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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.