“ONE YEAR EVERYTHING CHANGED. There was a plane. The government was picking up kids. I was five years old. I wanted to stay home, to be with my parents. I HID UNDER A TABLE, but a big white man came to get me. IN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL, I felt like a white Anglo-Saxon robot that did as I was told. Later, I realized I had lost my identity. I REMEMBER the first time I saw my brother at school. I wasn’t allowed to talk to him, or to hug him. EVERY TIME I SPOKE MY LANGUAGE, I was hit on the back of the head with a yardstick. I SAW NUNS putting their hands under kids’ blankets. I didn’t know what they are doing, but it was bad. WHEN I CAME HOME for the summer, I wondered ‘Who are these people?’ They were my parents, and I couldn’t understand their language. When we were taken away, they became childless. They must have been hurting as much as their children. IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME to understand that maybe not all priests are bad, maybe not all nuns hit, maybe not all RCMP officers are out to get me, maybe not all teachers think you are dumb and savage. I WAS TREATED LIKE A DOG, so I became a dog. I TURNED TO DRUGS. I drowned my pain in the bottle. In a way it kept me straight, but it was a crooked road. I HAD KIDS AT AN EARLY AGE. I didn’t know how to love them. I didn’t know how to play with them, to rear them. I know I need to apologize to my children. I am so sorry I wasn’t there for you. I failed as a mother. I didn’t know until my son committed suicide. I WANT TO LEARN TO FORGIVE, to let go of this anger. What a shame we carried it all these years. TO MY FORMER TEACHERS: I FORGIVE YOU. I wish I could say that to their face. I’ve been waiting a long time for this day to take out my garbage. NEVER FORGET. Never can we let Canada forget. All I ever wanted, when I said I was sexually abused, was for someone to believe me. CANADA GIVES all kinds of grants to the Third World, but you are missing somebody. Your own Canadians are suffering because you don’t bother to see them. I don’t have the ability to convince important people. Maybe you can. I WANT TO THANK everyone for listening to my tiny unpleasant piece of story. I’VE NEVER TOLD any of this to anyone before. NOW THAT I HAVE SPOKEN to the commission, I feel a lot lighter. Not light as a feather, but light enough to float.”
--From the testimony of 19 survivors of residential schools.
By Andrew Stobo Sniderman, For Postmedia News (May 2011)
When many Canadians hear about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they likely think first of Nelson Mandela bridging the white-black divide in South Africa. Yet Canada has its own truths to face about its treatment of Aboriginal peoples. Today, our TRC is travelling around the country to hear stories about residential schools, places designed to “kill the Indian in the child,” as one government official infamously put it.
For more than 100 years, these government-funded, Church-run boarding schools sought to transform Aboriginals into English-speaking Christians. Attendance was mandatory. Children were taken from their families at age five and returned home only for the summers.
There are 80,000 living survivors of residential schools. The last school closed in 1996.
In April, survivors of residential schools spoke at public hearings in Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk in Nunavut, and Yellowknife and Behchoko in the Northwest Territories.
“These are not just stories Canada needs to hear. These are stories Canada needs to feel,” said Chief Wilton Littlechild, one of the TRC’s commissioners.
They speak of wandering hands of priests, unanswered cries for help, and tears of parentless children and childless parents. One by one, Aboriginal survivors of residential schools are publicly sharing their heartbreaking stories. Chief Wilton Littlechild has listened to every one.
After one elderly woman finished a wrenching description of her sexual abuse, she locked eyes with Littlechild and concluded: “I pray for you. I don’t know how you listen to all these stories.”
Chief Littlechild is one of three commissioners leading Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on residential schools, and the only one to have attended a residential school.
“When I listen to survivor stories, often they are telling my story,” he said. “I have shed many tears with them.” He spent 14 years, from the age of six to 19, at two schools in Alberta, Ermineskin Indian Residential School and St. Anthony’s college.
Littlechild and the TRC face two daunting tasks: assembling an oral record of one of the darkest chapters of Canadian history, and using truths about the past to heal the present. Littlechild has become a historian of pain and cheerleader for forgiveness.
Mostly, he listens. Across Canada, in gymnasiums and community halls, the following scene is unfolding:
A survivor speaks into a microphone facing only the three commissioners and TRC banners that read “For the child taken, for the parent left behind.” Some stories last a few minutes, others a few hours. The audience is arranged in a horseshoe behind the survivor, who is joined by a friend with a hand of comfort and tissues at the ready. When a voice cracks, and most do, the audience cannot see the tears, but they can hear them.
Blooming tissue boxes litter the room. Health counsellors prowl the aisles looking for someone to hug. Along one wall, large fish tank booths house local translators, and headsets buzz with English and the local Aboriginal language.
When a survivor concludes testimony, they are met with handshakes and hugs from friends, family and strangers. Faces read relief, if not catharsis.
For most survivors, this is the first time they have told their stories, and perhaps even more importantly, the first time anyone has listened.
The TRC began listening last summer, and it plans to wrap up by 2014. It is funded by $60 million that survivors set aside from a $1.9-billion settlement in 2007 with the Canadian government and Christian churches, the largest class action lawsuit settlement in Canadian history.
The history of residential schools is not found in high school textbooks, which is why many Canadians would agree with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comment in 2009 that Canada “has no history of colonialism.”
This is a conveniently misleading claim, critics say. Canada did not invade other countries, but colonized within its own borders. For more than 100 years, the Canadian government funded Church-run schools to assimilate Aboriginal children. The first legislation to this effect in the 19th century was called the Gradual Civilization Act. Euphemism would later be abandoned in 1920 when Duncan Scott, the most senior public servant in the Department of Indian Affairs, promised to “kill the Indian in the child.” Over time, more than 150,000 children would be sent to residential schools.
For commissioner Littlechild, the hearings over which he presides are part of his own healing journey.
His glittering career spans sport, business and politics, including stints as a semi-professional hockey and baseball player, an oil and gas lawyer in Edmonton, First Nations chief, and member of Parliament. His toothy smile radiates warmth, and he retains the backslapping ease and banter of a politician.
But even this man of uncommon success dealt with his past at residential school in the most common way: with silence. Only recently, after he accepted the job of commissioner, did he begin to open up about his own experiences to his family, though he did not share many of the details.
“I spent 14 years in residential schools, so I had no bond with my mom and dad or my grandparents. I didn’t get to know my brothers or sisters. I didn’t know how to be a dad or a grandfather, or a husband. I had no source of reference. I needed to apologize to my family, and ask for their forgiveness.”
Thus far, the TRC has collected testimony from more than 3,000 people. As difficult as it is for the commission to solicit the secrets festering in so many closets, this is the relatively easy part of its work. Reconciliation is the real challenge.
The commission refers to truth and reconciliation, as if one leads necessarily to another. If truth, then reconciliation? If only.
After recent hearings in Yellowknife, Littlechild told the audience of over 100, “Sometimes I think about how difficult it is to ask that you go from truth to reconciliation. Because really there are a bunch of intervening steps, including forgiveness.”
Since the average residen-tial school survivor is 66, the average nun or priest who taught them is dead. This is an obvious complication for the process of forgiveness, because “I forgive” comes far more readily after “I apologize.” As it stands, the overwhelming majority of the participants and audience of the public hearings are survivors. At times, Littlechild worries that the TRC and the survivors “are just talking among ourselves.”
As Helen Tologanak said during her testimony in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, “I don’t know how many of my teachers and supervisors are still alive, but I don’t see them here.”
At its best, the TRC led by Nelson Mandela in South Africa in the mid 1990s brought together repentant whites and aggrieved blacks. Victims and oppressors were contemporaries and acknowledged each other, face to face. Reconciling with past wrongs is more complicated.
To great fanfare, Harper delivered an apology about residential schools in the House of Commons in 2008 on behalf of the government of Canada. For many survivors, this was an important step in their healing.
To the extent that churches are participating in some local TRC events, it is to lead prayers before and after hearings. Littlechild admits there has been little testimony by the perpetrators. “The invitation is always open,” he added. “Some survivors want to hear a sorry. We haven’t had enough.”
Nevertheless, in transcendent moments of courage and grace, many survivors use their time in front of the TRC to express forgiveness to those who wronged them.
Reconciling with Canada is another thing altogether. As part of its mandate, the TRC is tasked with renewing and rebuilding “the relationship between Aboriginal and nonAboriginal Canadians.”
Littlechild views the need for reconciliation in a broad way. “To me it means resuming respectful relations: within your family, within a community, and within Canada. As a country, we have to grapple together with the concept, to figure out what reconciliation means collectively.”
At the end of a long day of testimony in Yellowknife, after a spirited drum and dancing session, Littlechild lingered as staff folded up banners and tables around him. He paused next to the empty chair where survivors had sat in front of him telling their stories.
“Do you think you’ll end up in that chair?” I asked.
“Yes, definitely. But not yet. I need to tell my family the whole story first.”