WINNIPEG, MB, Jan 25, 2014/ Troy Media/ – The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is documenting its findings after interviewing thousands of survivors of the Indian Residential School (IRS) experience and it is pretty much what might have been expected. Enormous trauma inflicted on these people has created deep mental and emotional suffering and there is a lot of healing which needs to take place, as well as public education about this shared experience.
As much as that is the right thing for us all to do to make up for wrongs which have been done, the multi-generational impacts of the IRS experience is going to become the major concern, if it is not now.
I had the good fortune to meet survivors of the IRS system long before their experiences became widely known. In 1982, I was asked to write a play for the World Assembly of First Nations which covered 500 years of shared history and I was told to check everything with available Elders to insure that our presentation was historically accurate and culturally appropriate.
When the Elders were told the play was to be presented at the Saskatchewan Centre for the Arts in Regina, they overwhelmingly welcomed this opportunity to finally tell their stories about boarding school to a large, mainstream audience.
I had never heard of residential schools at the time but the compelling tales of cultural genocide convinced me that the IRS experience would be the major conflict in the play and we developed a very powerful ending to Act One of “in Deo” based on the stories I was told.
Since that time, I was blessed with the opportunity to interview hundreds of Elders during the production of a documentary series called The Everywhere Spirit, which told the history of the six major First Nations in Manitoba by the people who experienced it directly, or were told about it directly by parents and grandparents.
Always, the residential school experience was in the forefront of the hearts and minds of the Elders no matter if they were Cree, Dene, Oji-Cree, Sioux, Ojibwe or Metis.
At the same time I will always remember the great kindness and respect the Elders, every one, extended to me. The feasts they prepared, the stories they shared, and how they always guided me gently to a higher understanding.
If these most gracious men and women were angry or resentful, it was hard to tell. There was sadness, and a hurt that may never be healed. But there was always this hope that we can understand and learn from the past, and build a new relationship based on the seven sacred teachings of respect, love, goodness, truth, courage, humility and knowledge.
Many of these survivors have been able to pass on their values to the generations which have followed. This is evident in the strong leadership which has arisen amongst First Nations today and the vast potential of First Nations youth we see all around.
At the same time, the physical, emotional and spiritual abuse which took place created widespread dysfunction and social problems we also see in far too much abundance.
And this is the major concern we must address now: The negative socioeconomic statistics which plague First Nations today.
But while I rarely, if ever, experienced anger and hatred from the Elders – the ones who actually experienced the cruelty of residential schools – I have experienced sheer anger and hatred in the eyes of some of the youth I meet today. Perhaps you have experienced some of the same as you pass by a young native person on the street or sit beside them on a bus. Youth who never attended a residential school and never experienced that horror, hating you and I and everything we stand for simply because of the different colour of our skins.
They don’t know us personally but the anger is still there. So far, it has been mostly directed inward, as native youth murder and maim their brothers and sisters on the streets. We must deal with this not just because we fear this anger will someday be directed outward; toward society in general. These youth need help on its own merit – to stop the carnage, so that we can work together for a more positive future to share.
That might very well be where most of the healing and reconciliation will have to take place, because there is no justification for the violence which is being expressed by that anger.
And it certainly is not what the actual survivors of the Indian Residential School Experience want.
Troy Media’s Eye on Manitoba columnist Don Marks is a Winnipeg-based writer.
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