8th Fire: Waub Rice on the sad history of residential schools


A multiplatform, multicultural documentary project, 8th Fire is a provocative look at the richness and diversity of Aboriginal cultures and Canada's complex 500-year-old relationship with Indigenous peoples -- a relationship still mired in colonialism, conflict and denial.

To further explore Aboriginal history and culture through a literary perspective, CBC Books has teamed up with journalist and fiction writer Waubgeshig Rice, author of Midnight Sweatlodge, to present a series of blog posts highlighting the important work of Indigenous writers, past, present and future.

In his third post, Rice discusses authors who have examined the history of residential schools and their own personal experiences with them.

By Waubgeshig Rice

waub-headshot1`.jpgPerhaps the saddest, most tragic, and utterly ridiculous chapter in Canadian history is the undertaking of the Indian residential school system. For more than a century, officials removed Aboriginal children from their families and forced them into church-run schools where many endured abuse as school leaders tried to scrub their culture from them.

In "It's Time!", the second episode of CBC's 8th Fire series, viewers get a quick but thorough history lesson on the system's perverse operation and legacy through the eyes of residential school survivors and non-Aboriginal students at an Ontario high school. Many Canadians are largely unaware that this tragedy unfolded in this country, but thanks to modern storytelling efforts in many different forms, we're getting a more detailed picture of some of the diverse hardships Aboriginal children lived through in these schools. Many survivors cite being taken from their families at an early age as the most traumatic.

That was also common amongst children from another saga of removal imposed upon Aboriginal people -- the "Sixties Scoop," where Aboriginal children were apprehended from their homes at disproportionate rates and fostered out to non-Aboriginal families. What often resulted was a journey into adulthood marred by confusion, abuse, and despair that eventually led to healing and cultural reclamation. Some of our powerful authors have written about this complicated journey.

Indian-school-days-125.jpgAnishinaabe author Basil Johnston recounts spending most of his childhood at residential school in his book Indian School Days. It's a blunt and honest first-hand account of the official assimilative practices he and his peers faced at these religious institutions in Ontario. Johnston lays his experience out plainly and effectively: he and his sister were taken from their family at a young age, separated, taught by nuns and priests that their way of life and beliefs were inferior those of the whites, and that speaking their language was a punishable act, amongst other humiliations. It was the common doctrine of "killing the Indian in the child." While it's heartbreaking to imagine any child in this situation, Johnston also uses humour to outline his own defiance of these institutions and his resolve to keep his culture within him. Johnston's prose here is a powerful homage to traditional storytelling. This matter-of-fact light-heartedness can be an effective way to help other survivors relate and get on their own paths to healing.

While Johnston writes about his experience as a child coping with removal, Richard Wagamese focuses on healing and the path back home in his novel Keeper'n Me. Loosely based on Wagamese's own life, the story follows character Garnet Raven as he returns to his childhood reserve after growing up in the foster care system separated from his siblings. After being bounced through various foster families, as a young adult he finds himself drawn to a life of crime in the city and, eventually, jail. Once out, he makes it his mission to reconnect with the life and culture he was stolen from as he returns to his community. Initially, it's a very funny "fish-out-of-water" situation, but at its core this journey home highlights the detrimental consequences removal has had on the well-being and preservation of Aboriginal culture as a whole. It's a long road, but Wagamese proves so compellingly that reclaiming that balance is possible.

april-raintree.jpgThe removal of Aboriginal children over the last century wasn't limited to small, isolated reserves. Kids in cities were also victims of the "scoop", and perhaps the quintessential novel from that perspective is Beatrice Culleton Mosionier's In Search of April Raintree. Two Metis sisters in Winnipeg are removed from their parents, whom authorities deem unfit, and are shuffled through non-Aboriginal families in the care system throughout Winnipeg and southern Manitoba. The narrative follows the title character April as she explains the good and bad times in various families, all the while yearning to be with her family and her sister Cheryl and trying to understand her Metis background. Being apart leads both girls down very different paths as they grow up. It's a potently raw and emotional look at the dire impact removal can have on one family. What's even sadder is realizing how common this experience continues to be in Canada.

While these books focus on distinct journeys through removal, homecoming, and the struggle for cultural reclamation, it's also important to include very crucial non-fiction reference points that look at the broader experience. Two essential history books about Canada's residential school system are J.R. Miller's Shingwauk's Vision and John Milloy's A National Crime. Both Miller and Milloy trace the roots of the system, explain how it was bolstered by the federal government and the churches, and show its sweeping impact on the Aboriginal culture and identity and the lingering effects of that today. While they're distinct references in their own rights, they should be required reading for all Canadians in order to understand the broad scope and legacy of this terrible system.

As more and more Aboriginal Canadians who were the victims of removal come together to heal, they'll come forward to share their stories. They lived through common injustices across the country, but their experiences are all unique. As their voices get stronger and louder, we'll see more and more novels and anthologies in the scope of Canadian literature, not only to help their peers heal, but also to help Canadians understand.