Was there smoke? One man asks why he didn't know about residential schools

About halfway through reading the Truth and Reconciliation report I was reminded of a story I read once. It was about the allied soldiers when they liberated Auschwitz.

'As I read the TRC report it is like a curtain being lifted,' says non-indigenous Winnipegger

As Ralph Paulson works his way through the TRC report, he wonders why his family never knew about residential schools. (Anglican Church Archives, Old Sun/Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

About halfway through reading the Truth and Reconciliation report, I was reminded of a story I read once. It was about the allied soldiers when they liberated Auschwitz.

The American soldiers took German civilians from the local town and marched them, by force, through the death camp — forced them to confront the mounds of bodies, the horror that was Auschwitz.

As they were faced with the truth of what was done in their names they would say "We didn't know … we didn't know what they were doing to the Jews."

One woman, however, said in a hushed voice "We knew. There was smoke, we could smell the smoke from the burning bodies."

I can't help but wonder and yet I am afraid to contemplate:  Was there smoke?

My family comes from a small town in North Western Ontario. My grandparents were good people. My childhood was filled with love and family. Through the good times and the tragedy there was always family, love, and belonging.

The stuff of my life was formed in this place. I have always thought of myself as a person of the lake.

"Us" and "them"

Next to my family town was a reserve. I have since learned that children were taken from this reserve. Stolen. Not way back when, not in the annals of a forgotten history.

I have talked to my mother and my aunt since I started this journey. My grandparents have passed on. I don't think we knew. I remember when I was a child, my mother talking about her high school days. She told me how she and her sisters were bused to Fort Francis.

I remember her commenting about how it was curious that the "Indians" were bused to Kenora instead (there were three residential schools in Kenora) .

I don't think we knew what was going on. This is not a defense. To the contrary, I am coming to understand that it speaks to the heart of the issue. The residential school system went on for over a century. My family has been in this country that long, and we didn't know.

I don't think my family ever held ill will towards our First Nation neighbours. We didn't have any feelings about them at all. They were them and we were us.

There was the occasional interaction in town, perhaps one of the " they" would work for one of the "us", or fishing guides from from either communities would exchange pleasantries as they headed out for a fishing trip. That was it. That was all.

Connection to the land

There is a line in the TRC report I disagree with: when talking about non-aboriginal people it says "few would consider their connection with property in the same light." I disagree. I do understand that connection to the land that First Nations people have.

I look at Lake of the Woods. I can see old log cabins that my grandfather and his brother built. I can stand at the shore where my brother died, see the beauty in the water, hear the song of the loon and the wolf.

- Ralph Paulson

This is a sacred place for me and my family. I understand the connection to the land. So why is it that during my whole childhood I didn't know a single person from the reserve — not 15 minutes down the highway?

How is it that for over a hundred years this terrible crime went on, in in our name, by governments we elected without we — the white privileged — knowing about it?

That's the question we should be asking. This can't be one of those, "what a bad thing the government did" kind of issues. It happened and was allowed to happen because we never looked at the First Nations people as our neighbours. We didn't see the suffering because we didn't look.

Truth and reconciliation

Page 245 of the TRC report says "of equal importance, non-Aboriginal children and youth need to comprehend how their own identities and family histories have been shaped by a version of Canadian history that has marginalized Aboriginal Peoples history and experience."

I am from Lake of the Woods. It is where my family has lived and died, grown up and grown old. Imagine if we had been able to share that.

There was a whole community with an even greater connection to the lake, but they were them and we were us. What a tragedy. It is possible, even probable that if we had seen the First Nations people as our neighbours, none of this would have been allowed to happen.

The question isn't "was there smoke?" The question is "why didn't we see the smoke?"

I think the first part of reconciliation is to recognize the truth of what was done, acknowledge the pain that was caused and to see the injustice.

This is a hard journey for me. I can scarcely imagine what it must be like for the survivors.

My heart is breaking.  


Ralph Paulson is 55 years old. His family comes from Nester Falls, Ont. - where they have been for 3 three generations.