Filed under: First Nations People
“We forgive our abusers in the name of Jesus who was also abused for our sins.” So ended Elder Bessie Mainville’s prayer of invocation for a gathering of aboriginal leadership here to listen to the Canadian governments historic apology for 100 years of residential schools. Many of her colleagues in attendance had abandoned Christian teachings of generations often cruelly imbibed from 132 schools across Canada, many church managed.
A hundred and fifty thousand students were treated like chattel to force fed education. Whole villages were depopulated of children. The tender bonds, the nurture of culture, affection, healing and spirit was severed by the century long policy of assimilation to “kill the Indian in the child.” The survival and renewal of native life now happening across this continent is a testimony to tenacious and often hidden patterns of strength and endurance still struggling for space where land, forests, waters, minerals, fish and animals are disappearing.
In hind sight people can see the horror of these schools of assimilation. Now the nation sets out on the uncharted territory of Truth and Reconciliation where educator, educated, and policy practitioners come to the table of confession, where the truth is told and acknowledged. The complete truth invites not just the past but today’s inheritors, both perpetrators and those perpetrated upon, to learn from this story of educational genocide.
These coming years may bring hard moments for everyone. The aging teacher who many years ago, fresh from university was called to teach in residential schools may tell us that not everything was bad. The nun and priest or pastor who joined the country wide government financed program to do God’s work looks back on a life time of effort. And then there is the neighbour down the street who resents what he or she regards as unearned privileges of land, and fishing or hunting treaty rights and no taxes for aboriginal people of the reserves. Can these voices climb forward to the table of reconciliation?
As the stories of forgotten parenting skills are retold by aboriginal people will the rest of us listen? When and if the unmarked graves of those aboriginal students can be identified will the rest of us be there to remember them and honour their bones. When the narratives of sexual molestation of innocent students are told can we bear to listen? Can hearing serve as a reminder to us to instruct our young through the example our own lives rededicated to compassion, caring and truthfulness.
We know that the truth will make us free but we prefer to say it rather than live it with our neighbours. The truth is sometimes hard to hear because real listening means change. And this is just the start of reconciliation. An apology is a single step in a long journey. Is it possible that the notions of supremacy that created this project of mass education in its original form still lingers in NATO action in Afghanistan and other experiments to make the world safe for corporate globalization. . The road is long and hard but the reward is a new day of hope for everyone. It takes time and energy for any of us to tell and listen to the truth.
The healing lessons – never again – reach beyond the individual and government. Seamlessly visible in this story of force fed education is the alliance between church and state, private institution and public policy. There is the “enlightened” confidence that education, any education will make things better, a myth that continues to weave its way all over our globe. And then there is the notion that taking “neutral” government money is good and made better to stretch further and be effective when used by private groups.
Years later will we learn that in the frenzy of grant writing and conditioning our work to government standards we may have helped create whole societies of pain. The pattern persists. What would our nations look like today if aboriginal people were allowed through trial and error, as we all do our work of passing things on, to unfold an educational system free from assimilation and rooted deeply in respect for all of creation as is the aboriginal way. This would be a gift for all of us, especially now in this age of global warming when disregard for creation persists to everyone’s detriment.
We will never know what that would have looked like and how it may have brought healing to the immigrant peoples of North America who arrived here often broken and feeling pushed out by the nations that wanted them gone. But, Truth and Reconciliation is a signal that fresh starts, albeit late, are still possible if we can summon the courage to do the work.
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