A Day of Reflection and Remembrance

September 30th, 2021 marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The creation of this day is in response to the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a new federal statutory holiday in Canada, marking the genocide that took place in our country, as well as the irreparable, intergenerational harm that residential schools continue to afflict upon Indigenous families and communities. It honours the survivors. Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools specifically established to “kill the Indian in the child” and assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. They ran for over over a hundred years, from the late 1800s until 1996: impacting over 150,000 children.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report estimates that more than 4,000 indigenous children died in residential schools from either neglect or abuse. It is believed that this number is actually five to ten times higher, but the final total is unknown, due to poor record keeping by the churches, and unmarked mass graves.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2021, many new discoveries of children’s bodies were made due to the ground penetrating radar technology. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia discovered 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The Penelakut First Nation located 160 undocumented and unmarked graves in the province’s Southern Gulf Islands, once home to the Kuper Island Residential School; and 750 unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

September 30 is also Orange Shirt Day. This is an Indigenous-led grassroots commemorative day that honours the children who survived Indian Residential Schools and remembers those who did not. This day originates from the experience of Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, on her first day of school, where she arrived dressed in a new orange shirt, and it was taken away from her. It has come to symbolize the stripping away of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations. Orange Shirt Day invites Canadians to wear orange shirts on September 30th each year to honour survivors of residential schools, their families, and their communities. 

Many Canadians view the residential school system as part of a distant past, disassociated from the current day. This is incorrect. The last residential school did not close its doors until 1996, and many of the leaders, teachers, parents, and grandparents of our Indigenous communities are residential school survivors. Although residential schools are closed, their effects remain ongoing for both survivors and their descendants who now share in the intergenerational effects of trauma and loss of language, culture, traditional teachings, and mental/spiritual wellbeing.

In Canada, 52.2% of children in foster care are Indigenous, but account for only 7.7% of the child population. This means 14,970 out of 28,665 foster children in private homes under the age of 15 are Indigenous: many of them permanently removed from Indigenous communities. Results from the 2011 National Household Survey also show that 38% of Indigenous children in Canada live in poverty, compared to 7% for non-Indigenous children. This stark reality illustrates the ongoing ripple effects of racists government policies, such as the Indian Residential School System, and the Indian Act.

On this first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, every Canadians must take small, incremental steps on the path towards reconciliation. This can be done in many different ways, through learning, attending events, or donating to your community. It is a personal journey but one that we all need to commit to if we are to successfully move this country towards meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Here are some links that provide ideas for how you can take action today:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/community/personal-acts-reconciliation-1.4687405

“Indian Horse” by Richard Wagamese

Indian Horse is a stark, yet incredibly beautifully written novel by Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese. As one of Canada’s foremost Indigenous authors and storytellers, Wagamese’s body of work includes six novels, a book of poetry (Runaway Dreams), and five non-fiction titles, including two memoirs and an anthology of his newspaper columns.

Indian Horse tells the story of Saul Indian Horse. It is set in northern Ontario in the 1950’s and 60’s. It begins with Saul, a former minor league hockey star, recovering in a treatment centre for alcoholism; he is chronicling his life experience as a means of facing his addiction. Although a deeply personal tale, it is also reflective of the wider intergenerational trauma experienced by thousands of Indigenous residential school survivors across Canada.

It begins in the northern Ontario where Saul lives off the land with his parents, grandmother and older brother Ben. Saul is happiest when learning traditional skills and family lore from his grandmother. Both of his parents are residential school survivors. They desperately hope that living in the wilderness, away from their community, will save their boys from being taken away to from them; but despite the family’s best efforts, the boys are eventually found, and taken against their will.

Once Saul arrives at St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, his experience is harrowing: the students are subjected to beatings, sexual abuse and ritualized humiliation. The school is not designed to teach them to thrive in a new world but to break their spirits and erase their traditional ways of life. Although exceptionally difficult to read, Wagamese truthfully reflects the dire reality experienced by thousands of children across Canada: chronicling a dark chapter in history that should never be forgotten.

A form of hope arrives for Saul when an idealistic young priest introduces the older boys to ice hockey. The priest takes Saul under his wing, and allows him to play, even though he is younger than the other players on the team. The reader observes eight-year-old Saul exuberantly clearing the snow off the ice for the school team and practicing stick handling in the pre-dawn hours using frozen horse turds for pucks. Saul has a natural talent for the game and, like all great players, he visualizes complex plays before they unfold on the ice. He is soon outplaying the older boys, and he is eventually given permission to board with a family in Manitouwadge, so he can join the Native Tournament Circuit.

Saul finds love and acceptance in his new home: both with the Kelly family and his team, “The Moose”. He enjoys camaraderie with his fellow players both on an off the ice. But as Saul’s opportunities increase, so does his exposure to the overt racism and discrimination of the 1960s hockey world, and Canadian society. Saul’s rise up through the ranks of the minor-league is swift but it is also fleeting. He is stripped of his passion for the game and he ultimately walks away from his dream: adopting the nomadic life of a drifter. After many lost years, he hits rock bottom. With some support, he eventually finds his way home, rediscovering his connection to the land, his people, and himself.

Wagamese’s use of language throughout this novel is masterful. He is an incredibly skilled storyteller, with an uncanny descriptive power. I especially appreciated the visceral way that he captured Saul’s experience playing hockey; it helped me to understand the joy of the game. Throughout the book, I found myself stopping and rereading sections, just to take in its richness. Indian Horse is one of the most heart breaking and heart opening books that I have ever read. It is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and a stunningly beautiful piece of literature that everyone should experience.