In my Map Monday post last week I committed to writing on issues relevant to National Indigenous History Month – June – on each Monday in June, so here we go. There’s so much that wants to tumble out that I’ve found it difficult to know where to start. I don’t want to write only about the angst and horrific injustices; there is so much Indigenous knowledge and wisdom to learn from, especially in our time of environmental crisis, and so many cultural and spiritual traditions to celebrate. But Indigenous history in what is now called Canada has been filled with so much tragedy since shortly after the arrival of European colonizers that I think I have to start with the harsh realities.
Just as a reminder, the Americas had been occupied by Indigenous peoples and empires with a diversity of languages and cultures across two continents for at least 14,000 years when the first Europeans arrived. Estimates of the population across that vast landmass of North and South America prior to 1492 have been as high as 112 million people; the most accepted estimate based on current research is at least 60 million people . For comparison, at the same time the population in Europe is estimated to have been 70-88 million.
Even before aggressive actions against the Indigenous populations began, mere contact with the Europeans brought diseases such as smallpox and measles for which the local populations had absolutely no defense. It is thought that up to 90% of that population in the Americas may have been wiped out by disease alone. The Beothuks of Newfoundland, an indigenous people who had inhabited that northeastern region for 1500 years, were completely wiped out due to contact with the European “settlers”. And, of course, that was just the beginning.
The overriding push for new land was, initially at least, for the riches to be found there. In South America it was to take their gold and silver back home; in North America it started with furs, fish, and trees. The idea became: Gee, while we’re here let’s set up shop and keep taking more.
The mindset of the European colonists was founded on some remarkably egregious edicts from the Pope starting in the 1400s (Papal Bulls), giving permission and even encouragement for kings in Europe to sail the seas to take lands and resources from any heathens they might encounter. It was their right and even duty as superior Christian men. If the heathens you find there aren’t Christian (duh, how could they be?), it’s your right as self-proclaimed superior beings to take the land and convert the natives to Christianity and/or dispatch them as you will. This is also known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Very handy. Christ’s lessons in compassion, humility and doing unto others clearly didn’t take too well.
It was in this context that the relatively peaceable relationships that prevailed between Indigenous peoples and early European adventurers and farmers in what’s now Canada – mostly French fur traders and Acadian farmers – gave way to far more hostile relations when the British colonizers came in force. The philosophy of the Doctrine of Discovery was front and center. There were certainly serious attempts at conversion, but there was nothing that minimized the European (British) belief that they were superior beings and the land and all resources were theirs by rights of their superiority. Relationship building and attempts at understanding were not on the agenda. Compassion? None. Sense of guilt? Ha, hardly. And this sense of entitlement, coupled with unbelievable acts of cruelty and inhumanity, set the stage for what the Indigenous peoples of Canada are still living with today.
The “Indian problem” that the British colonists found themselves with came after they had taken the land; that was no problem, they just took it. But they hadn’t managed to rid themselves of the pesky Indians. So they came up with a few solutions, including moving the indigenous population by force to small, substandard parcels of land called reserves, often in places not even near where they had always lived, hunted, and fished for millennia, in housing without clean water or adequate sanitation, and with a lessened ability to feed themselves. In a short period of time, Indigenous peoples had gone from a life of self-sufficiency, of pride, and with their traditions intact, to one of reliance on the colonists for food, which of course set up a whole level of forced dependency. Effectively, they were in penal colonies on their own land.
The other main pillar to solving the “Indian problem” was to establish Residential Schools, boarding schools in which they could “take the Indian out of the child”.
In an 1883 speech to the House of Commons, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, explained the theory behind this “solution”:
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
This God-awful policy, which lasted for well over 100 years – the last one only closed in 1996 – was so unbelievably traumatizing to the bodies, minds, and souls of the children who were taken away, to their families left behind, and to their entire communities, that the survivors, including subsequent generations, have yet to recover. And it’s no surprise.
I had read a bit about Residential Schools, which was pretty well out-of-sight-out-of-mind for most non-indigenous people (settlers) throughout their existence, but Robert Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls, which I read about 10 years ago, knocked me for a loop with the scale of the horror and its continuing impact. Through story the author makes it clear that the horrific trauma of the Residential School policy destroyed family connections, took away language and traditions that bind one to one’s sense of self, stripped away every shred of pride and self-respect, took away succeeding generations’ success at nurturing stable families, and removed any vestige of trust an Indigenous person could possibly have in the RCMP and in the government of Canada. This is what needs to be reconciled.
I’ll try to give a taste of what I took away from this book. Just imagine:
- You live in a cabin in a remote area in a northern region of Turtle Island. Your family has lived in the region since time immemorial. You hunt and trap for your livelihood. You speak an Indigenous language for everyday communication and through which the stories of your People and your spiritual beliefs have passed down through countless centuries. You have three young children and a stable family and community life.
- Someone in a red uniform comes to your door in the woods with a gun. He talks in a foreign language that you don’t understand. He doesn’t understand you either, but he doesn’t care. He takes your children. He takes your children. You don’t know why, you don’t know where, you don’t know how you can get them back. That’s it. Your entire community has had its children stolen.
- Imagine you’re one of those children. You are scared. You are with lots of other children, taken on a long trip in wagons to a big, rough dormitory with women wearing long black robes and white collars. You don’t understand them. They yell at you when you try to speak. They don’t like your sounds. You are so scared. You want your parents.
- You can’t see your brothers, only your sisters, and vice versa. They take you to a big room and cut off your hair. This is a sacrilege. Part of you is gone. All the girls around you look like china dolls. The boys have their hair cut off, another sacrilege. Their hair sticks out short all over. They look like porcupines.
- You are taught this new language, but if you speak your own language to your friends or try to comfort each other with your own spiritual traditions you are beaten or have soap or lye put in your mouth.
- You may be one of the chosen victims who receives visits from one of the teachers at night, very bad visits. Sexual abuse, leaving you with a lifetime of shame and anguish. If you live.
- The food is terrible and inadequate, but if you don’t eat it you don’t eat anything.
- Some friends run away to get back home. You never know if they make it or not. You just never know what happens.
- So many kids get sick from strange diseases (smallpox, TB, flu) and many die. You may be one of the ones made to take care of them and take their bodies away. Others die from abuse or accidents.
- You work very hard at chores at this institution. If they don’t like how you work, you are beaten.
- You are belittled for being a lowly Indian. Sometimes someone tries to scrub your skin hard enough so that it will turn white. You bleed, but the skin does not turn white.
- You miss your parents so much.
For those lucky enough to finally get home, they have lost their language and ways of doing things so that communication with their parents is difficult. And how could they describe to their parents what has happened to them? The shame, the confusion, the rage, the self-loathing. Their parents have lost their zest for life in the meantime anyway, wondering what happened to their kids. So many of those who do return are damaged beyond being able to fully cope with life or parenting, just like anyone else who suffers from sexual, physical, and mental abuse. The difference is that this has destroyed entire communities. For generations to come.
Folks, the Truth and Reconciliation Report, like the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Inquiry, was supposed to be the beginning of a healing process. The first step in the healing process requires non-indigenous people to fully appreciate the harm done to Indigenous Peoples in Canada … and recognize that the shameful horror of the enduring trauma and resulting dysfunction of so many Indigenous people was perpetrated on them by the White “settlers”. Perpetrated decade after decade by succeeding governments and by the churches the government funded to run these concentration camps for children.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) ran from 2008-2015. It issued its Report at that time, with 94 recommendations. Six years ago. The heartbreak is that, despite all the painful personal revelations of Truth at the many TRC hearings, it has taken finding the remains of 215 children in an unmarked grave at one of the former Residential Schools in British Columbia for settlers to start understanding the Truth part of TRC. It has taken this appalling reminder of the legacy of the Residential Schools to force the current government’s hand in moving faster on implementing many of the remaining 94 recommendations towards Reconciliation. It is so far past time.