There is a Siksika asteroid in the sky. It was named by Robert Cardinal after his Nation.
Cardinal, 44, is an astronomer with the Canadian Space Agency. He is also a second-generation residential school survivor.
He told his story to Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson, as well as a packed room. Born in 1969 in Calgary, Cardinal was given up for adoption by his birth mother, who was emotionally unable to care for him due to her residential school experiences and “wanted me to have a chance at a better life than she thought she could provide,” he said.
Five days after registering him with Siksika Nation he became a ward of the government and 18 months later was adopted by a single mother who already had a daughter. They lived at the time in the Garneau area of Edmonton.
Still, the intergenerational wounds of residential school were already evident in the young Cardinal. “People think if you’re adopted into a decent home and given a decent upbringing you’ll be fine. But it just isn’t true, That intergenerational trauma is in your DNA; it is in your blood. That quest for who you are.”
He harboured a deep shame over his Aboriginal background. “My mom tells me a story of when I was four or five and she found me in the bathtub and I was scrubbing my skin relentlessly. She asked me what I was doing and I said ‘I don’t want to be an Indian. I want to be white.’”
He grew angrier and more disillusioned as he entered his teens, dealing with racism that got worse after the family moved to Rocky Mountain House.
At the age of 15 Cardinal was taken by his mother to a pipe ceremony, his very first traditional ceremony. He received an eagle feather and hand drum.
However, over the next five years Cardinal was “in a tailspin of self-destruction” and became an addict, dropped out of school, and ended up on the street. He was hospitalized for three months with severe depression. At the root was his anger. “What was taken from me was all of my family, my culture, my language – things that should have been my birthright.”
Cardinal began to turn his life around by getting help at the Poundmaker’s Lodge residential addictions treatment centre in St. Albert. It was here that he reconnected with his cultural heritage, attending ceremonies, and learning about his background. “It was like Indian 101. I did not know so many things. I was shown how to smudge. I was shown ceremony. That was when the shame started to leave me a little bit.”
He later met his wife in Edmonton, got married, and started a family. Cardinal has been married for 22 years and is the father of two sons. “My truth and reconciliation began back then. The reconciliation that helped me was reconciling inside myself with who I was.”
He moved to Victoria to go to university, where his first son was born. He made a promise that if he ever had children, that they would never be without their father.
Cardinal has a degree in physics and astronomy. He works on a science team for the Canadian Space Agency and builds telescopes and computers, writing software to hunt for asteroids. He credits people who encouraged him like teachers and his mentor Dr. Maggie Hodgson and believes that gratitude is an important part of healing. “I literally woke up on the street one day with nothing, but eventually I learned to be grateful for even that. Even your next breath is a gift. Forgiving myself, forgiving society for situations I had to deal with – those things lead to compassion: compassion for myself and compassion for others. For many years I only had anger and no other emotions.”
He recently reconnected with his birth family, which has helped in his journey of self-discovery. “I can’t tell you how much it means, but if I can help other people reconnect with their family, that is my dream.”