Path to healing includes all Canadians

timescolonist.com – news – Residential schools took heavy toll on First Nations families, culture
July 8, 2010.   By Matthew Coon Come, Special to Times Colonist

Our parents tell us about the day when the plane arrived to take all the children away to residential school. They tell how quiet our settlement suddenly was, when the sound of children playing had been silenced. They tell how the only sound that could be heard in the community was the sound of parents crying for their children.

Years later, my parents came to visit me at residential school in La Tuque, Que. They had walked for two days from their trapline to our village of Mistissini and then walked another day to Chibougamau, the nearest non-native town. From there, they paid what was a fortune for them to take a taxi to drive them some 350 kilometres to La Tuque. They were able to visit me for just a few hours and then started the return journey to their trapline.

Six days of walking on snowshoes and probably all the money they had, all for the sake of a few hours’ visit to try to maintain the fundamental bond between Eenou parents and their child.

I am holding a sheesheegun: a traditional Cree child’s toy made by parents or grandparents for their beloved children and grandchildren. This sheesheegun is a symbol of the children who were lost — those many children (some historians say as many as 50 per cent) who were taken away and never returned.

It is a symbol of the childhood innocence stolen from us by the abuse we suffered at residential school. It is a symbol of the parental and cultural bonds between children and parents — bonds that were, in too many cases, stretched until they twisted or broke — destroying our families. And, by destroying our families, the foundations of our communities and our nations were altered, sometimes almost beyond recognition.

“Residential schools” is a terrible euphemism. This term obscures and cleanses the truth about these terrible places and the shocking program of political and cultural destruction of which they were a central pillar. The places to which we were taken were places of involuntary childhood internal exile and, frequently, systematic maltreatment. Their larger purpose was not to house or educate us, but rather to separate whole generations of indigenous children from their parents and communities and traditional lands and resources.

The chilling overarching policy idea was to ultimately eliminate our peoples by assimilating the indigenous children while allowing time for parents, grandparents and nations to die off alone in their traditional lands, thus clearing the country for settlement, agriculture and resource extraction by the Crown.

There is great controversy in Australia about the use of the term “genocide” by the Australian Commission into the Stolen Generations in its final report. Some feel its use was fully justified. For others, the use of the term “genocide” was inaccurate given that some of the Australian policy and practice was felt to be well-intentioned.

Some in Canada feel that what has been underway is a definite social policy of “ethnic cleansing.” They argue, what else are you doing when, for decades, successive federal governments are trying to “take the Indian out of the Indian” and to assimilate whole indigenous nations and peoples into the Euro-Canadian body politic? What else are you doing when you work for decades to destroy — through oppressive laws and policies, residential schools and even withholding essential services such as health care, housing, clean water and education — whole indigenous orders of government in this country and dispossess communities of their traditional land and resources and their languages and their religions and their laws and their social cohesion? Tell us, how is this not ethnic cleansing?

Ethnic cleansing happened in Serbia and Bosnia and Yugoslavia. Genocide happened to Jews in Europe and to other peoples in Rwanda, Darfur and Cambodia. I have not yet made my own decision about these terms and our experience in Canada.

But it is essential, during this current process of truth and reconciliation, for us to debate and discuss these issues. If we sidestep these important discussions about genocide and ethnic cleansing and avoid these important debates about what actually happened and what it all means, then we will be suppressing the strong sense of many residential school inmates in Canada that the Australian Commission was correct about stolen generations and genocide.

Yes, there undoubtedly were some government officials and some residential school workers who were well-intentioned and non-abusive and even engaged beneficially with “Indian” children in their “care.” But this cannot cleanse the wrongful and, some feel, evil, reality of the overarching federal and church assimilation and indigenous cultural destruction policy in Canada.

Let me now return to the sheesheegun. It is also a symbol of hope for the future. It is a symbol of our children and grandchildren and of the bonds which we, and we alone, can and must re-establish with them.

By re-establishing those bonds we will rebuild our families. By rebuilding our families, we will rebuild our communities. By rebuilding our communities, we will rebuild our nations. The healing of our families, our communities and our nations is an enormous task, and it is a task which only we can do for ourselves. No one can do it for us.

But, without the truth of what happened being discussed by all Canadians, even if we must discuss such terms as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing,” then the reconciliation required for proper healing will remain a distant and difficult goal.

Matthew Coon Come is grand chief of the James Bay Cree Nation in Eeyou Istchee and a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He made this statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission not as a political leader, but rather as an indigenous person.

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