Truth and Reconciliation

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”.

 

This Anger Runs Deep

This Anger Runs Deep
by Louise Gallagher

This anger 
fuelled by centuries 

of abuse and cruelty, 
colonization, 
and attempted genocide

of the peoples who walked these lands
long before the settlers came

this anger runs deep
deep 
and fierce

and red
like the salmon
pushing upstream
fighting for life.


This anger
runs deep

pushing against the river
of settlers who raced
to claim these lands from sea to sea
these lands 
the people who once walked

proud and free

never tried to claim
because they held
deep within their bodies

deep within their ways 

the knowing,
no one could own the land
or the rivers

or the trees

or the wild life that ran

free
through the forests
 of these lands
they once walked
and hunted and gathered
proud and free.


This anger
runs red 
like the salmon

pushing upstream
in a fight for survival
and the right

to once again be of this land
proud and free
and to stand tall
like their ancestors
who once walked
these lands

before the settlers came
and washed away their ways

to leave this anger
running deep.

And No One Listens

I watch a flock of geese huddling around their children at the edge of the river. Four adults. Many goslings.

The river flows fast. Swollen with spring run-off from the mountains and the rains of the past few days.

It is not safe for the babies. The adults keep them on shore.

And I am reminded, as so many things do these days, of the remains of 215 children found beneath the lands of a former residential school sanctioned by the Canadian government and operated for decades by the Catholic Church on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

Those goslings do not need to be taken away from their parents, or even kept away from the river. The parents are seeing to their safety. It is their nature.

And as I walk slowly home along the swollen river, its roar drowning out the traffic travelling across the bridge above, as I listen to the birds chirping in the trees and the geese hissing as Beaumont the Sheepadoodle and I pass by, I think of the women who would come to the homeless shelter where I worked, their eyes swollen, their bodies battered as they struggled to find a way back to who they were… before.

Before… the settlers and his assertions their ways were better came…

Before…. their schools and assimilation and attempts to ‘kill the Indian in the child’…

Before… the church and its doctrine arrived…

Before… the government took away…

...their lands, their way of life, their history, their traditions, their culture, their language, their homes…. Their children.

In a tweet on May 27th, Prime Minister Trudeau called it, “a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history.”

In the House of Commons on June 3rd, Nunavut member of Parliament Mumilaaq Qaqqaq stated. “Colonization is not a dark chapter in Canadian history. It is a book that the federal institution continues to write,”

“Foster care,” she said, “is the new residential school system.”

Is is also a gateway to homelessness for far too many.

According to Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey, 20% of the homeless population in Canada is comprised of youth between the ages of 13-24. In a given year, there are at least 35,000-40,000 youth experiencing homelessness. Of that number, over 30% are Indigenous. Research also highlights that over 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness in Canada have been involved with child welfare services, including foster care and group homes. Over 52% of children involved with child welfare services are Indigenous.

In her comments in the House of Commons, Qaqqaq also said, “We are tired of living in someone else’s story and refuse to continue to have it written for us.”

She’s right. This book we’ve been writing… It’s not a story I want to keep reading. Keep hearing. Keep living.

It’s time we stop writing it so that Indigenous peoples can write their own book.

____________________

I wrote the poem below for all the women who were never heard when they called out for their missing children and were never heard.

And No One Listens
by Louise Gallagher

She cries out for help
	Again and again
	Where are my children
	Where have they gone

No one listens
No one hears

She walks the trails where once they gathered berries. Together
She trudges through the fields where once they played. Together
	
She keeps searching. Searching. 
	Calling. Calling. 

Their names become a symphony of anguish 
Their memory an unending refrain of pain
Their missing a cut too deep to be washed away by her tears
she searches for a way to drown them beneath the burden of the grief
that flows as deep as the river upon which she once paddled with her children. Together.

She talks to the priest who has promised her soul salvation
She talks to the man the government has sent to help her and her people
assimilate into the ways of the settlers, ways that are foreign to her
ways that do not ease her suffering.

Their words do not bring her salvation
Their words do not ease her pain
	It is God’s will
	It is His way
	It is the law
	It is our way.

And she keeps calling out for her children
She keeps calling out for help
until one day she too is lost
Lost
To God’s will
and His Way 
to our way
the way that has taken her children
the way
that has catapulted her life
into an unending liturgy of sorrow, pain and suffering

She cannot escape
the missing of her children
of her way
her People’s way
the way of the land
and falls

She lies on the sidewalk now
of a city she does not know
in a way that has erased all memory
of who she was
before
before they took her children.

She is broken 
apart
separated
from her people
the ways of her ancestors
her children, missing
her voice, lost

She no longer calls out through the pain she cannot heal
the stories she cannot tell
the memories she can no longer remember.

She no longer cries out her children’s names
She no longer calls out for help

And no one listens.
No one hears.

It Is Their Ways That Will Heal Us.

They are getting ready, these tiny bodies of winged possibility that have only known the nest their mother built since first she laid them in its safety and sat for days and days on end upon their shells until they were born.

I have watched them over the past three weeks grow from tiny, featherless newborns into feathered beauty with wings unfolding with every breath they take.

I have watched the mother and father robin carefully tending to their young. Bringing food. Sustenance. Warmth.

The father doesn’t linger long. But he is never far away.

Over these first weeks of life, the mother has moved from sitting in the nest for hours on end, to sitting on its edge for brief spurts of time, trusting in nature to take its course and give her babies the gift of flight.

Her babies are growing stronger. Soon it will be time.

And I sit and watch and marvel at the power of nature. To create life. Sustain life. Set it free.

And I think of the mothers whose children were taken from them so young. Who never had the chance to nurture and sustain their offspring. Who never had the gift of seeing them take flight.

And I think of how, in their pain, they wandered through their days searching for their missing children until they could no longer stand the pain.

And how, like a bird with a broken wing, they had to tend to their own wounds. Heal, as best they could, the gaping holes that could never be filled. How, they yearned again for those days when their children ran and played and sang songs and told stories and gathered around the table and shared a meal and bickered amongst themselves knowing, that no matter what, their lives were woven together with strands of love threaded through a way of life that could never be erased.

Until it was.

Until a force greater than their mother’s arms could hold back and their father’s breath could push away, swept in and tore the ties that bind apart, ripping out the hearts of the weavers who had built the nest they called their home.

And how, over generations and generations of unravelling the ties that bind, there was nothing left of the threads of all their ancestors weaving the vibrant stories that had sustained them, nurtured them, carried them through their lives. Nothing left of the songs that sang them awake and the stories that lulled them to sleep. Nothing left of the way of life threaded through their history, for their history was gone. Rewritten. Erased. Assimilated.

Until one day, there was a murmuring. It wasn’t loud, but it was steady. Like a heartbeat. And in its steady thrum, thrum, it whispered a song of hope, rising up, Up across the land calling their ancestors and all their relations to rise with it.

And in its beat, a memory flickered through the darkness, and then another and another. Memories full of the way it was when the rivers ran deep teeming with fish and the buffalo roamed the prairies as far as the eye could see. Memories of the forest paths beckoning with healing ferns and moss and flora. Memories of when the drums beat loud and the fires burned bright. Memories of the stories the elders told that guided the young in the ways of their people as their mothers wove baskets in the light of the fire and their fathers hunted for the foods that would sustain them. Memories of their ancient ways. Ways that nurtured and sustained and honoured all of life.

It began as just a murmuring, a gentle breath of hope. It is growing. Louder.

And their wings are growing. Stronger.

And the way is growing. Clearer.

And their hearts are beating. Faster.

And the drums are pounding. Fiercer.

Soon. Soon. It will be time.

Time to erase the erasing of their ways that could never be erased because theirs are the way of nature and nature can never be erased. It flows always. In the rivers. In the seas. In the air we breathe. In the light of the sun and the cast of the moon. It flows deep within the earth that has always nurtured and sustained life on this planet we call our home. This planet that is growing weary of our ways that is killing off its creatures, poisoning its waters, clogging up its air.

This earth is calling them to awaken to their ways.

It is time. Time for the stories to be told. For the light to return. Time for the threads of yesterday to be woven back into the tapestry of life that was their way. And is their way.

It is their ways that will sustain and nurture us.

It is their ways that will heal the wounds.

It is their ways that will heal the truth.

It is their ways that will heal the earth and all of nature.

If is time for us to step aside and let their ways lead us all back into nature’s balance.

More Than Just a Lost Boy

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 StatesUlysses S. Grant.[29][28]: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.

Racism: What We Do Next Matters. A Lot.

Even as the economic outlook of the province declined and a once almost 0% vacancy rate climbed up towards double digits, it was happening.

Even as the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Report provided a clear path towards justice, reparations and healing, it was happening.

And, even as non-settler centric Indigenous history was being taught in elementary schools, and Indigenous culture and awareness courses at Universities were filling up, it was happening.

Every day. Everywhere.

Case in point. An Indigenous parent of three children calls a landlord about a vacant apartment. Sets up an appointment to view it, only to be told, one hour later, when the landlord opens the door to view the face of the applicant, “It’s already rented.” Door closed. No explanation. And no truth to the landlord’s assertions either.

Or, a housing locator for a social services agency, knowing the challenges Indigenous families face in finding housing in our city, goes to a landlord, and, without disclosing the ethnicity of the applicant, which would be a violation of their human rights, organizes the lease on behalf of the applicant. When the family arrives, the landlord refuses to hand over the keys, stating a family emergency has lead to the unit no longer being available for rent. The Indigenous family, too accustomed to such treatment, walks away. They know their life would be hell in that apartment anyway. Why risk abuse from a racist landlord?

Or, the neighbour to an apartment building that houses low-income families specifically targets those units that house Indigenous families. He takes videos and photos of the families going about living their daily lives. Files complaint after complaint with the owners of the building, the social service agency providing supports to assist the families in settling in, his City Councillor’s office about the noise of the young children, about adults smoking on the balcony, about what he calls, ‘those people’. Yet, he refuses to meet to discuss his complaints or to learn about the program of ending homelessness, reducing poverty and building community. “I want them gone,” is his only response.

I could go on.

After almost 18 years working in the homeless-serving sector in Calgary, many of them spent doing community engagement work, the stories of racial profiling, discrimination and abuse are numbing.

I have sat at boardroom tables with community members decrying the pending presence of housing for formerly homeless individuals and families in their community. I have listened to their fears, their insistence that this housing will drive down their property values or create parking concerns, two of the 3 top concerns community members voice when opposing low-income housing, the other one being, rising crime rates. Even when the data clearly shows those fears are unfounded, the objections and the name-calling continues.

I have faced angry mobs opposing the purchase of land for low-income housing, standing in a circle around me and my co-workers, arms raised, fists clenched above their heads as they shake them in the air, yelling at the top of their voices, “We don’t want you here.”

I have listened to people call fellow human beings names that make me want me to peel off my skin right down to my skeleton to show them our blood is the same colour, and all of our skeletons are white, but that would just further enforce the notion, white is better.

And, unfortunately, their fear, their ignorance, their misconceptions and yes, their white privilege closed their minds to the fact that those against whom they railed were just like them, seeking to make a better life for themselves and their families. It’s just the circumstances of their lives had put them far, far below the poverty line to where they struggled just to catch a breath of the very same air that we all breathe freely.

“They don’t deserve the air they breathe,” has sometimes been the response.

So yes. Black Lives Matter. Brown Lives Matter.

And what we do next, the white privileged who have never known what it feels like to have our skin colour make us the target of other human beings’ abuse, disdain, fear… What we do next matters. A lot.

It’s easy to say, “But those are the few bad apples.” And, while that is fundamentally true, most people don’t support overt racism, the fact remains, we are complicit in our inaction, in our not speaking up, in our not decrying and outing such behaviour. In our not examining why skin colour matters in the first place.

And, while it’s easy to point at yourself and say, “I’m not racist,” living that truth? That’s a whole other matter.

And if you haven’t already done so, read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Report: Calls to Action. It matters. A lot.