By James Cullingham
In 1964 Bob Dylan released The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol, one of his masterworks. The song chronicles the circumstances of the atrocious murder of an African American woman and the hypocrisy of the society that produced her killer.
As the horrifying revelations from Kamloops and Cowessess of graves at the sites of former residential schools have unfolded I am reminded of Dylan’s refrain aimed at mainstream American society:
“Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for your tears.”
Surely just like many Americans who were bystanders on civil rights in America, too many non-Indigenous Canadians have turned a blind eye to the grotesque injustices of the residential school system for decades.
As a non-Indigenous person of English and Italian background I have no difficulty describing myself as a settler in these lands. As an educator and storyteller I have attempted to inform myself about the Indigenous history of Canada. This is an extremely painful moment for many, particularly Indigenous people. What it is not, is surprising.
I am appalled to hear in 2021 many Canadians who claim to be well meaning and would self-identify as progressives state that they ‘didn’t know’ about residential schools.
“Now ain’t the time for your tears.”
As early as the 1860s, people like Florence Nightingale were calling attention to the atrocious death rates in state-run boarding schools for Indigenous children.
Federal medical inspector Peter Henderson Bryce exposed horrific conditions and high death tolls in residential schools prior to the First World War. His book The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada published almost a century ago garnered parliamentary and press attention, but little political action.
Conservative and Liberal governments, with the willing cooperation of senior civil servants like Duncan Campbell Scott, better known to Canadians at the time as an admirable poet, journalist and musician, worked assiduously to pursue residential school policy and stifle whistleblowers like Bryce. Despite Scott’s reluctance to engage in full scale residential school reform, he contributed the following to Canada And Its Provinces in 1914 about the beginnings of the residential school system:
“The well-known predisposition of Indians to tuberculosis resulted in a very large percentage of deaths among the pupils. They were housed in buildings not carefully designed for school purposes, and these buildings became infected and dangerous to the inmates. It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.”
Over the last several decades writers including Olive Patricia Dickason, John S. Milloy, J.R. Miller, E. Brian Titley and Richard Wagamese documented the residential school horrors. Since the 1960s several acclaimed filmmakers including Hugh Brody, Gil Cardinal, Nadia McLaren, Alanis Obomsawin and Loretta Sarah Todd have explored the issue with intelligence and passion. All these works have been readily available to Canadians.
In 1996 The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples led by co-chairs Georges Erasmus, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and Justice René Dussault tabled a comprehensive investigation on many issues including the history, impact and legacy of residential schools.
In 2015, Truth And Reconciliation Canada led by Justice Murray Sinclair issued its own extraordinarily detailed report on the system. Sinclair and his team stated clearly there were unmarked graves waiting to be found.
Just two years ago The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls sadly documented a saga of injustice for many women, some of whom or whose families, had been harmed by the residential school experience. Chief Commissioner Marion Buller and her team asserted categorically based on their investigation that Canada’s assault on Indigenous women and girls was genocide.
It is disingenuous at best for any reasonably educated Canadian to excuse her or his self with the ‘I didn’t know’ refrain in regards to residential schools. Like the architects of Canadian “Indian” policy from the late 19th and early 20th centuries too many of us were prepared to see Indigenous people as marginal and their negative experiences as regrettable, but inevitable collateral damage on the path to Canadian civilization, economic development and expansion.
In June 2015, Buffy Sainte-Marie performed in downtown Ottawa on the occasion of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report. Before beginning to play, she clearly stated an unwelcome truth. Ms. Sainte-Marie said Canadians had every means to learn the truth about residential schools for a long time.
When I began my career in the 1980s, many of my journalistic colleagues were preoccupied with injustices in El Salvador, Nicaragua or South Africa. There was much less concern about conditions in Chisasibi, New Ayainsh, Pangnirtung, Sheshatshiu or Temagami even though many of the same issues of decolonization, brutality and mismanagement were in play domestically rather than in exotic foreign lands. It seemed to me then, as it still does, that too many Canadians would rather focus on injustice and benighted thinking abroad rather than in their own community.
Today some politicians want us to believe that residential schools are behind us, part of the past. Current prime minster Justin Trudeau presents himself as a champion of Indigenous rights. Critics such as Indigenous children’s advocate Cindy Blackstock beg to differ. Mr. Trudeau would do well at this time to better historicize the enduring role played by governments led by his Liberal party in residential school management in cooperation with several Christian churches.
At a recent virtual meeting in the aftermath of the revelations concerning the Kamloops 215 Anishinaabe Elder Edna Manitowabi, professor emerita of Indigenous Studies at Trent University, a residential school survivor and cultural worker, implored her audience that it was time for the truth to come out:
“I ask the citizens of this country. It is time to do something. It is a heavy thing, a crime, a national crime.”
At the conclusion of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Mr. Dylan sings:
“Bury the rag deep in your face, for now’s the time for your tears.”
In our current national tragedy, tears, especially Indigenous tears, are understandable, but as Dr. Manitowabi asserted the hard, painful, vitally important work of truth recognition must begin in earnest for many non-Indigenous Canadians.
James Cullingham is an adjunct graduate faculty member of Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University, a professor at Seneca College and president of Tamarack Productions in Nogojiwanong – Peterborough Ontario. He directed and produced Duncan Campbell Scott – The Poet and The Indians (Tamarack-NFB 1995). This autumn he will release a book Two Dead White Men – Duncan Campbell Scott, Jacques Soustelle and the Failure of Indigenous Policy and a documentary film The Cost of Freedom – Refugee Journalists in Canada.
Excellent. Thank you James
Thank you for this. The more I learn as a settler makes me a better citizen of Canada and the Canada we want for the future generations.
Well expressed! Ignorance is just an excuse for inaction and paralysis.
Thanks for this. My early education left me with the impression that “Indians” were either scary savages or sweet hunter-gatherers, and that in any case, they no longer existed – Canada’s unicorns. Waking up to the reality of residential schools and genocide as federal policy has been painful and necessary. Don’t know when I’ll feel proud to be Canadian again, but nationalism has perhaps had its day.