Tomorrow, September 30th, is Orange Shirt Day. In schools, we will commemorate this day on Monday by donning orange and discussing with our students what it means. “Orange Shirt Day” recalls the beautiful, brand-new, bright-orange shirt that was taken away from Phyllis Webstad at age six, on her first day at Mission Residential School in 1973.
My daughter also happens to turn six tomorrow. She, like Phyllis, was proud to be starting grade school this year, being in Grade 1 – and also with a carefully-chosen outfit. I walked her to school through our own pretty neighbourhood, to a school that is full of compassionate educators who work hard to create welcoming classrooms, and to teach inclusion and character development. She had a complete nutritious lunch and a nice jacket for the chilly weather. When she got home that day, she declared: “I LOVE Grade One!!
I try to imagine taking my child – or being forced to let her go – to a school far away, where I won’t see her for many months. Or even years. I try to imagine her staying at that place where she is underfed, underclothed, expected to speak a language she doesn’t know, made to do manual labour, punished frequently and physically, and forbidden to speak to or even acknowledge her brother. And can’t see her parents at all. It is too awful to contemplate for long.
I often think about this, especially since visiting the Mohawk Institute Residential School and having the privilege of hearing survivors speak about their experiences. It’s a chilly, forbidding place. Thousands of children learned misery between its walls.
Below is what I wrote, compulsively, after my visit to the Mohawk Institute almost a year ago. I know this is not my story, and my voice is not an important one in this discussion. I can only say that I’m haunted by this tragedy, in a tiny shadow of the sorrow and trauma plaguing so many, and this is how I begin to process. (Thank you, Emi, for helping me clarify these thoughts.)
Maybe you were one of the tiny ones
And you cried every day
In your scratchy clothes and hard shoes
So the bigger kids hoisted you
Atop the lockers so you could cling
To the hot water pipe
Warm like your mama’s arm.
Maybe you arrived hearty
so you were picked
to slug your friends in a dank
with unholy cries and money
Maybe you weren’t a fighter
so you were picked
to be summoned to the rumbling
boiler room where no one
would hear the sinning sounds
from their faraway numbered beds.
Certainly you were strapped
for drudgery unfinished
that apple you picked for your sister
especially for your tongue
impertinent to theirs.
Of course you hungered
after every meal on and on
and for rhythms
sun in your lungs
a soft hazy nest.
Perhaps you crept – shinnied – fled
streaked through the trees
but landed in the hole
in the wall under the stairs
and the salt they gave so your cheeks
would look plump.
Perhaps you died
in a narrow bed, lungs clouded
in a struggle, wounds streaming
in the woods, limbs like stones
reaching for your ancestors
or perhaps you lived with your broken
spirit tolling as the pieces
fell and kept falling
you collected what you could
and wear them every day
shards piercing your scars
wondering if someday sorry
might mean something
Thanks for reading today. You can learn more at Where Are The Children and We Were So Far Away. You might consider donating to Indspire. And if you haven’t watched/listened to The Secret Path yet… although Gord Downie was not an indigenous voice, this work is a valuable access point for those who understand best through music. And of course – please consider wearing an orange shirt on Orange Shirt Day.
Today is National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, formerly known as National Aboriginal Day, established to celebrate First Nations, Métis, and Inuit culture in Canada. I know that for many Indigenous people, this day seems like lip-service, since we have not yet established a day to focus on Truth and Reconciliation. I decided to use this day for that purpose.
On this year’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, today marks the official beginning of Canadian celebrations that culminate on Canada Day – the biggest national party we’ve ever had. But some Canadians cannot feel celebratory about a Confederation that served to marginalize our First Peoples. Some are acutely aware that the number 150 has nothing to do with true Indigenous history and everything to do with its erasure. Therefore, we as a nation must make this, right now, a season of commitment and burgeoning for Truth and Reconciliation.
In 2008, the Government of Canada finally apologized for its part in the damage done to Indigenous peoples through the Indian Residential School system. That apology was a landmark event for Canada, and one of Stephen Harper’s better moments, but it could have gone much deeper.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was also formed in 2008, and released its final report in 2015 to let Canadians know what Indigenous peoples needed for healing. There has been some progress since then, including a new and more inclusive government, but in truth, the work has barely begun.
I am white. I was born in Canada, to American immigrants with European roots. I acknowledge that my life, down to the very land I live on, has always been privileged. In this writing, I use the word “we” to refer to generations of us – since long before residential schools – who have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, privilege that exists at the expense of generations of Indigenous peoples. I use the word “you” to reach out to all Indigenous peoples of Canada, you who are alive today as well as your ancestors, who have been victims, and bear the burden, of that same privilege.
As a teacher, a parent, and a proud Canadian, I am trying to figure out how best to participate in Truth and Reconciliation in my country at this historical moment. Perhaps an apology is a good place to start, even as I wonder whether it’s my place or my right to offer one. I don’t know if these words are the right ones, but I hope that they may still be worth writing.
First: I’m sorry to be speaking to you as though you were one homogeneous group. I know that you are many different peoples, languages, traditions, stories, and histories, and that it’s partly the dominant white perspective that lumps you together. Sadly, your suffering has also given you much in common, and that is what I want to address.
I’m sorry that when we arrived in this beautiful land, one you had already known and loved and worked and understood for millennia, most of us utterly failed to recognize your civilization, your wisdom, even your humanity – and, of course, your prior claim.
I’m sorry that we so thoroughly abused any welcome or trust that you showed us.
I’m sorry that we lied to you, over and over, about everything, with such sweeping consequences.
I’m sorry that we were unspeakably arrogant, assuming you to be the savages, and ourselves to be the enlightened ones.
I’m sorry that so many of you died from the toxic gifts we brought: firearms, alcohol, and disease.
I’m sorry that we used every tactic possible to push and push and push you to the very margins of your own home, as if our sense of entitlement made any sense whatsoever.
I’m sorry that so many of us, including our governing representatives, saw you as a pest to be managed, and treated you accordingly.
I’m sorry that we thought it was in any way acceptable to wrench your families apart, the better to force your children to become what they were not.
I’m sorry that so many of those 150,000 children – your babies – and also your grandparents – were deprived of their languages, forcibly evangelized, neglected, overcrowded, underfed, beaten, raped, sterilized, experimented on, and otherwise abused, such that thousands died, and thousands more bore – and still bear – every level of scars.
I’m sorry that we outrageously pretended, until very recently, that this was all for your own good.
I’m sorry that, rather than offering necessary support – recompense, remedy, apology, or even sympathy – to your Survivors of residential schools, we spent so many years sweeping it under the rug.
I’m sorry that we deliberately attacked, suppressed, and endangered your languages.
I’m sorry that our actions have made it so hard for your families to re-grow the roots and branches of your tribal and family trees.
I’m sorry that so many of us have no understanding of land claims, seeing them only as traffic disruptions.
I’m sorry that after the centuries of physical, political, and spiritual marginalization we inflicted on you, we have – incredibly – not progressed enough to make restitution; that instead, we continue to desecrate the small bits of land remaining to you with pipelines, highways, and disrespect.
I’m sorry that we seem to expect you to suck it up and be fine, as though “we’re not the bad guys” and “it’s not our problem.”
I’m sorry that so many of us view the addictions, violence, and suffering in your communities as your fault, rather than as the inevitable aftermath of the mass torture of generations of your people.
I’m sorry that we have felt entitled to stereotype you, to use whichever archetypes we like, to mock some aspects of your culture and to co-opt others, with no real understanding of their origins, significance, or sacredness.
I’m sorry that despite being a country that prides itself on respecting, welcoming, celebrating, and being a refuge for a diversity of cultures, we have made you feel so unwelcome and disrespected in your own home.
I’m sorry that we congratulate ourselves on the high standard of living in our nation, even as so many of you live in deplorable conditions.
I’m sorry that we have a reputation for niceness and politeness that glosses over our ugly white supremacist history.
I’m sorry that you have lost so many of your beloved people, especially young ones, to hopelessness and suicide.
I’m sorry that so many of your women have been kidnapped, abused, and murdered – and gone so long uninvestigated by our police.
I’m sorry that such a disproportionate, horrifying number of your babies have been – and are still being – taken away, even from safe families and communities, due to racism and lack of due process on the part of our child welfare authorities.
I’m sorry that despite overwhelming evidence that you are right, and have always been right, when it comes to the urgent necessity of respecting, protecting, and healing this intricately, wholly connected planet we share, many of us are still pretending that we can afford to trash it.
I’m sorry that instead of following your lead of respecting every being, acknowledging that all our futures are interdependent, we are becoming more and more a culture in which derision and cruelty are accepted and fomented – even though we (should) know better.
I’m sorry that there may well be people who read this and dismiss it as exaggeration and overly dramatic.
I’m sorry that there are still adult Canadians who are ignorant of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its Calls to Action, and its profound importance to Canada.
I know that I am very fortunate to be here. I love that this country is, in many ways, beautiful, safe, diverse, peaceful, and generous. But we have darkness that needs to be acknowledged. We can always do better. I want to be even prouder of us.
Here is what I am starting with, in my journey to be part of an improved Canada that takes Truth and Reconciliation seriously:
I promise to speak frankly to my children and my students, as I did today, about residential schools and Indigenous history that has been misrepresented or left out of education for so long – and to impress upon them that we are all Treaty People.
I promise to continue to make Indigenous history and teachings an embedded part of my job as a teacher, as authentically as possible. I know that this means including real Indigenous voices as often as I can.
I promise to make every effort to respect Indigenous cultures without appropriating them – never to teach what I do not know or am not entitled to share.
I promise to continue to educate myself as much and as often as possible, to learn from Indigenous people living today, so that my teaching has value.
I promise to stand with you in protesting the violation of our water sources and the desecration of our planet.
I promise to challenge racism out loud when I have the chance.
In solidarity with you, and in keeping with my own Quaker upbringing, I promise to sit in sacred circles, to listen to nature, and to remind myself every day of the profound interconnectedness of life on Earth.
Having read the TRC’s report “Honouring the Truth and Reconciling for the Future”, including all ninety-four Calls to Action, I promise to ask my fellow Canadians to do the same.
And I promise to keep learning about the best ways to be part of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.
To that end, I am grateful for the people whose work and wisdom I know to be making Truth and Reconciliation more accessible for Canadians: Geronimo Henry, David A. Robertson, Cherie Dimaline, Lee Maracle, Richard Wagamese, Jesse Wente, Jan Sherman, Colinda Clyne, Nancy Rowe, Sean Lessard, Rosanna Deerchild, Thomas King, Wab Kinew, Jeanette Armstrong, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, Nicola Campbell, Michael Kusugak, Tanya Tagaq, Chelsea Vowel, Candy Palmater, Randall Charboneau, Bruce Beardy, Midnight Shine, Samian, Buffy St. Marie, A Tribe Called Red, Neil Monague, Norm Tabobondung, Gord Downie, and others.