Edward Dennis vividly remembers the northern winter day that four of his fellow students attempted to escape the abuse and starvation of Lejac Indian Residential School in Fraser Lake, B.C. Only one of his classmates survived.
“They were running away from Lejac,” he said. “One of them turned around at Piper’s Glen. He could hear (the other) three fall through the ice.”
Standing on the shore of Vancouver’s False Creek on Sept. 17, Dennis watched quietly as dozens of ocean-going Salish canoes assembled in the waters, greeted by traditional songs and drumming.
The colorful flotilla heralded four days of hearings of residential school abuses by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held its Vancouver national event Sept. 18 to Sept. 21.
Thousands of spectators, many, like Dennis, survivors of the schools, attended the ceremony as they prepared to hear days of emotional testimony.
As most will attest, there is hardly a family amongst First Nations in Canada that has not been affected by residential schools.
“I didn’t know how to raise my children, or how to look after them,” said Irene Stevens, weeping as she recounted her life since residential school. “My oldest son is so angry that he could hurt somebody; my in-between son has an alcohol problem; I have a daughter that lives in Surrey that is on drugs and prostituting.
“It’s been a lot of turmoil for me and my family. I even see the hurt in my grandchildren. It’s been really tough, especially when it affects my grandchildren. We tried so hard to keep them away from all these hurts.”
Whether the abuse and cultural dislocation was experienced directly, as it was by 150,000 students until the last school closed in 1996, or in subsequent generations’ struggles with alcoholism, abuse, depression, and the loss of culture, in his historic apology Prime Minister Stephen Harper admitted their goal was “to kill the Indian in the child.”
“They trained us how to be farmers and good labourers,” Dennis recalled, “how to serve the white people.
“Then you were a good Indian, if you just do what you’re told, be seen and not heard.”
After all he’s been through, does Dennis feel anger towards Canada?
“Always,” he replied. “I’ve prayed to the Creator to get me out of that. I don’t want to hate anymore.”
As thousands participated in a week of events surrounding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, including the canoe event, many expressed hope for healing the broken relationship with Canadians. But for many survivors, the anger remains.
“In the context of oppression and colonialism, the existence of emotions like anger and resentment are telling us that something is wrong,” said Glen Coulthard, professor of First Nations Studies at the University of British Columbia. “To be resentful of something is to have indignation at being treated unfairly.
“When that emotion expresses itself as a politicized form of anger, we ought not try to overcome that prematurely, but channel it in a direction that will target the source of that oppression or wrongdoing.”
He said that events like Reconciliation Week are an opportunity to start critical conversations about colonialism, but he said that government-backed “reconciliation” processes like the TRC risk labelling colonialism as a thing of the past, something long-since left behind with the closure of residential schools.
“Settler colonialism is a current phenomenon,” he added, “not just a historical one.
“To get over it requires that relationships be changed, or else it’ll just be a Band Aid that never actually heals the wound. It’s just a temporary solution ... By focusing on the residential schools, the state is able to distance itself from that by locating the abuses in the past and failing to acknowledge our present colonial relationship.”
Ed John has spent decades wrestling with the pain and brokenness of his residential school trauma. In the years since, he’s earned the title Grand Chief and became leader of the First Nations Summit. But like most other Aboriginals across the country, the memories remain, and drive his quest for justice and communal healing.
Several generations in Grand Chief John’s family were forcibly removed from their homes. His grandparents were ordered to hand over his father only after being threatened with being thrown in jail.
One year, when he was being taken away to residential school on a bus, his younger sister became distraught at their separation and ran aboard.
“They took her to residential school as well,” he said. “They didn’t even talk to my mom and dad about what they were doing with her. They just took her. We were just kids.”
For John, the message of reconciliation has become one of hope and strength—“keeping our dignity intact,” he said, “and moving forward with a great degree of confidence.”
But recognizing the schools were merely one part of Canada’s long path of conquest and colonialism is essential, he added.
“It’s bigger than residential schools,” he said. “It’s part of a pattern.
“It wasn’t just about our children, families, culture and teachings. It was also about our lands and territories–to dispossess our people from them.”
Dennis also links residential schools to the theft of Aboriginal lands, as well as today’s First Nations opposition to oil pipelines across the continent.
For him, fighting for Indigenous rights and the land has “absolutely” been essential to his healing journey. Decades ago, Dennis became involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM), a militant self-determination group that sparked blockades, sit-ins and occupations across the continent, including in Canada. For many, direct action movements like AIM have been a catalyst for transforming anger into action.
“They’re the ones that brought me back to the sweatlodge,” he said. “I asked the Creator to get me out of my anger and hatred.
“The only time things are going to change is if all people start treating each other as equals, and treating the Earth with respect,” he said. “Pipelines, oil wells, gold, the water is polluted – they’re digging her up without putting anything back. It’s so disrespectful. The Earth is slowly dying because of what we’re doing to her.