Students at the Mohawk Institute Residential School, a former Native residential school in Brantford, Ontario. Photo from Algoma University Archives
Give Residential School Survivors Their Voice
By Doug George -Kanentiio
I attended, by chance, the conference organized by the Ontario Public Services Employees Union at Nav-Can in Tsi:Kanatien (Cornwall) across from Akwesasne on October 1 to listen to the suggestions made by the attendees as to how to achieve reconciliation and peace between the province and Native peoples with an emphasis on the residential schools.
Sponsored in part by the Indigenous Circle of the OPSEU under the direction of Krista Maracle the sessions were creative, challenging and in some instances emotional as the attendees spoke about their personal, familial and communal trauma caused by polices which undermined aboriginal culture, broke apart Native families and left a residue of mistrust towards the provincial governments.
Delivering the key address was Canadian Senator Murray Sinclair who summarized his work on Canada's National Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission which, after years of hearing and investigations, submitted a formal report to the federal government with recommendations as to how to effect healing. He clearly demonstrates a deep passion for the victims of not only the residential school students, whom he calls "survivors" but those who were taken from their homes and placed within the province's social system, an action which caused loss of language, cultural alienation, massive physical abuse and the resulting drug and alcohol plague which has crippled not only the immediate victim but their families.
I was pleased that so many social workers and teachers were there including a strong contingent from Akwesasne and I hope that the conference's conclusions will result in improved services to Native communities and an enhanced understanding as to the depth and breath of harm the province caused by its attempts to integrate Natives into a Euro-Canadian society.
What I did not see, other than my brother, were other "survivors" of the residential schools. When I attended the Mohawk Institute in Brantford there was a large Akwesasne contingent, the notorious "St. Regis boys." There were a couple of dozen of us there, declared as wards of the federal government before we were taken to the trains by Mohawk social workers then employed with the former St. Regis Band Council.
We were assured of a better life by those workers, that we would live in warm residences, wear nice clothing and be well fed. As eight, nine and ten year-olds we were nervous but believed those adults spoke the truth and cared for what we were about to experience; we trusted them to intervene if life at the "mush hole" was something other than nurturing or safe.
They lied and left us to the mercy of adults who used us and the other students at their pleasure, to beat, rape and intimidate as they willed confident that no one would bother to come and save us. They controlled us the way a sadistic guard controls any inmate: by force, coercion and the use of other prisoners to dominate the weaker ones. What I witnessed was almost nightly sexual contact not between the guardians but boy on boy, a behavior they were taught by those in charge.
I listened to Sen. Sinclair and the Native counselors call for healing by having the victims give testimony. What I did not hear was the call for the wicked ones, those who damaged the kids, to come forward and be confronted by us. I did not hear of any plan to hold them personally accountable for the lives they ruined. I did not hear of any call for those people, now safely in retirement, to ask us directly for forgiveness and to bear the necessary humiliation which comes from their crimes.
None of those people were arrested or jailed unlike most of the Native children who, as adults, filled the prisons from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. The abusers were not returned to their families and communities, burdened by shame and the bitterness that comes from being abandoned by our parents, our people. We have never been able to ask them why and that is what was omitted at the conference.
I also felt upset that all of the attention at reconciliation was directed at us, the "survivors," that enormous pressure was on the victims to come forth, give graphic testimony as to specific instances of abuse, accept money and then fade back into the background. No one thought to raise the issue of Native involvement in the residential school horrors.
As I said in my remarks what happened to us could not have been possible without the active participation of the band councils. I said that not once did the leaders at Six Nations (upon whose land the mush hole was located) come to check on us. No worker from the St. Regis Band Council cared to ask us about the conditions there and when we ran away from the Institute those same band councillors took us back to receive our beatings for trying to return home.
We, as a "survivor" group were not invited to the OPSEU Nor have we ever been asked to gather together to determine what we think is best for us. I cited the large grant made by province of Ontario to address the residential school issue and that no one from the Premier's office to the Band Council had taken the time to contact us before the grant was announced. I said we were adamantly opposed to creating another layer of bureaucracy, of employing high paid administrators who would draft polices and procedures and siphon off the grant-but would never bother to consult with us. It was like repeating the residential school experience all over meaning we will now be expected to follow the dictates of rules imposed upon us.
My appeal, and that of the other Akwesasnorons who went through the residential schools, is to have the respect to meet with us, to call those of us still living to not simply restate the abuses, but to give us direct control over any program or expenditure made for us. We have had enough of being passive victims. We don't want or need filters, we will not abide by policies designed for us and not by us. For once in our lives we need to have the respect of deciding how we can secure true peace on our terms.
My gratitude to the Indigenous Circle, the Ontario Public Services Employees Union and to the various departments of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (particularly the traditional healing office with Della Adams and Eddie Gray) for caring enough to hold the conference.
Now give us our voice for the time we have left.
Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk currently residing on Oneida
Territory with his wife Joanne Shenandoah.
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George-Kanentiio: Donald Trump and his campaign of hatred (7/25)
George-Kanentiio: Native people bear terrible burden in U.S. (06/13)
George-Kanentiio: Hillary Clinton is clear choice for Iroquois (6/8)
George-Kanentiio: Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels was more than famous 'Tonto'
George-Kanentiio: Restoring some balance to Native nations (04/18)
George-Kanentiio: Mohawks must reclaim powerful names (03/15)
George-Kanentiio: Town repays Oneida Nation with racism (02/11)
George-Kanentiio: Oscar boycott ignores plight of Native people (01/20)
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George-Kanentiio: Iroquois Nationals score silver at games (09/28)
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