Please do not stop

  • Jun. 19, 2009 11:00 a.m.

Opinion by Judy McKinleyJune 11 marked the 1 year anniversary of Stephen Harper’s apology, on behalf of the “government of Canada and all Canadians, . for Canada’s role in the Indian residential schools system.” Was that apology meaningful?A true apology needs to be sincere in its acknowledgement of the events that took place. On June 9, we heard the warning of a possible kidnapper in the Richmond area. Parents that morning were, they said, keeping their children close at hand. Children deserve our protection.Over the last few months the news has also been filled with stories of 8-year old Victoria Stafford who was murdered. A picture emerged of a lively child, who went trustingly with the adult who abducted her. We were rightly shocked and outraged across the nation. We want to keep our children safe.With residential schools, the violation of children’s trust happened on a massive scale. Prime Minister Harper cites 80, 000 living survivors. It happened specifically to aboriginal children and families. Children lost their innocence. Why can we not nationally summon the level of outrage this deserves, the shock, that our own government and churches and society supported such an act. I wonder sometimes if it is partly because residential school happened on such a large scale. It is difficult to digest that we were part of such a travesty, it is shameful.In order to understand at all, every tragedy on a mass scale needs a human face. In Auschwitz, it is the shoes. Hundreds and hundreds of shoes of people who were systematically put to death for their beliefs.Some may question citing a kidnapping, a likely sexual assault and murder, and a genocide in the context of residential school. Some may say that residential schools were well-intentioned at the time, if misguided.Since the 1870s, aboriginal children, only aboriginal children, across the country, were taken from their homes, many forcibly. A staggering number were sexually abused, beaten when they spoke their languages. Residential schools happened in a context of aboriginal communities that were deliberately infected by smallpox, whose customs and legal systems were rendered illegal under Canadian law, whose citizens were not considered people. Some pictures show piles of children’s hair. Yes it’s hard to hear. Yes it’s shameful. A sincere apology truly acknowledges its offence. At the root of residential schools, was the belief of the superiority of one culture over another and the actions taken to support this belief. Residential schools were political. And they were personal. Sometimes I stare at the faces in photos of children in schools. I look at my best friend’s son, who I’ll call Josh, now 14. I was there at his birth. He has always lived in one home. Even as a teenager, he loves to curl up with his mum, and his dad. Many residential school survivors never had that experience. Imagine Josh taken from his home, for up to six years. Imagine Josh hungry for food. Imagine Josh..Children were taken from the only homes and worlds they knew, and given strange food, names they did not recognize, plunged into customs that were alien. Trapped, with no adult they could trust. In Massett, almost 350 children were taken, sent to schools in Alert Bay, Alberni, Edmonton. In Marlene Ankerman’s case four siblings were taken: aged 6, 7, 8 and 10, when her father went to work in Alaska. In some families, children returning could no longer talk the same language as Nonnis and brothers. What does a little boy do far away from home when he is called night after night to a strange man’s room? It is shameful. There are many shameful aspects of Canadian history we’d like to forget, that aren’t taught in school. In some corners, the nation of Canada is thought of as one of the best places in the world to live. We can’t truly earn this title until we truly come to terms with our past.Apologies are important. We cannot change the past, but we can take responsibility for our actions. An apology implies action, it states our intent never to repeat the act again. Think those days are over? Look no further than the recent debate about a child sent to school wearing a swastika, or than a recent interview on CBC with Author Frances Wittleson who advocates, what she calls the ‘integration’ of aboriginal people, saying that ‘we’ can no longer support “hunting and gathering societies” in “modern society”. This is the ‘backward’ belief”: that one culture, race, or cultural way is inherently superior over another. We are better than that. We are evolved enough to take responsibility for our actions.An apology implies an understanding of the roots of the offense in question. Without understanding the roots, we cannot truly move forward.We have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has never really gotten underway. The Alert Bay school closed in 1976, but we have claims outstanding while claimants die, never seeing the compensation to which they are entitled. And we’ve got Treaty and Title negotiations purposefully locked up in court to delay their resolution. We are better than this. Right here in Haida Gwaii, we have a model of respect that might just work. Nation to nation. Not very complicated in the end. Let us truly move on from, never forget, this chapter in our history.To those brave little children, turned adults, who somehow survived when so many could not. To your families. You deserve our full on support, our full on acknowledgement. You should not have to struggle for that. Please, please do not stop. Do not stop until you reclaim your full well-being.

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