In school, I vaguely, and I mean vaguely, remember learning about Sir John A Macdonald. Sir Wilfred Laurier, Langevin and the other ‘Founding Fathers of Confederation’ as well as the Davin Report, the full name of which was, Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds. (Source)
I vaguely, and I mean vaguely, remember learning about how the Davin Report set the path for the assimilation of children into the Euro-centric culture of Canada’s founding fathers. It proposed a cooperative approach between the Canadian government and the church to implement the “aggressive assimilation” pursued by President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.:1.
I remember vaguely, and I mean vaguely, photographs of the painting above. it is a recreation of an original painting by Richard Harris that hung in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa from 1884 to 1916 when it was destroyed in a fire that also destroyed the original Parliament Buildings. In 1964, Confederation Life, an insurance company, commissioned artist, Rex Wood, to recreate the original painting to be presented in honour of Canada’s Centennial. In the recreated version, three figures, who had not been considered Founding Fathers in 1883 when the original painting was commissioned, were added on the right.
I remember vaguely, and I mean vaguely, having to re-enact in some elementary school class, the negotiations, the haggling, the political maneuverings needed to get signatures on the bottom line of The British North American Act, Canada’s constitution.
I know, and I mean know, I did not ask, where are the Chiefs in this painting? Where are the First Nations people who were the first to inhabit these lands? Why were they not signatories? Why aren’t they in the painting?
I also know, and I mean know, whatever I learned about ‘assimilation’ it was framed in the language of the founding fathers, because I know, and I mean know, I never thought to ask…
What about the children? What about the residential schools?
What about the attempted annihilation of those who walked these lands, who hunted and planted, who gathered and raised families and had their own system of governance, who built canoes and lodges, who knew the medicinal values of all the plants and could heal broken limbs and festering sores with their knowledge rooted in the forests and lakes, the mountains and rivers of this land and who had lived here for centuries long before white man arrived?
I know this because I know that I was never taught about the residential school system when I was in school. I was never taught to question the purpose, value and impact of assimilation.
I could not question what I did not know.
My education into the harm done by the residential school system began in the 1990s when I began working on a project with a group of street-engaged teens. We were writing a play together. Its purpose: to build a bridge from street life to main street. To give those who did not know, an opportunity to learn more about something they did not understand – -street life.
Several of the teens involved in this project were Indigenous. Like the other young people involved they were thoughtful. Articulate. Passionate about the project and committed to using it as a vehicle to reach other teens to let them know, street life is not the solution. It is a road to more pain and suffering.
I was involved with this project for three years. In the second play we wrote there was a young man involved, I’ll call him Chris, who had run away from a reserve in Saskatchewan.
I credit Chris with awakening me to the horrors of the residential school system and its lasting impact on Indigenous peoples.
Both his parents, his aunties and uncles, they all attended the schools. They had never been lovingly parented. Deeply wounded, they did not know how to parent their own children.
Chris wasn’t angry with his parents. He was angry with ‘the white man’. With authority. With a system that denied him dignity, respect, justice and freedom.
And still, for all his anger and pain, Chris kept turning up for our group every single Wednesday afternoon. He didn’t have a home, but he did have a place to belong in our small group of fledgling writers and actors.
The play itself was a cooperative endeavour. Everyone involved offered their words and ideas and as a group, we chose which ‘story-line’ to pursue in the overarching piece.
Chris was an inspired rapper. His words penetrating. His emotions ran deep.
Everyone agreed, Chris’ story was a pivotal piece of the play and he was hyped to be giving voice to his people’s story.
And then, a few days before the play was to be mounted, I received a call from Chris.
He was in tears.
I’ve been arrested, he told me. I won’t be out before the play.
I struggled to find a way to get Chris permission to still be able to be part of the play. But the system was greater than me.
I don’t know what happened to Chris after that as once the prison doors closed, I lost touch with him.
What I do know, and I mean know, is that Chris made a difference in my life. He opened the door to the dark underbelly of our history. His wasn’t just ‘a story of a boy lost to the streets’. It was the story of an entire people whom, despite the centuries of abuse they’d endured, had never lost their will to fight. To survive. To live.
I don’t know where Chris is now, but I believe, and I mean believe deeply, that wherever he is, Chris is waking people up to the fact, ‘not knowing’ is not good enough.
We must educate ourselves. We must start asking questions. Demanding action. Creating change. Now.