My family, much like every other on the James Bay coast, shares many of the tragedies and hardships that Native people have had to endure since the arrival of the European. People from my generation have heard stories of what happened to our parents in residential school and how our grandparents had to deal with losing their children to this system. I did not realize it when I was younger but I can see now, why our parents and those from their generation had such a hard time leading a normal life. As children, my generation witnessed the results of their frustrations, fear and anger of what was done to them. We also grew up with that same fear and anger and we learned negative skills to deal with our own frustrations and difficulties. All the traumatic influences of that era passed down to my generation and spilled over into the next so many of us were troubled and we could not understand why.
Our families, our Elders and our communities were aware of this history and understood it clearly as something terrible that was done to parents and children. Unfortunately nobody outside the Native community knew about this or was concerned. Government officials and representatives saw reports on issues related to the residential schools and noticed what might have been occurring but choose to do nothing for the longest time. It wasn’t until Native leaders and advocates spoke up and made this terrible history known to everyone.
Over the past two decades, the history of residential schools in Canada has come to light. Many stories from those who are now elders have been shared and government commissions have studied this tragedy with resulting recommendations and apologies from the government of Canada. The problem is that there are still many people who are not aware of this history. Even those who have some knowledge of this period in our history just don’t know how to talk about it with us. It is a sensitive topic and much hurt and guilt is involved.
Recently I was enlightened when I took part in a Cultural Mindfulness Workshop at the Kirkland Lake Hospital. I was invited to report on the event but I found myself also taking part in the day’s activities and ceremonies. George Couchie, a well known leader and facilitator has held workshops in cultural sensitivity for over 25 years for professionals in law enforcement, health care, business and government organizations. He is an Anishinabe from Nipissing First Nation near North Bay, Ontario. He led the group in an introductory history lesson on Native people in North America and in Canada. I sat with health workers who were professionals in their fields and who were in attendance because they wanted to understand this history.
George talked about the first interactions of Europeans in what is now the United States and Canada and how the conflicts from the beginnings of these two countries led to the government rule of Native people everywhere. He made it clear to everyone present that this relationship which started as a partnership, ended with a series of polices and programs meant to eliminate the Indian, either by physical force or through assimilation. As George’s history lesson moved closer and closer to our timeline to within a generation and the residential school era it was clear to everyone that this happened in modern day right in their own backyards. As the topic turned towards residential schools and what First Nation children endured at the hands of the church and under the protection of the government, I could feel a sense of anxiety in the room. I knew this history personally through my parents, who both attended residential school and it was painful to be reminded of the trauma they had to put up with.
As difficult as it was to listen to this history again, I also felt hope and healing from the fact that these stories were being shared who those who wanted to know and understand this history. I was happy to be able to sit with these health care professionals as this learning turned into a healing for everyone. It made me feel good to know that now there was another group of people with an understanding of Native history, issues and the pain we live with. I know that this workshop changed many participants view and perception of Native people.
George pointed out that his main message with this workshop was to make others aware that every person we meet in this life has a story and if we know each others story, we can learn to better understand one another. I think that message got through.