By now, there are thousands of voices raised in shock, dismay, embarrassment, denial and empathy in regard to the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the past Residential School System in Canada. I am raising three excerpts from the Truth and Reconciliation Report Summary:
1) “Sports, cultural activities were underfunded. They were also often intended to encourage assimilation. In 1967, the students attending the Shingwauk, Ontario, school put on a four-act play called Arrow to the Moon. One act used a dialogue between an Elder and a young man to contrast what were seen as the old and new ways open to Aboriginal people. Billy Diamond played the role of the young man, who concludes at the scene’s end, “The new ways show a way to work and live but the old ways have shown us how to die.” The performance was filmed and shown to the James Bay Cree, who refrained from making any public comment, but were shocked to discover the degree to which their children were being manipulated.”
2) “The legacy of the schools remains. One can see the impact of a system that disrupted families in the high number of Aboriginal children who have been removed from their families by child-welfare agencies. An educational system that degraded Aboriginal culture and subjected students to humiliating discipline must bear a portion of responsibility for the current gap between the educational success of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. The health of generations of Aboriginal children was undermined by inadequate diets, poor sanitation, overcrowded conditions, and a failure to address the tuberculosis crisis that was ravaging the country’s Aboriginal community. There should be little wonder that Aboriginal health status remains far below that of the general population. The over-incarceration and over-victimization of Aboriginal people also have links to a system that subjected Aboriginal children to punitive discipline and exposed them to physical and sexual abuse.”
3) “The policy of colonization suppressed Aboriginal culture and languages, disrupted Aboriginal government, destroyed Aboriginal economies, and confined Aboriginal people to marginal and often unproductive land. When that policy resulted in hunger, disease and poverty, the federal government failed to meet its obligations to Aboriginal people. That policy was dedicated to eliminating Aboriginal peoples as distinct political and cultural entities and must be described for what it was: a policy of cultural genocide.”
Now that we have all this information, what are we supposed to do with it? I had an emotional couple of days in Ottawa, representing DAREarts First Roots program and the memory of my Grandfather and other family members who went through the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. The very first thing I saw was a parade of school children, all races, and some of them in Traditional Regalia, walking with hearts bearing messages of love and support and remembrance for the thousands of children who went to the schools, 6,000 of whom never made it home.
The number of confirmed dead floored me. Six thousand kids in about a century either died in bed at the school or in hospital if they were deemed sick enough to be sent, or on the trail as they attempted to go back to their families.
My grandfather ran away but the school and its horrors followed him. It seeped its way into his family life and the lives of his children and grandchildren. Its poison lives with us, and, as we learn more of what he went through, the poison rises and falls like mercury in our own veins.
Unexplained anger and pain. Alcoholic binging. Domestic violence. We now have a term for it: intergenerational trauma. It’s hard to describe the loss of trust, love, and security my mother must have felt growing up with a broken father who died too young.
These things aren’t easy things to say publicly. But I consider what other families are going through now, especially the ones who have parents who were in those prisons: the stories of forced labour, the sexual abuse, the robbery of dignity and the right to be human, the removal of culture and language and forced separation from family members.
Imagine the devastating revelations for children of Survivors who now know the full extent of what can no longer be ignored. How do we all assemble this information into something useful? How do we build upon this scorched ground?
In 2007, when I joined the DAREarts team to help develop a specifically FNMI approach to education using the arts, I understood immediately what forces were at play in underfunded communities in northern Ontario. It was abundantly clear that in some cases – not all – the expectancy for excellence was lower for Aboriginal children than everybody else. In most cases, the schools were inadequate, cold, and understaffed. The turn-around of teachers and principals was ridiculously high. It was heartbreaking. There were very few positive relationships outside of the children’s own homes and, in some cases, not even there.
The school in Webequie was DAREarts First Roots’ first collaboration. There was a high drop-out rate. The students were disengaged. There was rampant bullying. The youth were killing themselves.
Their parents and grandparents had been in the Residential Schools in Moosonee and others, depending on whether they were taken by Anglican or Catholic clergy, splitting communities as well as families. As generations were put through the cultural grinder, they lost more and more of themselves and gained very little. They were separated from family, starved, beaten for speaking their language, molested, de-humanized. Because they had no modelling, parenting or love from the people they were supposed to trust, they took behavioural problems back to their communities.
As we worked with the children, we were approached by these residential school Survivors who told us their stories. They shared their hearts with us and we celebrated their kids’ accomplishments together. It was through working with them that we were all able to come up with a program that works. Empowers. Expects nothing less than excellence from these exceptional children.
We have a few recommendations of our own in regards to the way forward for Canada’s children.
Include the traditional arts and culture of our country’s first people in the curricula of mainstream schools, taught by Indigenous elders, artists and teachers.
Bridge FNMI and Non-Indigenous kids through the arts.
1) Correct the prevalent misconceptions by sharing storytelling, songs, essays and plays by FNMI kids with non-Indigenous kids. Distribute this material either at no cost or arrange for the schools to donate funds to support programs like DAREarts that produce these inroads to understanding.
2) DAREarts has been working with non-Indigenous kids creating artworks that become messages of love and support for FNMI kids. Along with the art, comes traditional teachings and a short history lesson. Prior to our visit, their teachers prepare them regarding the residential school history and the inter-generational trauma caused by it. Often, a child in these classes will self-identify as FNMI for the first time, finding the courage to speak up about his or her heritage in a safe environment of inclusion.
3) Send urban FNMI kids to visit reserves to give them a sense of what the Indian Act is all about. Reconnect them to their cultural roots as they live for a little while with on-reserve kids and Elders. As they create art, dance, music, and films together, they can take pride in themselves and communicate together in contemporary and traditional ways.
4) Help arts-education empowerment organizations like DAREarts who have been struggling to practice these disciplines with limited funds and support. We have learned some answers over two decades but we need your help to meet the demand and invitations from communities. Come to us for our knowledge and experience. Read our blog from tip to tail. See the outcomes for yourself. Together let’s ignite change.