There is a woman. Close to my age less a couple of years. She has dark hair streaked with grey. Brown eyes. Almost the same height. Not very tall.
And there the similarities end.
I was born into a family circle that while at times felt frayed and disorganized (my judgement not necessarily the ‘truth’), was never broken. I always knew who my parents and ancestors were. My siblings and aunts and cousins. I knew where I fit in, even when I railed against what I perceived as the limitations of that place of belonging.
She was born of an Indigenous Mother. Was spirited away immediately after birth and never felt the arms of her birth mother hold her, cradle her, protect her. Placed into the arms of a woman whose skin was lighter and her ways, though loving and kind, never touched the core of her being, she lived her life never feeling like she fit in. Not knowing what it meant to belong on a deep and spiritual level within a family circle, she spent her life searching for the missing pieces she could not name.
Eventually, this woman, the one close to me in age whose life path was so different, found herself on the streets. She knew where she fit in on the streets. At the bottom of the barrel, or a bottle as she liked to joke. On the street, her native roots did not stand out so much. On the street, she found her kin. Damaged. Wounded. Battered and scarred, they circled round her in a protective layer of kinship she’d never known before.
“I belong here,” she told herself every night as her head hit the hard plastic pillow of a shelter bed.
“I belong here,” she whispered to the night-time city sky lit by the glow of a pipe being passed around the circle in which she sat shoulder to shoulder with those who looked as beaten and broken as her.
Eventually, this woman who never felt the arms of her mother tenderly cradling her body as she exited the womb and made her entrance onto this planet, found herself fitting into street life as if there was no other place to be. Lost to her adoptive family, never having known her ancestors and kin, she wandered through her days hiding her pain of not knowing where she belonged beneath a protective layer of paid-for-sex that bought her what she believed she needed most, drugs and alcohol and anything else that would keep her alive.
Because, no matter how hard life became, the thing she always did, because it was the thing she’d known how to do all her life was; Survive.
When this woman’s path and mine intersected, we were both searching for a place to belong.
We both found it at a homeless shelter. For me, it was a job. For her, it was a place to survive.
Over time, we shared our stories finding common ground and connection in the one place that held no judgement or barriers. An art studio.
It was there, in front of an easel we found ourselves reflected in the images we created and the stories we told of what had brought us to this place.
That was many years ago. Our paths have gone separate ways.
She moved away. I moved on.
She has been on a healing journey for many years now. She’s working, living, creating, being who she was always meant to be long before a system that thought it knew best what was good for her, tore her from the arms that could have given her the thing she searched for all her life: Belonging.
It is a sobering thought.
It is only the circumstances of our birth that put us on different paths.
And, while I have known hardship, heartache, betrayal and abuse, I have never had to search for belonging, or fight for my right to freedom, equality, justice.
I have never had to hide my ancestry, never had my culture torn from me by its roots, or had my skin scrubbed to make it more white.
I have never known the depths of discrimination, injustice and racism that she has. I have never been put into another woman’s arms without ever having known my mother’s touch.
I have never had to travel her path to find my way back from the darkness of the street where the only way to survive is to do whatever it takes to stay alive.
This woman whose long black hair is streaked with white and whose brown eyes are encircled with life lines etched into her skin, she is brave. She is fierce. She is courageous and true.
I want to be more like her.
Fearless, no matter how the winds of life bow her back. Honest, no matter how tough the truth. Loving, no matter how deep the hatred and condemnation she faces.
On this, Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, let us all seek to be as brave and courageous as this woman and all the women, children, men and ancestors who walked these lands long before the settlers came and took away their right to walk these lands celebrating their culture, history, traditions and truth.
Let us stop erasing the truth of the history that has brought us to this day.
For S and G and R and so many more and all the children who never made it home and all those who did and were forced to carry the wounds and scars and memories of all they endured and witnessed and hid from in Canada’s Residential Indian School system.
Today is the first time Canada has responded to the Call to Action 80 of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Action 80 called for a federal statutory day of commemoration.
Today also coincides with Orange Shirt Day. Orange Shirt Day is an Indigenous-led, grassroots commemorative day honouring residential school survivors and victims. Founded by Phyllis Webstad, from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, the orange shirt is a reflection of her experience when, on her first day of school she arrived dressed in a new orange shirt and had it taken from her. The orange shirt has become a symbol of remembrance of all Indigenous children who were violently removed from their families to attend residential schools, enduring experiences which the TRC has described as “cultural genocide”.