Walk Around the Sun: Reflecting on Residential Schools
The news in all its varied online and broadcast forms has become channels of entertainment. There is the vicarious thrill of thinking of what we would do if we were on a ferry that was overturned by a great wave, or at the theater where a gunman randomly opened fire, or at the scene of an accident where cars piled together like fallen leaves. Many news stories that interest us are about finding our place in them–how we relate to the moral choices that are made or ignored. This past week, a story that has been more than a hundred years in the making was in the news again and many people could not find their place in it: The findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Residential School System’s abuse of First Nations peoples.
My entry point into the story came decades ago when, as a prospective university student, I sought a summer job and happened on the opportunity to go to Bella Coola, on British Colombia’s northern coast. A new swimming pool had been built on First Nations lands. Everyone, including the First Nations people themselves, called the lands an Indian Reservation then.
The swimming pool was in need of someone to lifeguard and teach swimming lessons. I’d never heard of Bella Coola and had to look it up on the map but it seemed like a manageable adventure for my first extended trip away from home. It was, in many ways, an idyllic summer: The outdoor pool was situated next to a river where floatplanes alternated their landings with eagles, who followed the same flight path to snatch fat salmon from the clear waters. My hours at the swimming pool were long and, to ensure I remained focused, I usually stepped down from my elevated lifeguard’s chair to spend hours walking around and around the edge, keeping an eye on the delighted children and adults and, from time to time, slipping into the water to help someone bubbling frantically beneath the surface.
Toward the end of the summer, I was summoned to the home of the oldest woman of the village. I was told that she wanted to give me a name. It was a great distinction. She was too old to stir from her house but others brought her all the stories from beyond her door and one, it seemed, was about this strange young white man who walked in circles around the swimming pool. “Our children,” she said through other elders who interpreted, “are the light of our lives, like the sun, and I thank you for protecting them.” She then said that my new name would reflect that, “Nae-k-mul-suh, meaning Walk Around the Sun.”
I was delighted, but young and, like most Canadians of the time, unaware of the history of the Residential Schools so I was unprepared for the storm provoked by my polite attempt at small talk: “Why doesn’t she speak English?”
For the next hour or so, I listened in embarrassment to hoarse and tear-stained stories from several of the elders who had endured the Residential School system. The stories were of their being separated from their families, of family members who had died from neglect or abuse, of being denied the right to speak their own language that was tantamount to being denied the right to have their own thoughts. As the only person in the room who was not First Nations, I remember a divided awareness of the honour being made privy to these dark histories but also understanding that I was a visible reminder of the society that gave rise to them.
A better man would have been transformed by those stories and sought to learn more and would have taken some action, reading further and raising others’ awareness. But I was young and my summer experiences were like other young people’s summer experiences, eventually reduced to dinner party anecdotes.
But, at long last, I have tried to do my small part. I write textbooks and the last two that I completed for Learning English for Academic Purposes are aimed at college and university students in Canada and around the world. In each of these, I included a chapter on justice, with a focus on the Residential School system and international Truth and Reconciliation commissions. As one reading, I featured the text of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s moving apology on behalf of all Canadians for the Residential School abuses suffered by First Nations people. The process of writing the textbooks and the recent news about the Commission’s findings have also drawn me into further reflecting on my place in the story and friends’ and family’s place in it.
Many people’s reflections try to use comparisons to make sense of it all. My own mother, for example, came to this country from Norway at age six where her first Canadian experience was having an immigration official anglicise her name from Kari to Carrie. She faced classroom and schoolyard pressures to learn English.
But it was not the same.
My mother was not taken from her family and she flourished. She learned English to fit in with her new friends, not because she had her first language beaten out of her.
Others talk about Residential Schools as if they were a variation on elite private boarding schools, where peer abuses and corporal punishment have been known to be brutally meted out by both students and teachers. They mention British Prime Minister Winston Churchill being caned by a teacher at Eton.
But it was not the same.
Although some Residential School survivors came forward to thank those teachers who were sincere and kind-hearted in helping them, the underfunded system was ripe for exploitation by pedophiles and sadists and others considered unqualified and unfit for teaching in regular schools. Churches sponsored most of the schools and routinely moved offending staff from school to school rather than dismiss them, percolating misery through the process.
Some explain away the abuses as being a product of their time, recalling everything from Dickensian tales of children working in factories to the arcane punishments they may have personally received when they were young.
But it was not the same.
Between three and six-thousand First Nations children in care died while at Residential Schools. Many were undernourished and succumbed to diseases brought about by poor living conditions. Many doubtlessly died from despair at the unimaginable unfairness of it all.
The news cycle will move on and next week friends and family will take up other topics, other atrocities, and other scandals, again trying to find their places in it all. One of the recommendations of the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to ask educational authorities to improve the teaching of the sad history of Residential Schools. Hopefully they will, moving a news item from the front page to a wider and lasting consciousness.