photo by Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press
This past week was a big one in Canada, as the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were revealed and discussed, testimony from survivors of the residential school system, and the endemic poverty and struggle First Nations people have suffered at the hands of the dominant society. I have heard many say "We did not know". I think it likely that, on some level, we did know, but did not want to clearly understand the obvious disparity between our lives and the lives of First Nations people.
I remember arriving in Alert Bay as a young married woman of nineteen, in 1966. My husband was hired by the Department of Transport, and we were provided very nice housing up on top of the hill. We drove, sometimes, to the other end of the very small island we lived on, through the reserve. I was astonished by the substandard housing, children's faces looking out through broken glass, shacks that did not have running water or electricity, or heat. It was like a Third World country, right here in Beautiful B.C.
A couple of years later, I remember tucking my privileged son into his comfy crib at night, pulling his soft blankets up over him, and thinking of the children, a few miles away, going to sleep in their cold cabins. I felt guilty, felt the injustice, and did not know what to do. That winter, a small child fell into a tub of boiling water that had been heated on the wood stove for washing laundry, and succumbed to his burns. Sickening. And why, in 1968, did they not have electricity, heating and plumbing, like the rest of the Canadians?
We are so in awe of the civil rights movement in the USA, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, applauded Gandhi's overthrow of the imperial oppressors, while apartheid existed here in our own country, unacknowledged. I have heard racist statements all my life but, by and large, I suspect a great majority of white society saw a lop-sided system and didn't know what to do about it, since it is a governmental-imposed, two-tiered system. We heard about the desperate situations in small reserves in the north, heard about the government moving entire communities arbitrarily, and thought, as individuals, there was little one person could do. I think it takes widespread grassroots movements to effect change, to say "I have had enough and I will be Idle No More". I love that group's rallying cry.
Many years later, I worked in a treatment centre for First Nations families dealing with recovery from addictions. The centre itself was where a residential school once stood. Some of those who came, hurting and broken, had attended that school, and during their time there tried to heal from some of the pain inflicted on them on that site. It was powerful. I loved the staff and clients at that place. I found them to be a beautiful people, who had suffered much, but who loved to laugh. And to win their trust and acceptance was a great honor. It was a privilege to work and live among such true-hearted people.
Even after all they had endured at the hands of the dominant society, they were still willing - are still willing today, as we have seen this week - to extend their hands in friendship, though our reparations come so belatedly. They are a very generous people.
The truth hurts, and reconciliation will be meager, compared to the abuses the First Nations have suffered. But at least - and at last - the truth is being spoken. And heard. Cultural genocide is not too strong a word for what was done to them. Generational trauma has harmed families down the line until today. The effects are still being felt.
Canada has a long way to go to bring First Nations to a level of parity with the rest of us. Skepticism exists that anything will change. Personally, my faith is in the First Nations community itself, that they will rise, as many bands are doing across Canada, embracing the beauty and strength of their culture, teaching it to their children, finding their own strength. I am hearing these days of First Nations leading the way in development of clean energy projects, and opposing projects with a negative impact on the environment. There is a Planet Indigenous Movement spreading across the globe, as people at the grassroots level recognize change will only happen from the bottom up, since the systems at the top are unwilling to change.
This gives me hope.
March on Ottawa
photo by Ben Powless, Northern Journal