Racism, Residential Schools and the Residual Effects;

Joe Keeper did more than just break new ground when he ran in the Olympics exactly 100 years ago.

The Cree First Nation Manitoban also paved the way for his descendants to travel through life with a strong sense of self-worth, despite countless experiences with racism.

"My grandfather was a....kind, strong man who felt it is our duty to remember who we are as Cree people, because we are in our home territory," recalls Tina Keeper, his granddaughter. "Our land, language, culture and family are God given. This was a very strong teaching."

And it was a lesson that's served to guide his loved ones to success, in spite of the racism that was (and is) rampant around them. Joe's son went on to receive the Order of Canada. Granddaughter Tina is a former TV star (North of 60) and Liberal MP (Churchill riding). Her siblings also had successful careers in the arts and became powerful advocates in the field of social justice.

It's an especially poignant lesson too, given Joe Keeper's own experiences. Born at Walker Lake in 1886, he was sent to a residential school in Brandon when he was 13. His time there was short. Within a year, the school principal recognized Joe's talent for running, so he was sent to Winnipeg to join the North End Athletic Club.

But his experience in residential school was universal and potentially devastating, and the statistics bear this out. It's estimated that overall, more than 150,000 Aboriginal, Peoples were forced into residential schools, designed to "aggressively assimilate" them and strip them of their culture. Of those, conservative estimates say at least one in five of them was sexually abused, and at least half were at times physically abused.

No surprise, though Joe Keeper's duration at the school was short, his sense of identity, worth and pride in being an indian were fiercely challenged.

It would have taken an Olympian effort....literally....to hold onto himself. And that's exactly what he did, competing in the 1912 Olympic games....one of a handful of First Nation Canadians throughout history to do so. (He placed fourth in the 10,000 metre race.....a feat that's not been matched by a Canadian athlete to this date).

Four years later he joined the army and went onto be awarded a Military Medal of Bravery for his efforts in WW1.

But its his heroic efforts on the home front that are most cherished by his granddaughter.

"It's funny that I think it is the fact that most of my grandparents did NOT go to residential school that gave me resilience and strong sense of love, self and identity as a Cree woman," Tina says.

Yet "my grandfather who did go to residential school and ran in the 1912 Olympics and served in WW1" was equally responsible, she says. "This is the foundation for a good life, despite the barriers. It gives the strength to seek justice and equity."

Hurting in Silence, Healing in Limbo:

It's what's seen Keeper through a lifetime of racist incidents. Like the times in her teens, growing up in the '70s, when she and her friends had racist slurs thrown their way at all the usual social outings teens get into. Then there were the more insidious incidents, the covert ones, like not being chosen for a school team or given a job because they were "Indian". Incidents all the more hurtful because you can't complain about something you can't prove......and complaints fell on deaf ears, regardless.

"Especially when you're young. You don't have a fight against it, and there really is nowhere to turn," she says. "You cannot go to the police, you cannot go to the principal, you cannot go to any authority that's going to assist you on these issues. You know, whether it's name calling on the field when you're playing sports or whether it's....something that's happened to you, you know this is....really becomes overwhelming."

They're the moments that make one feel invisible, she says, and she quickly relates it to present day. Brian Sinclair....homeless and wheelchair-bound, sitting unnoticed at a hospital waiting room until after he died. Carolyn Sinclair, drug-addicted and in the sex trade, vulnerable and marginalised, the night she met the person who killed her. Or Phoenix Sinclair, lost in the child welfare system until months after she died of the longtime abuse she'd suffered.

"Right....right, yes!" Keeper says emphatically. "The families of Carolyn Sinclair and Brian Sinclair and Phoenix Sinclair, like those, those fights are just so painful and....they reflect something that is absolutely devastating."

That's where the residual influence of residential schools can often be felt. The survivors themselves are not only stripped of their identity, but that void is sometimes filled with conflicting, destructive behaviour that hurts themselves and their own children (Brian Sinclair's alcoholic mother was a residential school survivor. Likewise some of Phoenix Sinclair's predecessors.)

Not only can that mean they're not able to stand tall for their children, but they often don't have the strength of self to stand up for themselves.

Like Tina's aunt. Elderly, sickly and a residential school survivor. Just weeks ago, she took a turn for the worse and called an ambulance.

"The paramedics were so mean to her and so rude to her," Keeper says. "And she was not even allowed to take her purse or her shoes, they made her walk out to the ambulance bare feet in a nightgown and she couldn't make a phone call to her...relatives that she was going in."

But she didn't complain. She couldn't complain.

"And she is the kind of person, because she did go to residential school, and she has been since she was a child....told very clearly and forcefully that 'you have no voice here.'"

Keeper then compares it to an incident she herself experienced with paramedics, when helping another elderly relative get an ambulance, following a brain injury.

"When I was trying to talk to them about, you know, her history, they just literally pushed me out of the way, told me to mind my own business, asked me if I had been drinking alcohol," she recalls. "It's those kind of incidents that stack up."

Resilence for Today and Hope for Tomorrow:

Tina challenged them. Borne, she notes again, from the strength of identity that her Grandfather Joe passed down to her, who managed to survive unscathed by residential school, along with her other grandparents, the ones who escaped that path altogether.

"Because of that, you do have a resilience and strength that I think (otherwise) just gets broken and worn down after numerous generations," she says. "We haven't had the sustained contact, we haven't had the imposition of federal government policies and provincial government policies in our lives that have been devastating repeatedly....and I think that is really a blessing for us."

She is realistic though, about the current climate and though she is strong enough to stand up for herself, she is tired, she admits, of always having to fight the fight. The same fights she fought when she was a teen, she's fought for her two sons, when they were in their teens.

The good news, she says, is that there are definite signs of improvement. When her son's football coach made a racist crack about aboriginals, her son was hurt. She was angry. Bracing for defiance, she complained to the head coach. Instead, to her amazement, she received an apology.

"He said 'oh my God, that is just horrible....that is never going to happen to one of my players, that is completely unacceptable and I will deal with it,'" Tina says. "I was like, elated. I felt this joy.....I thought 'wow, this is what it feels like to have somebody believe you and hear you.'"

It's that shift change in attitude that gives Tina Keeper hope for her descendants, (including brand new granddaughter AA). And its that strength of her grandparents, that gives Tina the power to stand up for them.


Listen this week on Mornings with Terry and Marcy on Radio One 93.8 FM between 7 and 8 am daily.

Life of Brian Sinclair
Life of Carolyn Sinclair
Life of Phoenix Sinclair
Invisible racism, an exploration.

Also watch the series on CBC News Winnipeg at 5:00, 5:30 and 6 p.m.


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