COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — July 6, 2012

Jessica Iron Joseph
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Although I didn’t have the chance to attend the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in Saskatoon from June 21-24, I am well aware of the harrowing legacy that resulted from the Indian Residential Schools. With this column I have the unique advantage of shedding some light on this topic, and I believe I have an obligation to speak out about this abhorrent and insidious epoch in Canada’s history.

I grew up on many different reserves in Saskatchewan, which meant that sadly I heard numerous residential school stories. They were often so laden with egregious and disgusting events that they were often whispered, as though to say them out loud might somehow invoke curses or demons.

The purpose of the schools was disturbing enough, but when you add in molestation, disease and death, you begin to understand why it was necessary to close the schools, receive an official apology from the churches of Canada and the Canadian government, and why it is pertinent that truth and reconciliation hearings have begun.

The intent of the residential schools was a joint effort by the Canadian government, under the Indian Act, along with the churches of Canada, to remove First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their communities. Once at the schools, children were forced to learn a new language and a new culture, replacing their own. In effect, they suffered a cultural genocide. Children did not go willingly, and parents were threatened with imprisonment if they tried to interfere.

I know of a lady who taught me a searing and poignant example of the effect the residential schools had on these communities — at least in the Prairies, though I would wager that this example could apply to Inuit and Métis communities, as well as other First Nations groups across Canada.

In the middle of a large piece of paper, she drew a circle, and inside it she wrote the word “children.” Around this circle she drew a second circle, in which she wrote “Elders — teachers.” Then she drew a third circle around these and wrote “Mothers — nurturing.” Finally, a fourth circle surrounded these, and in it was written “Fathers — provide and protect.”

Eerily, the picture resembled a target.

She explained that children were the centre of every community. They represented the future, and therefore gave everyone in the community a purpose.

Elders spent the most time with the children and were their primary teachers, passing on history and culture while parents worked to preserve the community’s daily needs. Mothers nurtured both the Elders and the children, cooking and cleaning for the good of the tribe. Fathers had the duty of hunting, as well as protecting the women, Elders and children.

Once I completely understood the roles of the tribe and how vital children were to the circle of life, this lady grabbed at the center of the bulls-eye and savagely ripped the paper outwards, in all directions. It was jarring to witness. All that remained were several torn fragments dangling awkwardly and purposeless. That, she said, was exactly happened to the communities when the residential schools were introduced. It wasn’t just the children who were traumatized, but the fabric of each community was annihilated.

Not only were all members of the community affected, but then these children went away for months at a time and were abused in multiple ways. When they returned to their communities, if they ever returned at all, they were often so significantly changed that it was difficult, if not impossible for these families to reunite and bond in any way.

I don’t know what that was like, and like most people I can only imagine how awful it was for all parties involved.

My husband and I are a unique family blend wherein he had a son before we met, and I had two sons, from different fathers. Every holiday and during the summer months we send our children off with their other families. We are lucky that we have such great relationships with our exes that this is a possibility, and our children look forward to such times with their other families.

Naturally we are always thrilled for them, and we understand that it is necessary for them to form these bonds with their other families. However, each time they leave my husband and I have a mourning period because they are gone for yet another holiday. It is difficult to get used to, but at least we know they are going to wonderful homes for several weeks. We also know when they return they’ll be the children we remember — fun, cheerful and loving. I imagine most families who had their children torn out of their lives thanks to residential schools weren’t as blessed to see the same children return home, not without their being fundamentally altered.

There are definitely exceptional cases where people had wonderful experiences at residential schools. I can think of two people who benefited from attending, and who later became deeply religious people that made significant and positive impacts in their communities, likely from the stability and education they received at these schools. Like I said though, these are exceptions. I can think of countless more cases and stories that are gravely upsetting and which make my stomach turn.

If you are uncomfortable hearing these stories, you’re not alone. I am also sickened by every atrocious story I hear. But these stories are necessary to tell, because the person who has been burdened by them for quite possibly a lifetime may finally be freed by releasing them. Sometimes all it takes is a compassionate ear for healing to begin.

If you believe that this is someone else’s history and a tragic tale for several groups of other people, you’re incredibly wrong. If you call yourself a Canadian, this is your history too. We all have an obligation to do our part to help heal the survivors and the generations that followed. If you’re not willing to do that, ask yourself this: would you sacrifice your own children or grandchildren to a residential school? … I didn’t think so.

Organizations: Indian Residential Schools, First Nations

Geographic location: Canada, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

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