Years ago, when my friend Maude Barlow and I were writing a book about the toxic contamination of the Sydney Tar Ponds on Cape Breton Island, I had the chance to interview friends with whom I had been working for years. The tar ponds were the single largest toxic waste site in Canada and the community had the highest cancer rates in Canada. The local community was rich in its multi—cultural diversity and so too was the citizens’ movement for clean-up – made up of descendants of the original Acadian and Scottish Cape Breton settlers and the new recruits drawn to work at the mill in the early 1900s — Ukrainian, Caribbean, and Polish. And I interviewed my friends from the Mi’kmaq First Nation who had been removed from their summer fishing camp, the mouth of a fertile creek and a productive fishing ground… a creek that was to become the tar ponds. Moved inland to a swampy back-water, the contaminated coking materials were used for building materials. Those interviews led me to my first sense of close encounters with the horrors of the residential school system.
Shirley Christmas was a well-known Mi’kmaq poet. She had drummed at our ceremonies calling for the remediation of the deep toxic ooze. We were friends before we sat down over a few mugs of tea across her kitchen table. As with every interview, I started with her childhood.
We cried a lot that day. Shirley and her brother and sisters were snatched from their parents and hauled down to the mainland, outside of Halifax, to a house of horrors they simply called “Shubie.” Shubenacadie Residential School. She was beaten if she spoke Mi’kmaq. She was beaten if she spotted her brother through the fence at the boys’ school and called out to him. Two hours a day was spent in schooling; the rest was in manual labour. Her little sister was only five years old. She couldn’t help it and wet the bed. The nuns would punish her by tying the soiled bed sheet around her head and making her wear it as a turban. Simply for being her older sister, Shirley was beaten. When Shirley tried to protect her little sister by changing the sheets before the nuns could find them, she was shut up in a dark closet. For days at a time, she was locked in a pitch black closet without food. She suffered those torments all her life.
How she emerged as the soul of kindness that she was I’ll never know. Certainly the searing pain informed her poetry.
Stephen Harper did a brilliant job in the apology on the floor of the House of Commons seven years ago. Since then a beautiful stained glass window marking the historic apology has been placed above the members’ door to the House of Commons. It captures an almost photographic image in grey of the poor children in rows, marked with colours and beadwork and many icons of various First Nations cultures.
An apology is no more than empty words without action. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not action either. But its findings and recommendations can lead us there.
Last week, after five years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported. I was honoured to be there for the official closing ceremony at Rideau Hall. No matter how much we think we know about the forced removal of children from their families and the cruel round of “schooling” that awaited them, the findings have the power to shock. At least six thousand children died in those schools, never returning to their families. No investigations demanded. No answers forthcoming. Experiments in starvation. Routine deprivations. Sexual deviancy and abuse. Even when the “system” worked without physical violence it constituted what Chief Justice Beverly McLauchlin properly condemned as “cultural genocide.” And how do we count those who emerged without violence done. Did any?
The TRC has tabled 94 recommendations touching on nearly all aspects of Canadian life – education, child welfare, youth programmes, media, justice, sports, museums, language, health, business, and information provided to newcomers to Canada. What it comes down to is a clear call to face the reality of how deeply violent and devastating the residential school system has been. The TRC also makes it clear that the current situation for Aboriginal children is also unacceptable. Social workers are challenged to conduct better child welfare evaluations and not be so quick to separate children from their families. It calls on governments to close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal education.
The “truth” part has been delivered through the TRC process. The “reconciliation” part will be harder. It will require of all of us a willingness to start down a path to justice. It will require not merely accepting a report and putting it on a shelf. We are required to work to make amends – no matter how inadequate our best efforts may be. We cannot undo the wrong, but we can acknowledge the enormity of it. We can work together with First Nations to bring Canada to true reconciliation, with a nation to nation relationship built on respect. What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes clear is that we cannot it didn’t happen. It was an attempt at cultural genocide. Only through love and forgiveness can we all – aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – come to justice and reconciliation.