Elaina woke up screaming in the middle of the night. I think it was a bad dream, I gave her a hug and sat with her. Then we both went to the washroom and went back to bed. I was grateful to be back under my blanket but I couldn’t sleep and my mind drifted to this.
I thought about the children who woke up in the night without their mamas to comfort them. To give hugs and speak words in their heart language.
I thought about the mamas who couldn’t sleep because their children were so far away and they had no idea whether they were safe and cared for.
It wasn’t just parents who worried. Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, cousins, siblings and even classmates. My uncle recalls being in school in the ‘60s and noticing that one day two of his friends were gone. He wondered if he would see them again. One of them survived residential school but he was a different person afterwards.
In 2013 the Anishnabek First Nation published a document called “An Overview of the Indian Residential School System.” Pages 7 and 8 describes
“Forced changes and unpleasant traumatic experiences lived by former students that have been documented”.
· Forbidden to speak their Aboriginal languages
· Required to speak English or French
· Required to adopt religious denomination of the school
· Forced style of prayer consistent with school denomination
· Forced haircut, or shaved head
· Use of toxic chemical to clean children’s hair and skin
· Forced to wear uniform as designed by the school
· Forced to shower, no access to bath tubs
· Lack of nutritious diet
· Insufficient quantities of food
· Served spoiled food
· Segregation based on gender: brothers and sisters no contact
· Sexual assault
· Forced abortions
· Electrical shock
· Force-feeding of own vomit when sick
· Exposure to freezing outside temperatures with improper clothing
· Withholding of medical attention
· Exposure to contagious illness: students with tuberculosis not segregated
· Forced labour in unsafe work environments
· Vilification of cultural traditions
· Use of racist language to address students
· Withholding presents and letters from family
I feel sick to my stomach when I read some of these. Forced abortion is sadly ironic as the church at the time was the largest voice against abortion in the public sphere. And these would have been the teacher’s children as a result of sexual assault since the youth were segregated from other genders.
In 1907 amid the silence and secrecy, one voice was documented in speaking out for the health and treatment of the children and youth:
“Public-health physician Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce reports on the dire living conditions at 35 residential schools. His spotlight on the issue goes unheeded. In 1922, as a citizen, he publishes the book, The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice for the Indians of Canada.” – Felt throughout generations: A timeline of residential schools in Canada.”
His document also talks about how his superiors tried to silence him and treated him unjustly. His closing statement cried out for justice for the “Indians” and for himself.
Those who “graduated” from the schools were dropped off on the street with no way to find employment or resources to provide for themselves or find their families. Much like children who age out of foster care today.
When Jesus talks about the oppression that will come to his followers he says,
““But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. For the time is coming when everything that is covered will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all.”
Matthew 10:26 NLT
I think this relates to beautiful realities as well as terrible ones. It is sad that it took the discovery of mass graves to wake me up and alert me to this history in my nation.
One beautiful story in the midst of it all was when my friend’s husband, Robin Mercer, decided to walk the 215 km from his home in Kelowna to the residential school in Kamloops. Both his parents and grandparents were survivors of the schools. As he walked, people rallied around with money, hugs, company and stories. When he reached the school after six very long days, he was met by women singing and drumming. You can find more of his story here.
In the past when I thought about my relationship with Canadian First Nations it was very future focused. How do we move forward? How do we make everything better so we can all have happy lives?
One thing I have learned from my own trauma is that there are no easy answers and the road of recovery is long and painful. The impact of abuse on generations is unfathomable.
Now I just want to sit with the First Peoples of this beautiful land and weep.
I want to throw out my dreams for what moving forward looks like and listen to theirs.