. There they remained for the entire year except for summer and Christmas holidays, unless they lived too far away for the government to want to pay their way home. Some remained there for years, returning to their communities as strangers. Ann said she lived for the summer time when she returned to the land with her family, camping, hunting, gathering berries, fishing and trapping.

Prison camps

While at ‘school’, children were forbidden from speaking to the opposite sex, forbidden from talking with their brothers and sisters and punished severely for doing so. They were taught to be ashamed of their heritage, their family and culture and punished and beaten for speaking their own language. Stripped of their dignity, their identity, undernourished and subjected to long arduous hours of labour and religious lessons, children were often sexually and physically abused, too, by the very people that were employed to look after and teach them. Many died along the way, through illness, beatings or murdering by their caretakers. On leaving aged 16, many descended into dark spirals of despair, alocholism, drug addiction and violence, suicide claiming many. For Survivors, the effects have been intergenerational and lasting, both personally and culturally. Language and culture transmission have been thwarted, families have been devastated by violence, abuse and addiction and the cycle of abuse and trauma continues for many.

Healing Journeys

When the last Residential School in Canada was shut in 1996 a government fund was set up to manage a $350 million healing fund over ten years. Ten tiny years for seven generations of children lost to the schools? I had to check I had heard it correctly. Healing still takes place in communities today through a variety of methods – Western counselling and therapy alongside traditional healing practices such as sweats and cultural activities. From what I hear from Ann in her role as leader of the Liard Aboriginal Women Society, the resources are limited and the need far outstrips local capacity to administer, especially now the ten year Healing Fund is closed. Ann and her team spend most of their year chasing grants to activate programmes around women’s rights and domestic violence. If only I had a golden ticket to help. Her energy and commitment were inspiring and her willingness to share her experiences humbling. She tried telling me I was brave for my journey and I pointed out that her journey has been far braver than mine. In 2008, nearly 20 years after the end of the schools Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologised for the government’s role in isolating indigenous children from their families, communities and cultures, condemning the practice and the policies which protected and supported the system. The various churches involved have apologised on a sliding scale, it seems.

Travis and Ann of the Liard Aboriginal Women's Society

Travis and Ann of the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society


That is but a tiny overview of the story. Search online or in books and you will find more. Be sure to read some of the hopeful healing accounts too, of strength and inspiration amid darkness. Ann smiled and laughed at times as she weaved in stories of defiance and bravery of herself and peers, fighting to maintain their dignity amid the relentless and brutal bid to stamp on it. She and her group are doing great things

In my mind there is but a whisker or two between this cultural genocide and the Holocaust and other genocides throughout history. It is institutionalised racism, a shocking bid for white supremacy. When one race deems another as inferior and sets out to dominate and erase their identity, they are not human. It troubles me that this happened so recently, instigated by people from my country, and it troubles me more that support, funding and understanding are not more forthcoming. I am grateful to Ann for sharing her stories and hosting me in Watson Lake.

Go well, my friends.


My Healing Journey – Art and poems by Mary Casear (ISBN 978-3-941485-28-0)

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30 Responses to Dark times

  1. Gigi W. says:

    I had NO idea!! Thank you so very much, Sarah, for shedding light on this darkness. Your journey is educational and enlightening on so many levels. I will be doing some reading…

    ~Gigi in Va. Beach

  2. Shanon Kerr says:

    Thank you Sarah for spreading the word of this terrible thing done in my country. No apology or ten year plan will help these people but spreading the word that it happened and that people still suffer and strive to heal may help gain understanding and more importantly funding for these people. My heart breaks for the people who are born into a life that they feel is without hope because of the cycle of addiction and violence and I believe that the residential school system is the root cause of the majority of the problems. Thank you for casting your light on the issue.
    Best wishes for safe travels. I really enjoy your posts, tweets and blogs.

  3. dick fast/maggie d'arcy says:

    hi sarah

    you from britain and we from canada share a monstrous history of “holocaust” treatment of indigenous north american children. we appreciate your articulate perceptions of ann’s recounting. we think everything you reported is accurate as we know it.

    thank goodness that many humans are like you.

    cheers to you, and, of course, warm muck-boot feet!!

    dick/maggie, atlin

  4. Dave Powell says:

    Yes shocking
    Next time I feel pious over countries that take part in genocide
    From nazi Germany to recent African nations
    I will remember this story of our repression of those indigenous

  5. virgil funderburk says:

    how sad but true, imperialism has no mercy. even do I have a European name, my mother is Mexican and I lived in Mexico for 18 years. just to put in context how hypocrite imperialist Nations can be. Europeans took over what they call the Americas north, central and south, by force, few Europeans had a good heart had Bartolome de las casas to name just one. however now in present Day USA with the immigration problem The USA call foul, who are the first illegals to begin with. enough said. wish you luck in the rest of your journey .. you are brave soul, many blessings.
    ps sorry for the long note


  6. Louise says:

    Wow Sarah – you have opened our eyes to something we had never heard of? How could we not know- Ray was a geography teacher, we have friends whose son lives in Canada and yet this was the first time we were aware of this dreadful system. Enlightening us about this has added a whole new dimension to your amazing journey. Travel safely – lovely to be receiving your news again. Much love

    Lou x

  7. Brian MacLeod says:

    When you look at what was done in the name of the British Empire, the only acceptable reaction is to be ashamed.

    Genocide, concentration camps are all part of it.

    The UK has a world class propaganda service so we British only hear about the good bits.

    Here’s a report written by a former colleague

  8. Steffi says:

    Thanks Sarah for sharing. I have been following your blog for some time now. You explain your experiences very vividly- it almost feels as though I am there with you. My heart feels heavy, reading the above. I just got back from a trip to Rwanda where i learnt everything about the genocide in 94. No words to find and also were ashamed of my identity and lack of knowledge about something so terrible. We all should be aware of terrible things like that so that they don’t repeat. Thanks for educating us.

  9. Teresa Yonge says:

    Thank you for this first hand information, what can be done to extend the 10 year support. More publicity, perhaps a funded gathering of those affected…. making a noise about it… so something is done to support those that need it…. How many years of more funding? do you suggest 50 yrs? 100yrs? Perhaps approaching people like Gates or Branson, those with clout and money will help I recon… Thank you thank you Sarah


    Like Colin Smith, high achievers have the choice to refuse to cross the tape a few yards from the end.
    It is painful for both sides but a salutory lesson for the arrogant and cruel.
    The point has been made. You are to cross the tape.

  11. Bruce Ellen says:

    Hi Sarah
    That is one part of several parts of history that a lot of people are not proud of.
    The stories that are out there and still continuing in different ways are not good.
    Hind sight is great and all we can hope is that we have learnt not to repeat them.

    But what about all those bisons,are they owned by anyone and are they reared and sold for food
    Safe travels and remember you are on the down hill run [ except for a few up hills ]

    Cheers from sunny Queensland

  12. geoff says:

    time will tell whether failure to assimilate will be worse. It is a really tough question. The Western way is somewhat unforgiving of those who don’t participate. There is a book, curiously small (for a reason) titled ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’. Had a similar effect on me – made me cry and cry. The heart wrenching story of progressive dispossession of the American Indians.

    Thanks for this salient post.

  13. Steve says:

    If only it was that easy – believing that churches and states wanted to eliminate all aboriginal peoples and steal all their land. It is a simple but misleading story. Many of the people who made the policies of taking children from aboriginal people, and those who worked in orphanages, thought they were doing the right thing, saving the children from poverty, no Western education, abuse as children from older men, dysfunctional families crushed by despair and alcohol, etc. We still take children of all ethnicities away from families judged dysfunctional or abusive. We should not discount the suffering inflicted on the families, but there are still many different proposed policies to address the problems from both aboriginal and non-aboriginal viewpoints, so I don’t think that the proper response is at all obvious. Dwelling on the past is not particularly helpful; and making Sarah feel guilty for activities in which she had no say nor knowledge is manipulative..

  14. TimBob says:

    HI Sara,

    So good to hear a blog from you again …… I was beginning to wonder……what was happening with you and had to keep looking on the “Sara Tracker” to see where you were or whether I missed an email that you packed it in for the winter !
    I had no idea that the children were ripped from their native families at an early age. Thank God our Government pumped 350 MILLION DOLLARS into helping them ! By the sounds of it they needed and deserved it. One thing you did not mention or the native people did not tell you is the MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of dollars us CANADIANS PUMP INTO their Reserves every year ! There are Reserves set up in Canada and they can choose where they want to live according to band or tribe they belong to. They have choice. Our Canadian Government does look after them ! Thank you for the great stories you hear along the way and it is interesting to me the first hand look you are getting from the people’s view that you meet. Keep on pedalling…. Keep the Faith !
    Will you continue through the Canadian Winter or take a break ?

    • terri ann says:

      You obviously have never lived on a reserve and have no knowledge of the intergenerational effects of residential school. Before you put your foot in your mouth about the government “taking care” of us…perhaps you should experience first hand what its like to live on a reserve and be a survivor of residential schools….

      • Sarah says:

        Thanks for commenting Terri Ann. I hope that even in some small way I can be a voice for this story. All strength to you and your family, Sarah

  15. Julie says:

    Whilst I agree with some of the statements you made, I should point out that you only heard and reacted, rather strongly, to one side of the story, one part of the problem.
    Maybe a study of history and circumstances today would be in order then you can judge for yourself before making such strong statements that are biased at best on the part of the people who gave you all of this information.

    That said, God’s speed on your trip. I have been following you all the way. You are a very brave and determined lady.

    • Byron Suley says:

      Julie; I would be very interested in the other side of the story please take the liberty to enlighten us, as our world traveller has done so very well.

      • Julie says:

        Byron, read the history books and also figure out how much of your tax dollars go to supporting aboriginals. Not saying all is wrong, I feel bad about the situation, but In many ways Canada has attempted to take cars of them. For example, they dont pay any taxes, our taxes support them. Also, if the government had not spent many thousands of Dollars moving the children to give them an education they would never have had one.
        Just saying there are two sides. Sarah only presented one side…….

  16. Suzi Golodoff says:

    Sarah, thank you for what you wrote, and for being as courageous and earnest in your writing as your journeying. Stay strong and know we are ‘with you’ along each and every mile ( kilometer! )

    Love, Suzi

    • Sarah says:

      Suzi, ahoy! Love to Unalaska by the sea. I was thinking back on that portion of the journey just today as I filmed some questions for Justine. Happy memories. Thanks for your kind words. I wish I could do more to help but am glad I can at least share the story.

      Love, Sarah x

  17. Roger Botting says:

    Good comments Sarah.
    While true, Steve does mention the other side of the story, which inexcusable as it is, did happen. Supposedly for good reasons.
    This forced assimilation attempt is, on balance, only marginally better than what has happened in other parts of the world, that is where the people in power have taken to slaughtering the powerless.
    But there are no good excuses, just a lot of people with broken families, corrupted faith systems, and a lot of work to do to repair their societies.
    The native people of Canada today are stuck between two societies, their ancient one and the modern western society. Many native people are having a hard time living in either society and many do not have the knowledge or life skills to live well in either society.
    We can only hope that things get better for them.

  18. Ray Girard says:

    What you might be feeling, Sarah, is ‘outrage’. Many of us are deeply moved by our government’s atrocities, mistakes or mis-guided attempts at ‘help’. You are feeling this first-hand, and it is obviously very traumatic. It would be nice to think that all of this is behind us, but it may not be. Knowing the past keeps us vigilant. You are now ….a voice, and a power, ..that can be used to keep us from repeating the wrongs.
    You have been educated, Sarah, …..and THAT is sometimes a heavy back-pack to carry.
    I am so glad that you are strong.
    Love to you, girl.
    Be safe.

  19. André says:

    Dear Sarah,

    It serves nothing good to feel ashamed for what has been done before you and wether you were born British, French, Indian or else. What is done is done. No one can change it, but what one does with his knowledge is something else. I find your journey to be one step of a healing process for many human beings. Taking time to explore our planet, our nature, our people, listening to people’s stories and sharing them is one of the greatest gift you can give. You are a brave and generous person. I don’t think you are perfect, nobody and nothing is. Errors, small and big, get made. Intelligence is to learn and improve from our errors. What we do to improve our world defines who we are. You could have chosen to keep those stories to yourself, but you shared. You could have chosen to quit many times, but you got back up and continued. You are what you do. I feel safer to know people like you are a part of human kind. Use you strenghts kindely and be happy making others happy. Others like humans, animals, vegetals, minerals and water too.

    Carpe Diem


    • Sarah says:

      Thanks Andre. I think the thing that really upsets me right now is that there isn’t enough support for healing these issues that First Nations people are facing. A ten year healing fund is shamefully little. I hope that things will change and they receive more support. I agree with your sentiments on sharing knowledge, absolutely.

  20. Stephen from Wisconsin says:

    I grew up in Quebec where Indians more or less coexist well with the French. But the Federal government still had 12 of the 139 schools there. It was never mentioned in any history class. In fact very little was ever mentioned. Thanks for speak out.

    • Elisa says:

      @Stephen, I grew up and still live in Québec, and you are 100% right. I had never heard of residential schools before I was out of secondary school. The subject isn’t at all present in our student history books. It’s a dark and shameful part of our (not so distant) past.

      Thanks for sharing Sarah.

      Safe travels, or as we say here: Bon voyage!


  21. Alaina says:

    So grateful to Sarah for taking the time to share these truths she has learned that have not been told in the classrooms, probably from shame and guilt. These same truths still affect the descendants of the Original Nations of Northern Continents (Canada and at the U.S.). Under the guise of Christianity, the Nations culture and people were subjected to a kind of genocide.

    The early colonists did not respect the culture and oral traditions of the various and numerous Nations that once existed. And yet, the Unites States Constitution is founded on the Great Law of Peace called the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondago,Mohawk and later the Tuscarora). Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in bringing those ideas to the “founders (conquerors)” of the “new” Republic. The Great Law of Peace is the oldest form of Democracy on Earth. It was a model for the
    American Constitution and was finally acknowledged in the US Congressional record in the 1980’s.

    Disrespect, discrimination, bigotry and demeaning practices are alive and well. In Canada, the unusual disappearance and death of thousands of indigenous women and girls is not acknowledged by the government. In the U.S. the twisted Blood Quantum Law has further created problematic tensions among families of the Original Nations.

    The story of the “First Thanksgiving” in the USA is a myth. Today The People (original Nations) consider it a Day of Mourning.

    The Mohawk (The Land where the Partridge Sings) that lay along the St Lawrence River of the US and Canada have been polluted and decimated and there is much ongoing turmoil and difficulties because of the split borders.

    Still today there is much distrust among many of the Original Nation’s Peoples. But the People are resilient and are strong in resisting a forced assimilation by reviving their various languages and practices that were once outlawed.

    Thank you Sarah, for your courage in sharing some truth to colonial descendants and newer citizen immigrants from overseas to the North American continent. We all have much to learn if we can shed our damaging preconceived ideas.

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