The importance of listening

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, September 2013

BC Reconciliation Week, September 16 to 22, allows Canadians to bear witness to the devastating legacy of residential schools.

Archie Little, his stark words muffled by tears, his shoulders shaking from the memories, says, “The only reason I survived residential school is because they made me so full of hate and so angry, that gave me the power to live.”

Archie, now 64 years old, was just a small boy when he was taken away from his Nuchatlaht family and incarcerated at the now-infamous Christie Residential School on Meares Island near Tofino. In April 2012, Archie and many other courageous Aboriginal men and women like him attended a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event held in Victoria, to speak openly and candidly about their residential school experiences. 

Since the TRC was established in 2008 to gather and publicize information about Canada’s residential schools, thousands of horrific stories have emerged. Victoria’s event was no exception: those present heard about not only the forceful wresting of young children away from the arms of loving families and the deliberate destruction of culture, but of beatings, sexual abuse, and neglect. Affection towards lonely little kids was certainly not part of the curriculum: “We were all just told we were dirty stupid little Indians,” says Archie simply. “They always told us we weren’t worth anything.” 

For people like Archie, the TRC has offered more than just the chance to share their tragic stories with their fellow Canadians, however. It has also offered hope for understanding, reconciliation and healing for the first time: “I don't like those feelings of anger and hate,” he explains. “I don’t want to live like that anymore. I want to work it out and know how it feels to say ‘I love you again’ to people. I’m not too old to learn how to do that.”

In the face of the terrible truths that have emerged since the TRC process began—indeed, well before that—Canadians might be forgiven for wondering if the reconciliation that people like Archie are looking for is really possible, all the same. The abuses he suffered were not anomalies; they were the norm. Last July, another layer of horror was added when Canadians learned that on top of everything else, many First Nations children were used as guinea pigs in nutritional experiments undertaken by government-employed scientists. Starved of adequate dietary needs, many ravenously hungry children resorted to stealing food wherever they could find it—even raw potatoes still covered in dirt. 

These children—now adults in their fifties and sixties—still endure the legacy of their experiences: not only the theft of their childhood and culture, but addiction, illness, failed relationships, lack of any parenting skills, and loss of self-respect and identity. In turn, their children and grandchildren are now also suffering from these consequences. 

The federal government has taken no visible steps to act on any of several recommendations for conciliatory initiatives in the education and health sectors that have been brought forward by the TRC. The Prime Minister has stated that his government does not plan to apologize for the nutritional experiments. On other fronts, First Nations continue to battle poverty, racism and poor health statistics in numbers vastly disproportionate to other Canadians, and have to fight constantly to have their Constitutional rights recognized.

In light of all this, if it’s even possible, reconciliation seems a long way off—certainly at a governmental level. Indeed, if reconciliation is to follow truth in any meaningful way, it is time for individual Canadians to take matters into their own hands. In fact, that’s vital.

At the Victoria TRC event, non-Aboriginal citizens showed up in the thousands to listen to what First Nations people had to say in order to understand and to reach out in empathy and friendship. Every First Nations speaker thanked the non-Aboriginal people present for coming to hear them, and emphasized the enormous value of doing so.

Typical of those present, Richard, a Saltspring resident, said: “I’m here because I need to know what it is to be Canadian, and to work with that.” Cheryl, from Parksville, added: “I’m British, and just became a Canadian citizen. I’m here because I know there is still a lot of racism and indifference today. We all share responsibility for that.” 

For everyone in the room, the impact of the stories being told was profound. It is difficult to describe the utter dismay of learning about small children beaten and locked in cupboards for hours at a time, or to see shotgun pellet scars in the back of a woman’s legs—scars she collected when she tried to run away—or hearing of one man’s horror of darkness and the memories it brings of what was repeatedly done to him in his school bed. 

In speaking to some of the survivors, it is clear that these are experiences that they will take to the grave. Grand Chief Ed John reflected that survivors like him will always live with the experience of residential school: “As the song says,” he remarked, “we can check out, but we can never leave.” 

Remarkably, there are some people who still believe that the intentions behind the residential school system were inherently good, despite the incidents of abuse and neglect. A former teacher at Christie School stood up at the hearings to claim the staff at the school were loving, caring educators. The impact on the room was dramatic. Former students burst into howls of rage and pain. Shouts of “Tell the truth!” came from every row of seats. Archie Little stormed out of the room in tears, unable to listen. 

Perhaps there were some individuals who tried to take care of the children. But to justify the schools on that basis is to utterly miss the point, as Archie said afterwards, that the whole damn system was just plain wrong. To Archie, speaking and hearing the truth at the TRC was fundamental. Trying to disguise it and justify what happened had no place there if there is to be any hope of healing and a positive future. 

But the most important thing, continued Archie, was that everyone was there to listen to him speaking the truth: “I believe that’s what will make reconciliation possible. People like you coming and wanting to be here. We’re not just talking to an empty room. It feels good to know you want to hear my story.” 

One of the last national events to be held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission takes place September 18-21 in Vancouver. I hope to see you there.

 

For information on attending the September TRC national event, go to www.trc.ca. Also see www.reconciliationcanada.ca for information about the Walk for Reconciliation in Vancouver, Sunday September 22.

Katherine Palmer Gordon is the award-winning author of six books of non-fiction. Her next book, We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia, has just been released by Harbour Publishing.