Thursday, 4 June 2015

My Reconciliation Includes

Truth and Reconciliation

I say it's complicated.
Others say it's not.
It's black and white
It's classic good and evil.

My history and your history is anything but black and white.

And while aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians try to reconcile their differences so too do I try to reconcile historical truths with the truths I know.

Letter about Wabasca Residential School, 1935.
Residential schools. Terrible things happened there. Thousands died. Thousands more ripped from the arms of their loving parents. Children who were denied love. Children who grew up not knowing what a family looked like. Children who grew up ashamed of their language and their culture. Children and their children who became adults who suffer the painful inter-generational effects to this day.

The "Sixties Scoop." Thousands of aboriginal children taken from their families in Canada in the 1960s, many with the mistaken idea that these kids did not have a family that would love and care for them. A whole generation of kids, victims of transracial adoption. A generation denied its heritage. Kids who as adults now don't know where they belong. People who now suffer identity crises and mental health issues after growing up outside of their own culture.

How do I reconcile what I know with those truths?

Some of Grandad's young friends in the Far North
Because I know people who worked in residential schools who were not evil people. They were good people. People who were trying to help. People who did not beat or abuse their young charges. People who tried to teach them the skills to succeed in Canadian society. People like Heather who taught in a residential school in Wabasca in the 1960s. As kind a woman as you will ever meet. People like my grandfather, an immigrant from England, who volunteered in the 1950s in Inuvik while he worked for the Bank of Commerce. In his spare time, he taught gymnastics to young Inuit boys. A gentle funny man who enjoyed working with kids.

My brothers, sister and me.
My brother and sister were adopted by my parents in the 1960s. My parents married late in life and did not expect to have any kids after I was born. They applied to adopt. They were asked if they would be interested in an aboriginal child. They said of course. They would take any child who needed a home. My brother came from Penticton Indian Band and my sister from the Tsawout First Nation on Vancouver Island. Although they grew up knowing they were aboriginal and adopted, they also grew up in a white house in a white neighbourhood with the accompanying values and culture. And they grew up with love.

I have a letter my mom wrote to my sister. My sister was speaking on cross cultural adoptions at a conference. My mom related a story about my brother.

When he was about four he said, "Mom, I'm not an Indian, am I? I don't want to be." We had never kept this a secret but a ten year old had taunted him I guess. This was in the sixties and he hadn't seen many aboriginal people except in Cowboy and Indian movies, so I said "Are you thinking of the movies where the Indians fight the Cowboys? Where they are barefoot, ride horses and carry bows and arrows?  He said "yes."  I explained that the pictures were of olden days and that all people are different today...

Just once, he said, why can't the Indians win?

Looking back, we cannot imagine our lives without our four children...They are all well educated and gainfully employed and now we have grandchildren. Most important, all of them have learned that people are people and cannot be judged on race or other differences but only on the values they hold.

When my brother and sister each turned 18, they met their birth mothers and chose to live near them for some time. My mother never expressed any concern with their choice. Their birth mothers attended their weddings. My sister now lives on the Tsawout Reserve, three doors away from her birth mother. She herself has an adopted aboriginal son and is an adoptions worker. I can't say whether adoption ruined my siblings lives. You would have to ask them. But I think I know what they would say.

My husband and I are both teachers. We worked in the NWT for two years where we taught aboriginal kids. Wonderful, creative kids. Many of them lived in atrocious conditions- some of them did not get enough to eat. Others lived with alcoholic relatives who went on month-long binges, leaving young kids to fend for themselves. Others were sexually abused by family members. Five young people committed suicide in a five month span in a town of 450 people. We did our best with these kids. We fed them. We visited their homes. We talked to their parents and uncles and aunties and grandparents. We communicated with liaison workers to find better living conditions. Did we try to assimilate these children into mainstream Canadian culture? Were we part of a tradition of cultural genocide? Perhaps. But I also know it is the only place I have ever worked where I truly believe I made a difference. It mattered that I was there.

Today, I am a distance education course writer. My course materials include lessons about residential schools and aboriginal issues. I hope one day to assist with building courses in Aboriginal Studies for all Albertan students, including my First Nations students who tell me "I don't understand what land claims are" and "Can you explain treaty rights again?" And while I do that, I ask myself who am I to teach kids what it means to be aboriginal? Maybe right now, I am the only one.

History is not black and white. It is a place of shadows. It is gray. It is not simple. I know there were atrocities committed. Perhaps my protestant guilt has led me to where I am today in my relationship with aboriginal people. Perhaps it is how I was raised or who my parents and siblings and students are. Or maybe just simply my humanity. Whatever it is, my reconciliation includes looking at my own history and knowing that somewhere between our good intentions and their evil effects is truth. And I have made my peace with that.