Today is a good day
Today is the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. According to the government, this “solemn day has been established to honour the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families and communities, and to ensure public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools as a vital component of the reconciliation process.”
It is the first time I have experienced the first celebration of a new national holiday and, to be honest, it doesn’t seem to have been very well organized. Although the idea received a unanimous vote from the House of Commons, making this a federal statutory holiday, not all provinces have fully agreed with the concept.
In some provinces, such as British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, the concept has been embraced but the application is lacking. In essence, if you are a federal employee or work in a federally regulated industry, like a bank, you get a paid day off. If you work in a provincially regulated job, you don’t.
As well as confusion regarding who gets to celebrate what, there also seems to be a lack of a master plan.
Prince Edward Island is one of the few provinces that has fully embraced the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, possibly because one of the sponsors of the bill, Senator Brian Francis, is from PEI and was previously chief of the Abegweit First Nation.
Chief Darlene Bernard of the Lennox Island First Nation on PEI has suggested that there are five ways in which people can honour the purpose of the day. First, to wear orange, which has become the ‘official colour’ of this day.
Second, to participate in an event, should one be happening in your community. This is more difficult right now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but will perhaps be easier in future years. A few cities, such as Ottawa, are hosting spirit walks, where participants wear orange and walk in socially distanced groups to a predetermined destination.
Third, to support Indigenous artisans, and seek out quillwork, birch bark biting, beaded items, and other art for purchase. Fourth, to be considerate, and recognize that Indigenous people across the country are grieving. And fifth, to learn the history of residential schools in this country.
I am wearing my orange t-shirt. In this I am joining many Canadians to honour the experience of Phyllis Wedstad, from Williams Lake, BC, who wrote:
I went to the Mission for one school year in 1973/1974. I had just turned 6 years old. I lived with my grandmother on the Dog Creek reserve. We never had very much money, but somehow my granny managed to buy me a new outfit to go to the Mission school. I remember going to Robinson’s store and picking out a shiny orange shirt. It had string laced up in front, and was so bright and exciting – just like I felt to be going to school!When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including the orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.
I thought I would use some of this day to reflect on some personal interactions I have had with those who experienced the residential school system.
When I first came to Canada, in 1984, I had only been teaching for a few months when the rules changed. Suddenly, you had to have a university degree, not a simple Teachers’ College Certificate of Education. So, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Education program at the University of Saskatchewan. I was teaching in the north at the time and thought it would be useful to know more about that area and the people. I must confess, I thought everyone in Canada had learned all this in school, and so this was my chance to catch-up.
I decided to take a double-major of Native Studies and Indian and Northern Education. I soon learned truths that I had never dreamed existed.
One day I was in the locker room at the gym, after playing squash with a friend. A classmate was changing at the same time. As he dried himself after his shower, I noticed a series of deep scars across his back.
“What the heck happened to you?” I asked.
“I spoke Cree at school,” he said.
Then he told me how he had been at a residential school, in the early 1970s. He had been speaking his own language, Cree, to a younger cousin who had just arrived at the school and who did not yet know English.
He was whipped as a punishment.
“They used an old fan belt from the tractor,” he said.
I had the good fortune to take a class from the late Howard Adams, a wonderful Métis scholar and activist. His great-grandfather was Maxime Lépine, who had fought with Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont during the North-West Resistance of 1885. It was from Adams that I learned about the road allowance people, impoverished Métis communities that had been established on ‘Crown Land’ between the railway tracks and the roads.
From the 1930s through until the 1960s, these homes were bulldozed and burned. The official story, even now, is that the purpose was to clear land and create pasture for settler farmers. In 1938 the community of Ste. Madeleine, Manitoba, was destroyed. The school, store, and 35 homes were all burned to the ground, and the dogs in the village were shot dead, ostensibly to “prevent the spread of disease.” A decade later, in 1949, the community of Lestock, Saskatchewan, was bulldozed and the people sent on trains to Green Lake, a community some 500 kms away. A year later, the houses were burned.
However, Howard Adams argued that these evictions were done in order to remove a potential eyesore from the Royal gaze. He noted that in both 1939 and, again, in 1951 there were Royal Visits to Canada, where first King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip travelled across the country by train. “It would not have been in the best interests of the Canadian political class,” said Adams, “for the Kings and Queens of England to see the poverty in which my people lived.” I have not been able to find any documentation to support this claim but as one of my mentors used to say, it is a claim that has optical significance”.
Later, when we lived on Baffin Island, I met an Inuk teacher from a place called Grise Fiord, now Ausuittaq. He told me how his parents had been among the eighty-seven people from seventeen families who, in the early 1950s, were taken from Inukjuak, in northern Quebec, and relocated almost 2000 kilometres from their home. This was so that Canada could show the world there were Canadians living in the High Arctic, which in the Cold War years of the time was an important geopolitical strategy.
The fact that they were taken from the relatively lush tundra of northern Quebec to the High Arctic, where they found a much colder climate, unfamiliar terrain, constant winter darkness and limited varieties of wildlife that they could hunt, was irrelevant. In 2010 the Canadian government issued a formal apology, saying that it regrets the “mistakes and broken promises” it made in forcing some Inuit to relocate to the High Arctic in the 1950s. They still live there, though.
The use of corporal punishment, the banning of language, the bulldozing of homes, the forced relocation of entire communities – these are not unknown events. They are in the public record. They are spoken of in the oral histories of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. And yet they are not in the public discourse, they are not in the curricula, they are not widely known.
I am writing about them here because it is my way of sharing some of what I know, what I heard or experienced directly, what I believe to be true. I hope that these stories will generate some conversations with your families, friends, and colleagues.
Today we honour the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. As many Indigenous leaders have commented, in order to have reconciliation we must first have truth. Today is a good day.