Saturday, June 14, 2008

Residential Schools

This past Wednesday, the Government of Canada formally apologized "for forcing about 150,000 native children into government-financed residential schools where many suffered physical and sexual abuse." Audio and video of the Prime Minister's remarks is available online.

More on the residential schools is available at Wikipedia or on the CBC website or on the Assembly of First Nations' website. Plus many other places.

I included a reference to the residential schools in my short story "Beginnings and Endings," pubished in Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone Press, 1999). The story consists of alternating voices: a teenage girl who lives on the streets, and a young, male writer of short stories. To clarify in advance, it is completely made up; but like all fiction, some of it is true.

In the voice of the teenage girl, I wrote of her visits to a therapist:

She has a nice office. It was air-conditioned. I noticed that right away. She has art on the wall, too. Most of it is Native stuff. She explained that to me once. The paintings were about healing. They were by people who had been in the residential schools. Carole told me a little bit about that, about the Native residential schools. They don't teach you that stuff in school, man. I didn't learn nothing in school but lies.
From 1992-94, I worked for Saskatoon Community Mediation Services. We had a number of paintings on our walls that could meet the description of the painting in Carole's office. We also had a significant Native clientele, as does anyone involved in any capacity with the justice system in Saskatchewan.

I had the same experience as Darlene, the teenage street-kid in my story. I completed high school and a bachelor's degree and didn't know the first thing about Canada's residential school legacy. I learned a few things in school that weren't lies, but on the whole a critical engagement with the past was sadly lacking in my education.

Any engagement with the Aboriginal fact in Canada was sadly lacking.

In July 1993, I visited the Lubicon Cree Nation in northern Alberta. The story of that group is grippingly told in John Goddard's Last Stand of the Lubicon Cree (Douglas & McIntyre, 1991). The story was unbelieveable then. Fifteen years later it is utterly astonishing. To make a long story short, this is one Aboriginal group that has never signed a treaty and, therefore, has never ceded any land rights. And yet, the land they live on is forested and drained of oil, while they live amongst the agents of the multinational corporations, in their traditional communities, starved of an economic future or compensation.

As a child of multicultural Toronto, as a product of a school system that supported the children of 70+ ethnicities, I confronted my ignorance about Canada Aboriginal peoples during my years in Saskatchewan. Oka, of course, had happened only a few years earlier. I knew that had happened and had a few other politically correct notions. Such as the fact that Indians didn't like to be called "Indians." Though when I asked the Cree woman in my office is Saskatoon about that, she told me bluntly, "I've been an Indian since I was born. Nobody is going to make me change that now."

Toronto multicultural kids learn to treat people of all culture equally. With a level of tolerance, curiosity and respect that says: You can do whatever you like, as long as you don't interfere with my ability to do whatever I like. Capitalism is a great leveler. We all want to make money, right? Not always. Some concerns are more basic. Like survival.

For many years, tolerance, curiosity and respect isn't what Canada gave its Aboriginal people. The Prime Minister this week said it bluntly. He quoted Harry S. LaForme, the justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal who will be leading the truth and reconciliation commission to document the experiences of children in the residential schools: "The policy of the Canadian residential schools wasn't to educate Indian children. It was to kill the Indian in the child."

This is the story I didn't learn in school. This is the story all Canadians should hear. Not all cultures need be equal, legalistically. The First Nations have a unique place in Canada constitutional order, and that is as it should be. The courts, over and over in recent decades, have upheld that specialness.

All of us visitors have taken great wealth out of the land. The original residents of the continent have paid a high price for their relationship with us. Recalibrating that relationship -- through acts like this week's apology (but also much more) -- will help us all in the future.

Relationship is the key word here. Simply inviting Aboriginals into the multicultural milleau is not the recommended option. Integration and assimilation have long, stained histories, which we ought to be well enough educated to avoid repeating.

This (and here I come to the point) is a subject that ought to inspire greatness in Canadian writers. And I'm not talking about the need for yet another novel of massive historical sweep, though I will illustrate my point by referencing Russell Banks' novel Cloudsplitter (HarperCollins, 1999), a book set in 19th-century America and generally about ending slavery.

I saw Banks read (and be interviewed) in Toronto a few years his collected stories came out in 2001. In one of his answers, he outlined part of the gradeur of his mission. He spoke about the national myths of the Nordic countries, the tales of Vikings, etc., and said he was one of the American writers who was trying to create a similar binding mythology for America. He said the central story of US history was slavery. The 1776 Revolution had brought into the world a vision of social equality, but it had built it on the social evil of humans owning other humans. This contradicton has had massive consequences over time, and it is the central contradiction that American writers had to addess, in Banks' view. He did in Cloudsplitter.

Something similar could be argued about the Canadian vision of "peace, order and good government" being built on or around the structure of the Indian Act. Other examples abound, including how the South Africans came to Canada to learn about this nation's reserve system and help them design apartheid. I would prefer to blog about matters literary. This week's historic apology, however, drove me to this subject and these thoughts.

I will end with an indiosyncratic reference ... to Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow (Talon Books, 1988) by Brian Fawcett. Fawcett in this book shows traits rare in combination in Canadian letters: a focus on the contemporary, a penchant for historical context, and a skepticism about idealism. These are subjects I will return to in the future. They interest me greatly.

They are related to the subject of my post last week: about how Coetzee forces readers to ask unsettling questions about who, ultimately, are the barbarians. The Prime Minister's speech this past week provided the hint of an answer. So did comments by one of this MPs.

The Prime Minister gave a remarkable speech. I commend him. It's now up to writers to go forth and find in all of this ... literature. It's out there somewhere.

1 comment:

Dave Fleet said...

Hey Michael... welcome to the blogosphere!