One journalist's musings about the beautiful, bizarre world in which we live
Warning: If I hear another “drunk, lazy Indian” reference, I will lose my temper.
Yesterday, my old anonymous source came into my office, looking for the phone number for someone who could drive him to Wabasca for a residential school survivor healing conference. I said I’d drive him and write a story, too.
This morning I woke up at 7:45 a.m., ready for the 8 a.m. meet at my office. We drove drove drove up to Wabasca, he chatted as per usual the entire time. Passing by Calling Lake, we stopped at his trailer, which is undergoing renovations. He spoke in Cree with the five-man construction-crew – the first time I’ve ever heard the language used in conversation, and certainly not the last time today.
On arrival at the conference, I was introduced as “the reporter.” It was agreed amongst the people there that I could stay.
The first portion of the day didn’t just focus on surviving residential schools. We talked about forgiveness. Acceptance. Finding the positive in any negative situation.
As some people at this conference said, not everything was negative. Many learned to speak, read and write English in residential schools, skills necessary to thrive in present-day Canada. They learned the power of prayer, and not just Catholic prayer. Even my source noted that he was almost always in the top of his class and loved to read. He learned other languages, like German and Spanish, as well.
He learned strength.
For the second half of the day, my anonymous source took the stage. He pointed out that he brought me, little reporter, because I wrote the story of a residential school survivor who suffered mental, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. He told the people at the conference that he was indeed the one in the story.
While the afternoon was set for other events, he held a tearful audience captive for hours. For the first time, he told his community and family about the abuse he suffered at the hands of priests, nuns and brothers in the church. He spoke about the humiliation he fell victim to at the hands of his own community and extended family. He spoke about how it affected him. He spoke about how he was driven to shoot an innocent man – his best friend’s father – because of the anger that dwelled inside of him.
Grown men who grew up with him were in tears. His nieces’ eyes filled with sorrow. Everyone was still and silent.
I cried. I balled, in fact. Sorry, objectivity. You had no place there.
There’s only so much the power of the press can do. A reporter can give voice to the voiceless, but it doesn’t mean those voices will be heard. Eventually, the hands of change must be forced by other people.
My source told his community – his family – how their verbal abuse has carried with him to this day. As a child, my source suffered from childhood arthritis which left him a slow walker and kept his hands at the level of his chest. When he was five years old, a cousin dubbed him “frog” in Cree (the Cree people believe the frog is the most despised of all creatures, he told me – an amphibian that deserves to be killed, crushed and tortured). All his life in Wabasca, the name followed him around.
Today, he told his community how much that hurt. For the first time in decades, he said the word aloud in Cree. He told them that was not his name.
“I am Alfred,” he said. “I am Alfred.”
Afterward, everyone present came up to Alfred and hugged him. Tear-filled, tortured hugs. Thanking him for his story. A young man in a wheelchair with (I believe) cerebral palsy came up to him, hugged him and whispered, “You’re a strong man.”
* * *
Afterward, I found myself talking with a man who was half-First Nations, half-Inuit. He pulled out these strange leathery coins tied together by a string. He showed me one which read E3-298. Or something like that.
This man, Andy, told me that when he was born, Inuit people were identified by government by their numbers, not by name. Names didn’t matter. They were each given identification tags (the other ones tied to his belonged to family members). Handwritten on the printed tag was his name.
He said not only did the government use the numbers, but the community came to identify themselves by numbers. He said at the bingo hall, people identified with the numbers. He was B11. He listed the other people with other numbers. O65. N32. I16. G47.
Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. No names.
I had no idea this had happened.
He and his siblings (all nine of them) were ripped from his parents. Sometimes he didn’t even know when a sibling had been born. He said the only time his whole family was together was at the funeral of his father. And he was in Seattle.
Why is it that we know almost nothing about Canada’s cultural and physical genocide? Why do we spend so little time discussing what has happened? Why aren’t we discussing how residential schools affect generations of peoples, and not just those who went?
Why do people continue to make comments along the lines of, “Why don’t those Natives just get over it?” or “Why do they keep asking for more?” or, like I said at the beginning, “Damn drunk, lazy Indians – can’t they get a job?”
The people of Wabasca who were at this meeting were willing to listen to Alfred and give him the opportunity to discuss how he was hurt by them. Everyone felt worse and yet better afterward. It’s the first step toward healing: acknowledging the problem.
The rest of Canada would do well to take this tactic. Listen – don’t just judge. Hear – don’t cut people off mid-sentence. Allow emotions to flow – don’t bottle them up.
For those who care to know, Alfred spoke in front of a House of Commons committee in 2005. You can read his story from his mouth here.
Well, most of it.
The committee cut him off before he was finished.
NOTE: It appears they took down the page that had Alfred’s visit to the House of Commons. Google has it cached here for now. I’ll work on getting it up some other way permanently.