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Posts from the ‘Social Justice’ Category

Why I Wrote Indian School Road

indian school roadThis is from my introduction to Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School, regarding my thought process on why I felt compelled to write a very difficult book:

Here is what I found first: a recurring nightmare. Me wandering the black and white halls of the old building, as seen only in photographs, pristine but steeped in an old rotten stench. The facts playing hide-and-seek within the walls. Finding only a sense of lurking, dishonest evil. What fool’s mission was this? What right did I have to come here?

Dorothy Moore lived here as a girl. Sister Dorothy Moore she’s now called, a well-known Mi’kmaw Elder who once said to a luncheon at St. Mary’s University that white people owe First Nations people an explanation for residential schools. Now, a couple decades after she said it, most of the creators of the system and its schools are dead or very, very old. But I’m alive, and fairly young. I have questions about residential schools, particularly the one that ran in my home province of Nova Scotia. The big one is: what the hell were we thinking?

In her probing book, Unsettling the Settler Within, Paulette Regan wonders why, with all the talk of the Aboriginal peoples’ need for healing, aren’t more of us looking at “what it means to be a colonizer and our own need to heal and decolonize.”

European-Canadians committed what John S. Milloy, a Canadian Studies professor at Trent University, calls a “national crime,” in his book of the same name. He quotes a residential school survivor who told researchers in 1966, “This is not my story but yours.” Milloy adds, “It is our history, our shaping of the new world.”

For white writers to solely treat residential schools as someone else’s story is to miss the chance to learn about ourselves, to live in a society better able “to deal justly with the Aboriginal people of this land.” We tried to erase hundreds of cultures across the country. To open ourselves to that history is to feel crippling guilt and daunting responsibility. Maybe that’s why we avoid it, or why we treat the residential school system as if it’s only in the past, ignoring its living legacy and the ongoing divide between Euro-Canadian and Aboriginal cultures.

This state of denial allows Euro-Canada to continue its oppression, with settler Canadians taking from Aboriginal peoples instead of living in partnership. I am writing this book in the hopes of better understanding the crimes Euro-Canadians committed and are committing against the First Nations of the Maritime region, and to push myself to be a better ally in the struggle against oppression by white society.

As educator Paulo Freire one wrote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” The only way I can avoid participating in oppression is by participating in the struggle against it. To do this I need to move past learning and become a witness, to tell others what I’ve learned.

Despite all the media coverage — since allegations of sexual abuses in the early 1990s and more recently as a result of testimonies at Truth and Reconciliation Commission sessions across Canada — the majority of non-Aboriginal people still don’t know about residential schools. A 2008 survey conducted by the research firm Environics found that only one-third of Canadians were “familiar with the issue of Native people and residential schools,” and only 5 percent said they were “very familiar” with these issues. More than one-third had heard about physical and sexual abuse, but just 20 percent realized that children had been separated from their families, and only 10 percent knew that these children weren’t allowed to speak their mother tongues.

“We still know very little about this period of history or about the reasons why residential schools had such a lasting impact on Aboriginal people,” Marie Brunelle told an audience at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish in 2011. A human rights and equity advisor at the university, she added: “Each of us has a role to play in this reconciliation process. This cannot happen if only one party is involved.”

In my own conversations with other white people about this book, most are familiar with the concept of an Indian residential school and are sad that such a thing once existed and caused so much hurt. But only about half are aware there was such a school in the Maritimes, and few know anything about it beyond a general sense of tragedy. A few shake their heads and tell me what they think needs to happen now with Aboriginal peoples, unaware that they are doing exactly what our ancestors did. They are trying to fix “the Indian Problem.”

As Paulette Regan wrote, there is no Indian Problem. There never was. What we have here is a settler problem, a deep-seated belief that one culture is better than the other. Only from the place of cultural arrogance can we proclaim solutions for another peoples’ problems — problems defined and created by that same arrogance. Too often we hear, and tolerate, criticisms of the Mi’kmaq for failing to “get with the times” or “stop whining about the past.” In other words, assimilate into our ways; forget their history, tradition, and culture. Give up who they are and become us instead. The inherent assumption is that we are better.

To root out that arrogant seed we need to look more closely at our own history, which includes the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. I am not Mi’kmaq or Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) or Peskotomuhkatiyik (Passamaquoddy), and the experience of surviving this school is not my story. This book is my attempt to better understand what happened and convey it to you, based mostly on existing testimony from many different sources. I hope it is an honest version, based on the facts as best as I can find and interpret into story.

If European-Canadians don’t know these stories, we will continue to treat the First Nations peoples and cultures of this region as inferior, and with the assumption that they need to adapt to the now predominant Euro-Canadian culture. This would be the continuation of a tragedy. I hope this book will contribute knowledge and perspective to help light a path of respect for the first cultures of this land.

Exclusive by Design

Originally published in Coastlands: The Maritimes Policy Reviewin December 2007, on pages 26-27.

By Chris Benjamin

In August I moved back to Halifax after an eight-year hiatus in Toronto. I was surprised to find that not much has changed. The north end is gentrifying somewhat and I see a few new buildings going in, but, by and large, it’s the same, slow-paced, well-spaced city I remember and love.

When I was 24, that slowness was killing me too quickly. After eight years of rushing around Toronto trying to prove how productive and hip I was, this place seems perfect. Yet, having suffered the teenaged doldrums without so much as a decent shopping mall where I could blow off steam (and money), I can appreciate the desire to liven up the place. Looking at the white flight out of this city, I can even understand the HRM by Design team’s ambitious “build it (up) and they will come (back)” dream. What I can’t understand is why they think building a bunch of steel and glass commercial towers, albeit buffered by trees and pedestrian lanes, is the way to do it.

In September, over the course of a week, this team of HRM planners and consultants from the Toronto-based Office for Urbanism held four public consultations or, as one planner called them, “public affirmations”, to discuss their grand plans for the Halifax peninsula. They presented three remarkably similar scenarios, all focused on scrapping the heinous Cogswell Interchange – which has long separated north and south Halifax – and replacing it with a million square feet of commercial space, mostly in the north end.

The reception from the 600-strong crowd at Pier 21 was overwhelmingly positive, aside from a few wet blankets obsessed with bike lanes and heritage buildings. The majority favoured the third scenario, with the highest towers. A series of smaller workshops followed to gather more in-depth feedback, most of which was also positive. Afterwards, the HRM by Design team regrouped to answer a series of burning questions, to a near full-house. There were cheers every time the overhaul of Cogswell Interchange was mentioned. But question period revealed that support for the plans was not unanimous.

The audience, in its wisdom, pointed out several shortcomings, the first of which is the direct question: how are we going to pay for all this? Could the same resources be used to address the fundamental reason people leave Downtown Halifax? That reason is that they can pay considerably less money for a larger house with a bigger lawn outside the city. Or, in many cases, they can’t afford a downtown house at all.

Instead of giving us an affordable downtown core, this plan asks taxpayers to foot a bill that could run into the billions, and for what? The sales team, uh, that is, the planners and designers, talked a lot about affordable housing, but provided precious little information about how it would be created. How can more commercial space attract another 5,000 residents to the peninsula? All I can foresee is more commuters, traffic and air pollution.

Two of the most pertinent comments came from north-end residents. The first came from a scientist, who asked: “Will you have anyone from outside the area review your plan to provide a more objective, unbiased view?” Jennifer Keesmaat, one of the sales reps (planners, whatever) from the Toronto firm replied along these lines, “I don’t think we should let outsiders influence us with their ideas” – to a thundering round of applause. Yes, let’s burn the outsiders and their ideas, too. The next questioner observed: “These meetings seem like a white folks’ planning session.” “So what?” said the white guy behind me.

Keesmaat acknowledged the lack of ethnic diversity during the “affirmation process”, but added that she refused to discredit all the positive feedback they’d received that week just because it might not be representative. She pointed out that the urban-design community and developers were well represented. But this is the fundamental flaw in the planning process. We now have a very small group of well-paid professionals making grandiose, pie-in-sky plans that affect everyone – including the people who they don’t even know enough to invite them to the planning party. Did no one think to reach out to the black community in the north end of Halifax, who may be most affected by the planned commercial high-rises? This lack of consultation with Halifax’s North End residents follows a long tradition going as far back as the Halifax Explosion, when one of North America’s first community health centres was removed to the South End. Then, as now, it was easier for city planners to pander to the interests of the wealthy than consider the needs of, from their point of view, a less affluent community.

Personally, I’m all for urban density and building the downtown core up, not out. Density concentrates humanity’s high impact on the environment that hosts us and saves a lot of land and other species from destruction. Building up is more efficient and, if done well and not too close to existing areas of natural beauty or cultural significance, doesn’t even have to be ugly. The billion-dollar unanswered questions are: How do we achieve that density and bring people back to live in the peninsula again? How do we justly and fairly determine where the big shiny new buildings go? And how do we build the capacity of services, such as schools, hospitals and places of worship, to accommodate the influx?

The HRM by Design team is right that most people, unlike me, want a little excitement in their city, a little action. What is more fundamental, though, is being able to live in a friendly neighbourhood, in a quality house or apartment, with access to quality services at a reasonable price. The plan that was presented, with its focus on commercial growth, does nothing to address this need.

As for those who live out in the sticks, why should they care? The plan isn’t even interesting enough to bring them into town to listen to the proposal, let alone move here. It has no impact on them, because it gives them no affordable urban options. No one seems to have asked what would bring them into town anyway.

If it were up to me, I’d look first at creating affordable housing and then I’d get rid of cars in the downtown core. There’d be bike lanes all through the city and the only vehicles would be buses, thousands of them. And the cop cars would all be pink.

But it shouldn’t be up to me, it should be up to everyone affected, from the city core to the periphery: rich, poor, young, old and homeless. They should have been involved from the beginning. And we should let people outside HRM review the plan (gasp) and learn from their experiences. As it was, the public was responding merely to three nearly identical proposals out of infinite possibilities. The result may be a city geared toward young urban professionals obsessed with commercial growth and computer models, and no one else.


Climate Change and Terrorism

This story first appeared in The Coast on November 26, 2015:

Halifax to Paris, by way of Syria

Climate change is driving conflicts across the world, and we’re starting to see the results.

“When you have drought, when people can’t grow their crops, they’re going to migrate into cities, and when people migrate into cities and they don’t have jobs, there’s going to be a lot more instability, a lot more unemployment and people will be subject to the types of propaganda that al-Qaeda and ISIS are using right now.” Read more

My life behind the welfare wall

One woman’s struggle to move forward in the system that holds her back

The following is an excerpt from the March 2016 Halifax Magazine feature called “My life behind the welfare wall,” by Kyla Derry as told to Chris Benjamin:

Here’s something you may not know about poverty: when you get off welfare and get a job, you can lose more than you gain financially. Sometimes, you end up poorer. Read more

Going Down the Indian Road

Esteemed poet and author Gary Geddes, once described as “Canada’s best political poet,” has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking review of Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School.



The review will appear in his forthcoming new book, Medicine Unbundled (Heritage House Publishing), which is a Read more

Lessons learned on the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees

This Q&A originally appeared in The Coast, July 23, 2015.

Ashram Parsi has saved thousands, but still has a ways to go.

In 2005, Iranian queer activist Arsham Parsi became a refugee in Canada. Through his Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, he’s helped more than 1,100 other LGBTQIA Iranians escape a country where the punishment for having a same-sex relationship is death. In Halifax, LGBTQIA Iranians are supported by the Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia. The city is also home to Fernwood Publishing, which recently released Exiled for Love, a memoir Parsi wrote with Dalhousie University graduate Marc Colbourne. The authors spoke with The Coast about their new book.

Marc, why did you want to write this book?
Read more

Circle of Understanding

I had the great honour to present at an event honouring survivors from the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School this month at the University of New Brunswick. CBC did a piece on the event:


Chris Benjamin on Indian School Road

Here’s a video of a talk by Chris Benjamin on the long road from getting bad advice from a guidance counsellor, through the St. Lucian rainforest, around Ghana and to becoming a journalist and author, most recently researching and writing Indian School Road:

Letter From a Former Residential School Teacher

A few weeks ago, former residential school teacher Bernice Logan sent a letter to the editor of the Chronicle Herald, cc’ing a long list of organizations and individuals including among others my publisher, Peter Mansbridge, Lloyd Robertson, and me. The letter concerned my new book, Indian School Road: Legacies of the Shubenacadie Residential School. Logan read a two-page excerpt from the book’s introduction, which ran as an advertorial in the Herald. From the letter it sounds as though she hasn’t read the book itself.

You can read the entirety of her 3-page letter by clicking on the images below. Logan is an ardent defender of the residential schools, one of few still around and willing to speak out on their behalf, publicly at least. I won’t bother addressing the factual inaccuracies in her letter, but will simply state the obvious: everything in my book is ascertained from archival records from Indian Affairs or from the many many survivors who have gone on record at inquiries or in court or to the media or public in their own accounts, at great personal cost.

I publish her letter here because I believe it shows quite clearly that the racist assumptions underlying the residential school system survive still. And also that these attitudes are expressed relatively benignly, under the guise of good intentions. You be the judge:

residentialschoolteacherletter residentialschoolteacherletter2 residentialschoolteacherletter3

A Halifax journalist’s suspenseful exposé on the Cuban Five

This story first appeared in Atlantic Books Today in 2013:

With surgeon-like skill, Kimber dissects, bottom up, an injustice perpetrated at the highest US levels on Cuban patriots acting for their government with few financial resources in a hostile foreign country. The Cuban Five’s spy efforts were Read more