A few days after the Truth and Reconciliation closing ceremonies in Ottawa, I boarded the Little Bear, that iconic train running between Cochrane and Moosonee. The plan was to decompress with my friend, the Cree legend William Tozer, at his remote camp about 210 km north of Cochrane. I don’t use that word—decompress—lightly. I’d arrived in Ottawa the Sunday before to take part in the march (10,000 strong) that kicked off the highly anticipated final Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathering, the climax of which was to be the commission’s announcement of findings and especially its recommendations.
That morning on the Little Bear I was still reeling from the psychological weight of being witness to the torrents of pain that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathering unleashes. But I was also stunned by the beauty of days of witnessing survivors surrounded by younger generations there to support them, with spontaneous drumming and singing of traditional songs in the original languages, as if to remind those survivors that the system that had brutalized them had ultimately failed in its original mandate to remove the Indian from the child in order to save the man. To experience something historical as it unfolds before your eyes turns out to be pretty exhausting emotionally, psychologically, and even physically.
Related: Almost missing, almost murdered: Stories of survival from Indigenous women
I ran into three women in the train’s dining car who were heading home to Moose Factory, part of a larger contingent of about 50 who’d made the long trip to our capital to witness what, for our country’s First Nations, was one of the most important contemporary events of our time. We sat together for a bit and chatted. I asked them a question I would never have even considered asking six years before, when the first TRC gathered at the Forks in Winnipeg, a simple question on the surface but one fraught with weight. Where’d you go to school? Asking any other Canadian this is the most casual and even entertaining way of entering a conversation. Ask a First Nations person my age or older and you’re opening up a Pandora’s box of pain. Think about that for a second.
Is there any way of weighing or measuring positive change as the direct outcome of the TRC hearings? Maybe it’s not just being able to openly ask this question of virtual strangers but in their being able to answer it without glancing down at the table or not answering at all. These three women spoke without that hiccup of fear, and I was able to ask without feeling as if I were awkwardly investigating a family’s worst secret. Freida Sackaney shared that she’d spent three years at Bishop Horton on Moose Factory Island. Her friend Beatrice Rickard said she was taken from her family at six years old and spent the next 10 in residential schools, first at Bishop Horton and then, when she proved herself a promising student, a number more years far away from home at the notorious Shingwauk Hall in Sault Ste. Marie. Half-jokingly, I commented on the irony of having to suffer such horrible punishment as being stolen from your land, family, and friends and dropped in the likes of that hellhole for being smart.
Related: A leading Inuit artist on her experience in residential schools
As the train slowed for me, I thanked the women and went to the baggage car for my fishing gear but not before bumping into my friend, Bob Sutherland, a traditional healer as well as residential school survivor. I jumped off the train, watching it shrink into the northern distance, and realized that in Indian country, you are never far from that dark history of the schools and their damage that continues to reverberate down the generations. To be First Nations in this country is to know that the very history outsiders are telling you to get over—if they know the history at all—isn’t something of the past but what continues to rock communities every day. Many have come to label it intergenerational trauma. All I know is that it is a very real thing.
I wrote about the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathering for this magazine back in this same Canada Day issue in 2010. It was called “The hurting.” In part, I made the connection between the damage residential schools inflicted on generations of First Nations to the insanely high suicide rates in northern reserves across our country. I didn’t think it was in any way a stretch; I’m pretty sure very few Indigenous people saw it as one, either. Yet I wasn’t surprised when the naysayers came out of the woodwork to call me a number of colourful names.
The highest suicide rates in the world aren’t the only by-product of generations of trauma. I’m here five years later to draw another connection, this time to our country’s missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), and it’s certainly easy to point to the very top: Prime Minister Stephen Harper adamantly refuses to greenlight a national inquiry into MMIW, claiming it’s simply a criminal issue and not a sociological one. I know he’s smarter than to truly believe that, but in politics going to the lowest common denominator is more often than not the most efficient and safest course of travel.
Still, there’s something much deeper going on in Harper’s almost childish refusal to create an inquiry into what is one of this country’s most horrific travesties. When he coldly stated in a TV interview last December that the MMIW and inquiry weren’t really high on his radar, he certainly understood that almost 1,300 Native women have been murdered or gone missing in this country since 1980 and that if you are a First Nations woman you are four times more likely to die violently than your non-Native peers. Please consider that: if you are a First Nations woman in this country you are four times more likely to meet a violent death than non-Native women. This statistic alone leads to the logic that something very wrong indeed is happening that is far more than a criminal issue. And yet he dismissed it, and continues to dismiss this travesty, despite other political parties and the majority of Canadians demanding an inquiry.
The disdain that the current federal Conservative party shows toward our First Nations slipped out of Harper’s mouth last December when speaking to Peter Mansbridge. But rather than try to rectify it, Harper completely removed himself from the equation, stating that not he but his ministers would continue to dialogue with concerned parties.
I sat beside former prime minister Joe Clark on the day that commissioners Justice Murray Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild, and Dr. Marie Wilson made their long-anticipated recommendations. I also witnessed prime minister Clark in a rousing speech state, in clear reference to Harper’s calculated apology in 2008 that, “there is a difference between an apology and a priority.” The room erupted into cheers. Did we really just hear from not any white guy but a former Progressive Conservative prime minister what so many of us have been thinking for the last seven years? Harper’s apology must be more than simple words, and sadly, that apology has never felt like a priority for the current federal government. Clark’s words only helped to underline the disconnection that this current leadership has created between it and our original peoples.
At the TRC, I sat just down the aisle from and had a direct line of sight on Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Bernard Valcourt, Harper’s representative at this historic gathering. As the commission made its recommendations, painful years in the making and the heart of what so many survivors had been waiting to hear, the whole room, including people like former prime minister Clark, rose over and over to give standing ovations. What struck me hard in the gut, though, was dour Minister Valcourt refusing to stand, refusing most often even to clap, hunched and either jotting notes as if he were making a grocery list or worse still, sitting and staring straight ahead, a scowl on his face like an angry child who thinks those around him cheer his bad fortune.
Related: Our profile of Bernard Valcourt
This physical act of disapproval, this infantile display of a grown man being the only person in a packed room of hundreds and hundreds to remain seated during the announcement of what are clearly moderate and fair recommendations, spoke as loudly to me as anything else that day. Valcourt is Harper’s representative, after all. When the recommendation that a national inquiry into our missing and murdered Indigenous women was read, the room erupted in applause. But even as Thomas Mulcair, the official leader of the Opposition, stood right beside Valcourt along with everyone else in that room clapping wildly, Valcourt simply sat, his hands in his lap. There was no more potent a physical symbol of just how tone deaf the Harper government is when it comes to not just understanding but beginning reconciliation with our original peoples.
Digging deeper, though, I realize this isn’t just a matter of being tone deaf. There’s a calculated movement afoot, and Valcourt himself helped put it into motion a few months back when he purposely let slip to a closed-door meeting of western chiefs that an as-yet-unreleased RCMP investigation reported to him that in the cases in their jurisdictions of MMIW that had been solved, 70 per cent of the murders were committed by people who were acquaintances of those women, supposedly Native men. According to witnesses in the meeting, Valcourt explained that he was able to share this information with the chiefs because “there is no media in the room,” a bizarre statement on the surface that smacks of veiled threat: this insider information is a secret for now but probably won’t be for long. And then what? The whole world is going to know that it is your people at the root of the problem.
The chiefs present were understandably infuriated. One of them, Joe Laboucan, is the father of Bella Laboucan-McLean who fell from a 31-storey Toronto condo to her death in July 2013. Despite three male witnesses present at the condo, none First Nations, her death remains unsolved. Valcourt, however, seemingly believed he could magically shut down the need for a national inquiry by sharing with these people the “fact” that their own men were to blame.
If anything, Valcourt’s backroom words, along with the RCMP’s official recent release of further findings that the majority of solved MMIW homicides in RCMP jurisdictions were perpetrated by “acquaintances,” make a national inquiry even more necessary.
Apparently, the current federal government is trying to spin these recent statistics to convince Canadians that this isn’t a national issue but a First Nations one, one that First Nations alone must rectify. Valcourt isn’t the only federal Conservative minister to focus so obsessively on this one part of the RCMP’s findings in what is clearly an effort to undermine the call for an inquiry. Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch (the irony of her title in this instance does not escape me) also toes Harper’s line when it comes to simplifying a deeply complex problem with her repetition of handpicked numbers. It’s no secret that Harper keeps a tight leash on his ministers and that they must march in lockstep to his orders. To either subtly imply—or worse, directly point the finger at the victims and families of those victims—in order to avoid an inquiry is, at best, ignorance. At worst, it is one of the most callous, vile, and corrupt political attempts to not just dumb down reality but completely ignore it that this country has ever seen.
These handpicked RCMP statistics are being used by Harper’s Conservatives in a deceitful way. The most recent RCMP report actually states that Aboriginal women are at greater risk of being killed by people who don’t know them than are non-aboriginal women. Further, these handpicked statistics don’t take into account the hundreds of still unsolved missing women cases, the hundreds of still unsolved MMIW homicides, or the fact that domestic violence in the vast majority of First Nations communities is a contemporary, not historical, phenomenon, one unquestionably linked to residential schools.
For seven generations Canada attempted what a representative of the most powerful court in the land recently labelled cultural genocide, never a term to be thrown around lightly. Our nation attempted to completely destroy the very fabric of Indigenous life by literally tearing apart its most valuable and sacred cornerstone: the family. Untold scores of children were regularly physically and emotionally assaulted, so much so that this became the norm across the country, generation after generation. Most horrifically, a grotesquely high percentage of children, boys and girls alike, were repeatedly raped throughout their childhoods by those put in charge of their well-being. Have I even mentioned the most basic and public tenet of these schools was to exterminate the languages, traditions, and religions of these children? The last residential school in this country closed its doors in 1996.
Child abuse is certainly a criminal issue. Institutional child abuse of the most heinous kind, not just allowed but encouraged by the state for more than 120 years, is far more than that. It’s a festering sociological, psychological, and very human crisis residing in the heart of this nation. And the ramifications? Systemic abuse, even when it physically comes to an end, is going to reverberate into the future. Simply put, to be stripped from your parents and then in turn stripped of the tools to become a parent, the pattern repeating for generations, has a high toll attached. Throw into this caustic mix the theft of your language, your religion, even your dances and songs, and it becomes easier to begin to understand the lasting impacts.
To truly try to understand the impact of this particular cultural genocide is to recognize that the fallout from that attempted destruction has real and lasting effects on the generations that follow. It is simple denial to disregard the concept of intergenerational trauma, especially as we watch it play out before our very eyes. I’ve witnessed it with many of my friends, metastasizing in all kinds of ugly ways that include suicide, domestic violence and yes, even murder.
And one of the most hurtful impacts of attempted cultural genocide and the intergenerational trauma that we see unfolding is in the sheer number of Aboriginal women who find themselves in such vulnerable places, whether it’s in a home on the rez, in an alley in Winnipeg, or on a dark highway of tears in British Columbia.
The hard work of the TRC uncovering this truth has come to an end. But the hardest work lies ahead. To be First Nations is to implicitly understand in your very body the travesties of our history. But there are many amazing examples of the next generations of First Nations who are picking up the torch, taking their place as true role models and helping to change the tide: Wab Kinew, Taiaiake Alfred, Pam Palmater. Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red, Waubgeshig Rice and Digging Roots, Drew Hayden Taylor and Lisa Charleyboy. The list goes on.
We are at that crossroads in our country, the one where we face the decision of whether we strive for true reconciliation or whether we remain a country in denial. There is no more room for the politics of divisiveness. Now is the time where we must all come together as a nation not to just accept but begin to reconcile with what is our darkest stain. As Justice Sinclair so clearly pointed out in those days in Ottawa, this is not just a First Nations problem or issue. It is a Canadian one.