Fighting for their identity
Canada’s past is catching up with it as the native children who were brought up in residential schools seek accountability
IT WAS snowing the day that Michael Cachagee and his two brothers left home. Their mother took the boys by horse-drawn sleigh to the Indian agent’s office. Before surrendering her children, she told them they were going to a nice place where they would have lots of fun.
“We believed her,” says Cachagee, who was four years old at the time. The boys were taken to a church-run boarding school for aboriginal children in Canada. In the years that followed that fateful day in 1943, Cachagee would be forbidden from speaking his native Cree language. He would also suffer sexual abuse at the hands of three supervisors and a priest.
Cachagee returned home at 16, a “feral child” with little more than the shirt on his back and $12 in his pocket to find his mother had a new family. He found work putting out forest fires and labouring on the railroad, but quickly fell into violence and drug abuse, his spats of self-destruction punctuated by spells in prison.
It wasn’t until he was in his 40s that he started tracing the broken path of his adult life back to the suffering he had endured in childhood. “You never realise just how much pain you carry around with you. You just learn to live with it,” he says. “When you look back, that’s when it hits you. It’s like after a hurricane. You look around you and say: ‘Oh my God’.”
Cachagee, who is president of the National Residential School Survivors’ Society, is one of an estimated 150,000 native children who, from the late 19th century to the 1970s, were forcibly sent to institutions aimed at – as termed by government officials at the time – “killing the Indian in the child”.
The misguided drive to teach native children to think, act and speak like white people resulted in thousands of devastated lives and an as-yet undocumented number of deaths.
Today, like Ireland in the wake of the Murphy report, Canada is trying to come to terms with this dark chapter in its history. Last month, the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched the first of a series of national storytelling events in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to set the country on the path to healing. In parallel, it is researching unmarked burial sites on school grounds across the land in a bid to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.
The commission is clearly aiming for closure. But, in hundreds of native communities across Canada, the wounds are still red raw. Healing seems a faraway prospect on the tiny Mohawk reservation of Kanesatake (population 1,300), about 50km from Montreal. A microcosm of the dysfunctional patterns that have marked not only the lives of those who attended the schools, but also later generations, the community is afflicted by high rates of sexual abuse, psychological disorders and drug and alcohol addiction.
Until fairly recently, these problems were the community’s shameful secret. Nobody talked about it, says local health professional Mary Hannaburg. It is only now, in admitting to the issues, that people are starting to deal with the fallout of the residential schools era. But it’s a slow and painful process.
As a crisis line operator from 2006 to 2009, Hannaburg experienced at first hand the outpouring of grief, anger and confusion that followed public revelations about the schools. Callers were often surprised at her readiness to listen. “It was as if they were asking: ‘Why are you taking the time to listen to me? Why are you doing this?’” she says. “People didn’t think they were important enough.”
In her current role as mental health specialist at the local clinic, Hannaburg bears regular witness to the psychological chaos reigning behind closed doors.
It’s not unusual to see former students who suffered a “violation of their boundaries” at the schools going on to abuse their own. In this emotionally distorted environment, where people tend to have trouble expressing their complex and conflicting feelings, large numbers have turned to alcohol and highly addictive drugs such as painkillers, crystal meth and heroin to blot out the pain. “And so the cycle goes on,” she says.
Local resident Susie Beauvais says her father closed down emotionally after watching his younger brother drown in a frozen lake. Breaking down in tears, she recounts how he scrabbled over the ice, trying to save the five-year-old boy. Like so many other children, he was buried on the school grounds in an unmarked grave. The parents were never notified. The remains were never brought home. Her father, who seldom talked about his experiences at the school, sought solace in the bottle.
Hannaburg describes the emotional numbness prevalent among so many survivors and their families as a “disconnectedness”.
“It’s like the love has been snuffed out. There’s an absence of joie de vivre, an inability to give a word of praise. People become closed, harsh, stoic.”
She has identified cases of dissociative identity disorder, where people develop multiple personalities as an escape route for pent-up emotions, as a “way of not going insane”.
As chief Gordon Oke, a member of Kanesatake’s band council, points out, the fallout from the residential schools era is just one of many challenges confronting the community. A quick glance at a fact file compiled by the Assembly of First Nations – the main political body representing native communities – reveals a litany of depressing statistics. Native communities post high rates of suicide, diabetes, tuberculosis and HIV/Aids. Overcrowded living conditions and a lack of basic amenities such as clean drinking water are a fact of life in aboriginal Canada.
It seems that Canada’s first nations are doing battle with the demons of the residential schools era in third world conditions.
Mary McDonald, principal of the local elementary school, describes how the bleak prospects on reservation have engendered a pernicious sense of victimhood among residents. Part of the solution, in her opinion, lies in claiming back the identity and culture that was snatched away by the residential schools system.
McDonald, who is of mixed native Indian and Irish ancestry, has made it her mission to teach community members the Mohawk language. “If you’re really going to fix the Indian problem, you have to look at how you educate people, so they can be self-sustaining,” she says. “Understanding your language and who you are is fundamental. Once you have that basis, you can move on.”
As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins its work, the question of what “moving on” actually means is moot. Hannaburg believes that damaged communities need to feel a sense of justice for the healing process to begin. Deep down, however, native people suspect that nobody will be held accountable for the wrongs of the era. There is an innate sense that the decisions over how much truth will be needed for reconciliation have already been taken by the government and the churches involved (Anglican, United and Catholic).
The commission, which has been hamstrung by political disagreements over its mandate since its inception in 2008, has come in for widespread criticism over its lack of investigative powers. Under the terms of its mandate, it cannot subpoena documents or witnesses. Recently, historian John Milloy, the body’s director of research, expressed his frustration over the Catholic Church’s invocation of privacy laws to avoid handing over documents naming individual members of the clergy.
Milloy’s remit as the body’s director of research is to determine the location of unmarked burial grounds, the numbers of children who died and the causes of death. Documented cases cite tuberculosis, hypothermia and drowning as common causes. More blurry, however, are allegations of death by torture and medical experimentation.
Any claims emerging from the commission’s research will be passed on to police services, says Milloy by phone from Winnipeg. But, it is not yet clear how this will work in practice.
The search for truth has been complicated by money. With large numbers of survivors having claimed compensation payments handed out as part of the 2006 class action settlement (former students are eligible for CA$10,000 for the first year of attendance at schools, plus CA$3,000 for each subsequent year), it seems the page has already been turned. As Roland Chrisjohn, a professor of native studies at St Thomas University in New Brunswick, puts it, the public’s attitude towards demands for greater accountability is: “What do these Indians want now?”
For better or for worse, the country’s best hope of bridging the yawning gap with its native communities rests on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Cachagee, who describes himself as a “warrior, in both a physical and psychological sense”, will be fighting every step of the way to ensure the memories of the living and the dead are faithfully transcribed into the country’s history books. He relives his experiences at the Shingwauk school in Ontario on a daily basis.
“Our home was lit by candles and oil lamps. We didn’t have electricity back then. Then, I arrived at this school with bright lights everywhere. Now, when I’m in a mall, I’ll be overcome all of a sudden. I’ll have flashbacks and go back to being that little boy again.”
NATIVE CANADIANS: FACT FILE
- The suicide rate among natives is more than twice the national average. Suicide is among the leading causes of death among natives between the ages of 10 and 24, with the rate estimated to be five to six times higher than that of non-native youth.
- The prevalence of diabetes among native Canadians is at least three times the national average, with high rates across all age groups.
- Tuberculosis rates for populations on reservation are eight to 10 times higher than those for the Canadian population.
- Aboriginal people make up only 5 per cent of the total population in Canada but represent 16 per cent of new HIV infections.
- As of May 2003, 12 per cent of native communities had to boil their drinking water and approximately one- quarter of water treatment systems on reservation pose a high risk to human health.
- About 70 per cent of native students on reservation will never complete high school.
- Unemployment rates for all native groups continue to be at least double the rate of the non-native population.
(Official statistics compiled by the Assembly of First Nations, sourcing Health Canada, Statistics Canada, the National Aboriginal Health Organisation and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada)