Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Canoe Doesn't Care Who the Leader Is...

If it tips, everyone gets wet. 

~ as quoted by Ela Smith at the You Don't Know What You Don't Know Workshop series.

It's another way of saying "we're all in this together".

Most people are aware of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report and its 94 recommendations, but few Canadians are aware of the finer historical details leading up to it. Today I had the privilege of participating in the first two of three sessions aimed at educating professionals who work with children in my area.

I had thought I was relatively well-informed about the facts, but there was much that I learned today-- things that begin to help me make sense of why friends and students I have known have been reluctant to share their heritage.

When I was very young, the family that moved in next door to me had a daughter my age. We played together quite a bit. Her name was Marylee (or Merrilee? I was too young to worry about spelling at the time). There were several milkweed plants behind out houses, which shared a large unfenced yard, and we played with the sap and watched the monarch caterpillars and butterflies come and go together. We dug up worms together and watched them burrow back into the dirt. She tried to teach me how to climb a tree, and I brought out my dolls to play with her. I know it sounds cliche, but we really did make mud pies (and mud cakes, and mud pizzas) together. 
One day I heard my mom and grandmother talking about how that "Indian family next door from the reserve" had a problem with their son lighting fires around the neighbourhood, and after some deliberation, I was told I could play with Marylee, but not her older brother. Fair enough--who would want to play with a stinky older brother!

After we moved, I attended a new school and was instantly branded a troublemaker because during recess, I became very upset and agitated when the kids played "cowboys and Indians". The goal was to kill off the Indians! Marylee was an Indian! Why on earth would anyone want to kill her or her family?! Unfortunately, neither the other students nor the teacher on duty saw it my way.

We moved again, and soon after another family moved in beside us. It was a family with 4 kids. and the two girls were close to my age. We played together often, but I was a few months older than the eldest girl, and as result, I tended to become "the leader" in our play. I remember one day I crossed a line in my bossiness, and the girls went home and told their older brothers. They all came out and the brothers gave me a stern talking to. Being an only child, and having lots of toys, they saw me as spoiled. I saw them as a true family, united and strong, and I doubt they ever understood just how envious I was of them. I remember in that moment realizing that no toy I could ever own would ever match the bond they had as siblings, and it was perhaps one of the loneliest points in my childhood. I learned a couple of years after they moved in that their father was First Nations. I probably should have clued into this when they took me to Hagersville for ice cream and to visit to the uncle and grandfather on the reserve, but I was 8 at the time, so perhaps that is to be forgiven. The part I do remember is the way that whenever this came up in discussion, it was always spoken in hushed tones, very seriously, and very secretively. 

I grew up and became a teacher. More than once in my experience in teaching, I found out at the end of the year that a student of mine identified as First Nations. This was generally only revealed to me hesitantly or after knowing the student for several months, and still happens in this way even now. It saddens me that there is a silence and fear of revealing having such a rich and beautiful culture, and only after learning more, am I beginning to understand the role history has had in what can only be honestly described as cultural genocide. Generations of western immigrants and ignorant political and social policies and attitudes have made the original peoples of Canada become, in many ways, invisible and voiceless.

In Canada, in 2016, we have numerous communities without access to clean drinking water. We have housing issues, issues with mouldy, decaying schools and homes, high suicide rates, MMIW, and whole communities of students who have to face moving away from their homes and communities just to attend high school.

I did not know:
- about the "pass" system
- that there are 634 First Nations in Canada
- that homes on reserves are not eligible for mortgages and can only be purchased outright
- that "status" rules are in many ways discriminatory regarding gender
- that "status" "benefits" most often do not materialize--for example, although dentistry is supposed to be covered for status Indians, since the Federal government is less than punctual and reliable in paying for this, few dentists will honour it
- that not only were kids taken to residential schools and abused, but that they were often made the subjects of medical experimentation
- that kids were sent not to the closest residential school, but instead were sent an average of 6 hours away so that they would not be able to easily run away or see their families or communities
...and the list goes on.

Today, in discussing the history in more detail than I'd ever known before, and participating in the blanket activity developed by KAIROS, I am left reflecting on what I didn't know, what I still don't know, and my responsibility as a parent, teacher and Canadian to learn more in order to do my part in the reconciliation process. It took seven generations to get us here, and it will take seven to recover, and it is my responsibility and yours to help make that happen.