I don't intend to provide book reviews in my blog as a normal thing, BUT... I was moved by this book and the pain inflicted on our First Nations brothers and sisters. It is time we stop treating our citizens worse than we would treat our dogs.
They Called Me Number One, by Bev Sellars
Bev Sellers has written a memoir of her life and the impact Canadian Residential Schools have had on her and her family (and members of First Nations generally). I am Canadian, from Manitoba, and I was totally unaware of this issue. Manitoba has the largest aboriginal (First Nations) population in Canada. I grew up with a very prejudiced view towards the Indians (as we all called them). I now feel ashamed at my ignorance and at Canada for what it has done to these people.
The Residential School programme was initiated by the churches (predominantly Catholic) and the government of Canada to '...take the Indian out of the children' (their words). It was meant to assimilate the aboriginals and make them fit into the way of life as envisioned by the government and churches. The last such school was closed in 1996. The system was in operation for over 125 years. It took the children from their parents and put them in these schools for ten months out of the year (some were for twelve months). It was illegal for children to stay on the Reservations with their communities. Any stray children would be rounded up by the RCMP and taken to the schools. They were there from ages 7-15 but sometimes as early as 5 and as late as 17. (To compound matters, it was illegal for adult Indians to leave their reservations without a 'pass'.)
It gets tiring to hear about the abuse by Catholic nuns and priests, but I was shocked at the brutality visited upon these young children. In addition to having sexual predators running these schools, the beatings are something out of a horror movie.
A Truth and Reconciliation report has recently been issued by Canada (after this book was published) and this whole process has been called cultural genocide by the report. The churches and government have publically apologised.
This book is not particularly well written but it has a strong and true voice. It has also caused me to read (or at least peruse) the Truth and Reconciliation report as well as research the topic itself. It is a subject that will make you cry at the injustice. I alternated from tears to rage. I don't understand how it is the First Nations can be so peaceful despite the outrages they have endured. Perhaps their spirits have been broken. I have always associated Indians with alcohol and substance abuse. They are openly staggering on the streets of Winnipeg when I visit. I dismissed them as vacuous husks of humanity. Now, I look at them as victims where I am as much to blame as anyone else. I am to blame through my own ignorance and my apathy in trying to understand.
I never thought I'd say this, but Canada's role in the Residential Schools saga is as terrible as what the Nazis did in Germany or the South Africans did with Apartheid. I understand Australia had a similar programme in place for its aboriginals.
News of this has been in the papers and in the news for decades; my ears simply never heard. Now that I have heard, I feel that I can't be silent or complicit any longer. I don't have any solutions; those will only come from the First Nations themselves. But I think Canada should no longer be allowed to 'take care of' these people. If this were a country in Africa, we would be calling for UN oversight.
For those who don't know, all treaty Indians are governed by the Indian Act. (That is probably why we still call them Indians and not First Nations, etc) They live on reservations that they don't own. They can't own anything BY LAW on the reserve. They don't own their home or the land underneath it. They can't get a mortgage or do anything we take for granted (they don't have security to grant to the banks). As a result, they have no concept of ownership or the skills necessary to live in a world of varying shades of liability (all tied to ownership). Everything is rationed out to them from the federal government.
I have rambled on far too much in this review but there is so much to say. We have turned our backs on the aboriginals of Canada, hoping the problem would go away. The government enacted an institutional plan to erase the culture of these people. It is time we take a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror...
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