Yes, I know. This is a bit belated. But better now than never, eh?
So. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t celebrate this year. Partly because of COVID, partly the shitty weather in my neck of the boonies. But mostly because I have a hard time celebrating the anniversary of a vast fucking lie, and the lying liars who laid it.
Now, I’ve known for years that Sir John A. Macdonald wasn’t exactly a noble man, despite his “Sir” (conferred by no less a sovereign than Queen Victoria herself). I’ve known since high school that he was a binge-drinking alcoholic, and since middle school that he had a lousy track record when it came to dealings with indigenous peoples in this land. Nobody who’s learned even a little about how he responded to the Riel Rebellion and the plight of the Métis and Plains peoples could deny that the old boy was quite the racist.
But Jesus, Mary, and sweet saintly Joseph, it’s taken this long for Canada, as a whole-ass country, to learn just how bad of a racist he was…and how determined he was to model this country after his own racist notions. (For a small but representative sampling, see photo above.)
True, he wasn’t as blatantly genocidal as Adolf Hitler (another of my old historic bugaboos, and one that’s at least as personal to me, given that I’m German). He didn’t quite say that the “savages” should all be wiped out, like the Jews and the Russians, so that people of his whey-faced ilk could just grab up all the land, as the Nazis tried to do in the failed Operation Barbarossa, without opposition. No, no, nothing as unabashed as that. Sir John, you see, was a gentleman. He came to civilize them. (He also came to give my snarky italics and there-for-a-reason scare-quotes quite the workout here today, as you shall see.)
Now, I had no idea what residential schools even were until late in 1989, when I was at university and CBC debuted a movie called Where the Spirit Lives. That film baffled, horrified, shamed, and enraged me; I suspect it did the same for a lot of others who happened to see it, and there is no doubt that it was meant to. It wasn’t a documentary, but it was based on things that really happened to a lot of indigenous kids: Agents came to their remote villages, pried them from home and family under false pretexts, then brought them over hundreds of miles to these miserable, rotten places where they were supposed to learn English (and/or French), be Christianized, and thus be assimilated into white man’s world.
But education, it turns out, was less a priority in these “schools” than were abuse, neglect, starvation, disease, and death. The specific purpose of these institutions was not to simply help young indigenous people to get on better with those of a foreign culture, but to “kill the Indian in the child” — an inhumane idea that was not born here, but imported from the United states. Speaking their native languages wasn’t allowed, neither was practicing their native cultures; anyone who attempted to do so would be severely punished. Untold numbers of them died of precisely this sort of abuse. And whatever sympathetic teachers they may have had were often fighting an uphill battle against the abusers and the sadists who ran the places.
Hundreds of children tried to flee and get back to their families; unlike the heroine of the film, Ashtoh-komi (whose name was anglicized to Amelia), they never made it. Most were captured and returned to the “schools”; those who weren’t, often perished along the way. One of them, Chanie Wenjack, tried to flee from the infamous Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario, in 1966. That was a year before I was born, and the town was far to the west of where I lived for the first ten years of my life in Northern Ontario. The day Chanie ran away, so did nine other kids. They were all caught within 24 hours; he was the only one to escape.
A week after Chanie fled, his body was found alongside the Canadian National railroad track near Farlane, Ontario, by a freight engineer named Elwood McIvor. It was October 23. Chanie had died during the night of starvation and exposure; in the pocket of his light cotton windbreaker was nothing but a little glass jar with a few wooden matches in it. Clearly he had tried to prepare himself to survive on the run, in the bush, with a means to make fire to stay warm and maybe cook some food he might scrounge along the way.
I’m no survivalist, but I know from my own early experience just how bitterly cold it is in the Ontario northlands in late October; lingering, ankle-deep snow on the ground would not be unusual for that time of year. With so little equipment and such inadequate clothing on him, Chanie was pitifully underprepared for a 600-kilometre journey. His body was covered in bruises from numerous falls he’d sustained as he walked, weak from cold and hunger, along the CN tracks before collapsing for the last time, losing consciousness, and dying in a rock cut.
Chanie Wenjack was 12 years old.
What does it take to make a 12-year-old kid desperate to flee, so desperate that he’d face even death by hunger and cold rather than return to school?
Well, a Maclean’s magazine article from 1967 provides some insights, if you’d care to read it. So does Tanya Talaga’s book, Seven Fallen Feathers, which is absolutely indispensable reading on this issue. Ian Adams, the Maclean’s writer, theorized that Chanie’s reason for running was “loneliness”; he was homesick after three years away from his family. But decades later, after it had finally become socially acceptable to talk openly about such things, Chanie’s sister, Pearl, revealed a much more pressing (and depressing) reason to Tanya Talaga:
Close to half a century after Chanie’s death, Pearl received a phone call from one of his best friends. He and Chanie were virtually inseparable when they were young boys. It had been fifty years since Pearl had last spoken to him. He had not recovered from his days in residential school. His life was a toxic mix of addictions and pain.
He reached out to Pearl, asking to meet because there was something he desperately had to tell her.
Pearl made her way down to Thunder Bay and met the man at his home. He told her that at Cecilia Jeffrey, he was sexually abused. The abuse was non-stop and vicious. And he said that Chanie was abused as well.
Their abuser wasn’t the principal or a teacher, but it was the same person. He was unable to tell her when the abuse had started, just that it happened and that his life was ruined because of it.
(Seven Fallen Feathers, pages 87-8.)
And this was just one so-called school which, according to contemporary accounts, was isolated in its own right, and really more like a prison than a place of education. These same acts, and others like them, were repeated way beyond ad nauseam at not only Cecilia Jeffrey, but dozens of others.
By the way, Cecilia Jeffrey has some literal skeletons in its closet — or rather, in its yard. Yup, there are dead children under the grounds there, too. How many? At least 37, according to one local newspaper account. And the causes of their deaths are just as horrifying as those of Chanie Wenjack:
“When funding was cut during the depression of the 1930s, it was the students who paid the price – in more ways than one,” states the report, noting the federal government’s funding contributions to the school fluctuated each year. During the second world war, a child was being fed on 40 cents per day.
St. Mary’s Indian Residential School was run by the Roman Catholic Church near the Devil’s Gap Marina. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says at least 36 students passed away while attending the school, which was operated by the Roman Catholic Church until 1972.
Two 12-year-olds were found deceased after running away from St. Mary’s in 1970. They were Phillip ‘Bean’ Swain and Roderick Taypaywaykejick. The two had planned to walk home to Grassy Narrows First Nation.
Both schools are said to have performed nutritional experiments with illegal flour on children in their care between 1942 and 1952. Cecilia Jeffrey students are said to have undergone experimental ear issue treatments in 1954. The Presbyterian Church issued an apology to former students over the experiments in 2013.
A little late, but hey. At least they apologized.
That’s more than can be said for the largest and most powerful Christian denomination in Canada, namely the Roman Catholic Church. Several popes have come and gone since the church began abusing indigenous kids at its “schools”, but none have really owned up to what happened there, much less dealt satisfactorily with it. And the current one has yet to show his face in this country and personally address this rather pressing matter. It’s little wonder that some impatient souls have decided to take matters in their own hands, leaving their mark on church doors, like this…
…or even burning entire church buildings in various parts of the country. Including inland British Columbia, where there’s currently a record-breaking heatwave eating whole towns alive. Kind of an ugly move, potentially destructive to important records, and one that I’d never make myself, but I can understand why someone would want to. Especially since the church has dragged its heels endlessly on not only compensating its victims, but even acknowledging that it has done them wrong at all. So much so that its adherents would rather fund-raise for new church buildings than compensate those who suffered a less-than-edifying treatment in the clutches of priests, nuns, teachers, and God only knows who all else.
And worse still, all this unwelcome attention is now being decried as “persecution!” Take (please!) this fucking archbishop, for example:
A recent homily by the head of Canadian Catholic bishops is sparking anger, after he implied that the church is being persecuted amid widespread attention to gravesite discoveries at residential schools.
On Sunday, three days after an announcement that a preliminary search with ground-penetrating radar had found 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former Catholic-run residential school in Saskatchewan, Archbishop Richard Gagnon delivered a homily in Brandon, Man. He said in his address that residential schools are “a big thing right now in Canada and I know that we Catholics, we’re troubled, we’re hurt by this a lot in our hearts.”
Archbishop Gagnon is the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the archbishop of Winnipeg. He said that in his role he is getting “bombarded a lot,” and that in dealing with the media, he’s noticing “a lot of blame, a lot of accusations, a lot of exaggerations, a lot of false ideas.”
“And so I say in my heart,” he said. “You know something? There’s a persecution happening here. There’s a persecution happening here.”
Yeah, you’re damn tootin’ there’s a persecution happening, but it’s not you that’s being persecuted, Your Reverence (or however one is supposed to address a churchman of your degree and calibre). It’s not you, and it’s not your church, that’s the victim of persecution and exaggerations and false ideas. It’s people who suffered this treatment, at the hands of your church, when they were very young:
I’m Irene Favel. I’m seventy-five. I went to residential school in Muscowequan from 1944 to 1949, and I had a rough life. I was mistreated in every way. There was a young girl, and she was pregnant from a priest there. And what they did, she had her baby, and they took the baby, and wrapped it up in a nice pink outfit, and they took it downstairs where I was cooking dinner with the nun. And they took the baby into the furnace room, and they threw that little baby in there and burned it alive. All you could hear was this little cry, like “Uuh!”, and that was it. You could smell that flesh cooking.
Let’s tally up the forms of persecution that were mentioned in this one brief paragraph, shall we? There’s rape, there’s forced pregnancy, there’s forced childbirth, there’s infanticide, there’s the indignity done to a baby being murdered, in a manner not unlike what the Jews had suffered at Auschwitz around that same time…and then there’s the trauma suffered by Irene, who had to watch and hear and even smell all this happening. She says she was mistreated in every way, and I believe her; she was even mistreated by being forced to witness not only her schoolmate being sexually abused, but her schoolmate’s rape-baby being abused to death — disposed of, while just barely living and breathing, in a furnace like it was just some garbage. (Or a concentration-camp victim.)
This is what institutionalized racism looks like, here in Canada. This is what institutional sexism looks like, too. This is what actual religious persecution looks like.
And it was all done in the name of a church that opposes birth control as well as abortion, and does so in the name of being pro-life. It was also done in the name of the state, and in the name of a so-called civilization run by white men who fancied themselves as physically, morally and intellectually superior to those “heathen savages” they abused in the most actually fucking savage way possible.
You’ll have to pardon me if I don’t see how the church’s local princelings can claim, with a straight face, that they and their brethren-in-hypocrisy are now being “persecuted”, in comparison to what they’ve done to indigenous children over the course of more than a century. Or how the torching of a few churches belonging to the largest, richest and most powerful denomination of the dominant religion of this land somehow rises to the level of a “hate crime”, as some have taken to calling it.
And you’ll also have to forgive me if I really don’t feel like celebrating the glorious history of this country this year. Or, hell, any year — until we finally give our first peoples the respect and dignity and above all, the compensation they deserve, and in so doing, make some history that’s actually worth celebrating.