I am not at all certain about how to write an article like this. There is so much raw material to work with, and it’s important to do it justice. I know I will ultimately gloss over and scarcely begin to touch on a great deal of information, but I am not going to try to repeat and delve deeply into what many already know a lot more about than I do. Having experienced something that shifts a part of my reality perception, I want to relate it in a way that is concise.
This is about Canada’s treatment of its indigenous peoples over the past century and more. It’s not an easy topic to discuss, and I believe that most of us are ignorant as to just how terrible it was.
My creative partner, James, and I, were hired to interview and film the elders of a tribe in Port Alberni. They wanted to add some fresh content to their website that is promoting and helping to build a retail water bottling business for the tribe. They have won significant awards recently. The idea was to acquire snippets of history that were relevant to their land, to their culture, and to their water, sourced from natural springs on their traditional lands. It sounded fairly straightforward. We’d helped them create their original promotional materials a few years ago. There was some mention of a list of questions they wanted us to ask the elders, but we didn’t get it until the third day into the project. It was fortunate that it had happened that way.
We kept it simple: just tell us a little about yourself, your name, and we’ll go from there. We allowed and invited them to briefly tell their story, and they all approached it a little differently, though some thematic elements were consistent across all the interviews. What became evident, was that there was an awful lot more they all needed to tell, than simply relating superficial stories about their land, water, and so on. These elders, most of whom are in their seventies, had all (all but one we’d interviewed) gone through the Indian Residential School program — a program that has, over the past 120 years or so, systematically worked to destroy their language, culture and identity, from the inside out. We heard first-hand accounts from those who had survived this ordeal. It was a mix of the horrific and the terrible — and the women had it much worse than the men, as would be expected. You could see it in their mannerisms and physical postures, hear it in their voices, feel it in their energy.
As I understand it, at the age of seven, they were taken from their families (or lied to by their parents), and put through a school system — operated by Catholics, and other Christian organizations, and funded by the government — until they were sixteen. Once there, they could no longer speak their language, practice their rituals, wear their own clothing, eat their own food, or be anything that was natural to them at all. Many of the girls were raped and sexually abused with regularity, starting at age nine, until they left the schools. Some were, arguably, fortunate to be taken earlier by a sickness or disease. Some were experimented on scientifically or medically. All of them were malnourished, bullied and physically abused with a truly inhumane level of brutality.
After a week of sitting with and hearing variations on this theme, I wasn’t sure what to think, or what and how to feel. I was numb, angry, guilty, ashamed, frustrated and furious. We did end up finally getting that list of questions. And we did ask the remaining interviewees, so to get those important little commercially relevant tidbits, but to me, it was all so bland and superficial after hearing deeper, personal stories and concerns they all had: a language that was dying, a culture that was fading and mostly forgotten, sacred lands and natural resources that were constantly under threat, and a people who were nearly wiped off the planet.
One gentleman was quite knowledgeable about many of the region’s nations. He’s an academic, outside and in addition to his indigenous life. He’s an artist of many mediums, a student of language, culture, and philosophy. He’d studied the meanings of their traditional names, and had amassed a library of the same — in fact, all of our interviewees had both modern and traditional names, and knew the story of and meaning to them. He was instrumental in helping the tribe protect and preserve their sacred lands for current and future generations. Logging companies would have inevitably wiped out those forests, especially the ancient, old-growth parcels, given the chance. One of his main concerns, however, was the preservation of dozens of sacred songs he knew, that hadn’t been recorded anywhere — then getting them to their rightful families and nations. Art, music and dances are deeply rooted in all indigenous cultures, and are an essential form of sharing and passing down history and knowledge.
The story of the last woman we interviewed was particularly daunting. She’s spoken regularly about her harrowing experiences across Canada, for and with the women and men of other tribes and nations. She brought with her a portfolio of artwork, created as part of an art therapy she’s been going through over the years. The images recounted the worst of her experiences. It was rather dark, to say the least. I can’t imagine how the retelling of these stories, again and again, is anything but torturous. She also told us of the many fond memories of her childhood, in the old village, before going to school. She’s saddened by how things have progressed, how afraid today’s children are, and how they’ve lost their traditional ways, their values, and their inherent connection to nature. Their wisdom and knowledge is handed down by living it; by being it. Having been severed from it for much of their childhood, most of that lore had been lost. She, her mother, and grandmother — all of them — had been subjected to the IRS system.
Today, I ran into a gentleman I’d talked to a few times over the past year at a local Starbucks, and told him briefly about my experiences of the past week. He’s a successful businessman, and said he’s worked with and employed indigenous people over the years, too. He said he had been talking to a native man fairly recently who said that he, in the end, was thankful for having gone through the residential school experience. That was hard to believe, but his perspective was that they — the first nations; the indigenous people — couldn’t keep holding on to their old ways if they wanted to assimilate and modernize their nations. Sure, there were atrocities and all the rest, but in the end, he had come to terms with it all, and was able to find gratitude. I can certainly appreciate that perspective, but I don’t know that he’d actually fully come to terms with it all. How could he have?
What we both could agree upon, was that this is a generational problem; it’ll take several generations to remedy and to rebuild their tribes and their nations. It’ll take generations of dedicated people to re-introduce their age-old wisdom, to bring forward and reclaim their dying languages, and blend and integrate it all with the modern ways of life. Time will tell what comes of this new era of their tribal history. They are a patient people, if nothing else, and their spirit is returning to them.
Official apologies from the government, the churches, the RCMP and others, are helpful, certainly, but they are so impotent and ridiculously inadequate. Throwing money at the problem (well, making it available to those who apply) isn’t a solution, but it’s a start. When a people have lost most of who and what they are, the damage is done, and much of it is permanent. These surviving elders showed, courageously, that they are still, and always, all about heart, spirit, living in harmony with nature, and most importantly, family. Not surprisingly, many have dealt with addictions throughout their lives. Their children, of course, have had to deal with the same; they haven’t had parents, nor grandparents to raise them, nor to show them the depth and breadth of their traditional ways. They’ve had ghosts and shadows to guide them. And I suppose that was part of the grand plan of their oppressors. It’s a very common tale, across the world, having occurred repeatedly throughout this last half-millennium.
I guess, for me, the pill was a little harder to swallow, given the perceived consensus that Canada is good and decent; that Canadians are caring, good people of conscience. If we aspire to be this, genuinely, there is a lot of work to do yet. All the hidden, suppressed and distorted information and misinformation needs to be aired out and dealt with. There are stories that need to be documented, and languages to be reintroduced and preserved. To this day, we’re still rampaging over and through the lands and territories of indigenous peoples. To this day, we still are largely ignorant to the suffering and brutality they have endured, and continue to endure. To this day, we are still acting on a limited, biased understanding and blind arrogance — all for the obviously unsustainable, tired and trite notions of progress and profits.
To this day, we are still clueless, misguided, and foolish.