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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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)