This is the first time I have done a mass mail out, a form letter, but the circumstances demand an immediate response.
I have had dozens of letters and phone calls from friends and acquaintances from all parts of the world since the day of the prime minister’s apology to the aboriginal peoples of Canada.
They are shocked and horrified at learning about the residential schools; they want to know what I think, what I know, seeing as how I am living among an aboriginal people.
I am every bit as shocked and horrified as anyone who has written or called me but I am embarrassed to admit, along with most of those who have contacted me, I didn’t know about the residential school system.
As it turns out, there was one in Lower Post, a Kaska community about 22 kilometres south of Watson Lake, in British Columbia.
The existence of that school, the impact it has had on the native people of this area, and the white people, simply cannot be underestimated.
These are the people the media is referring to when they talk about the defilement wrought by those twins of shame — colonization and Christianity.
Along with many residents of Canada, I knew nothing about this particular humiliation that had been visited on aboriginal people.
I knew what had happened to the first inhabitants of Australia and New Zealand, and of course South Africa; I knew the Canadian government had apologized to citizens of Japanese descent for the atrocities visited on them during the Second World War, but I had no idea what had been done to the native population of this country, to the people living here in Watson Lake.
Soon after settling here it was apparent to me native people seemed ill-equipped for life in this town; they are generally regarded by the white community to be mostly a shiftless bunch whose choices continue to cost the taxpayer a great deal of money.
They, the natural inheritors of this land, are generally ignored or treated with contempt.
Political necessity demands involvement and co-operation between the races, but it feels to me to be primarily a token attempt.
I see for myself a native people who seem sad and lost, but at the same time I have witnessed events revealing a tremendous endurance, purpose and a determined pride in being Kaska.
It doesn’t take long to realize there is a huge gulf between the native and white members of this town.
Both groups have many active organizations, but few common ones, if any.
I haven’t seen a lot of socializing among the native and non-native people other than the occasional public event.
I have some acquaintance with a few Kaska people, mostly achieved through work-related meetings.
I would like to call them friends, and perhaps someday I shall, but knowing now about the residential school here, a relationship involving trust between a white person and an aboriginal person seems too much to expect.
If I imagine myself as a Kaska, I cannot conjure up feelings that would lead me to have any belief or faith in a white face.
The residential school atrocity is not ancient history; there are many people in Watson Lake who were forced to attend the school at Lower Post; they are still fresh, those terrible images and experiences.
Isn’t it one of life’s oddities that the perp is so often angrier than the victim?
My sense here is that the white people harbour much more negativity towards the natives than the natives do towards them. The natives, the Kaska, are far too preoccupied with their healing to spend their energies in rage at what has been done to them.
The Kaska have exhibited grace and gentleness in my dealings with them, and a willingness to share their culture with this pale stranger.
I watched the apology with some Kaska acquaintances, feeling touched and honoured by my inclusion on this fraught occasion.
None of them had ever mentioned residential school to me, but they did that day. The silence has been broken; people who were there, who experienced the abuse, the loneliness, the confusion and the endless pain are now talking, and they are talking to their kids and their grandkids, who also have felt the repercussions of a system that defined as its goal “to kill the Indian in the child.”
Not one non-native person of my acquaintance in Watson Lake has yet mentioned this historic event; at least not to me they haven’t, nor were they in attendance at the viewing of the apology hosted by the Liard First Nation and the Liard Aboriginal Womens’ Society.
What was expected, I wonder, of those men and women who were spat out of the system after their time at the schools?
Many had been there since the age of five, and 10 years was the average length of their stay in the schools.
During those 10 years, they were systematically, deliberately stripped of their identity.
Taken from parents and communities, punished for speaking their language, and often sexually abused — was it believed by the time the school had “finished” them, they would be fully functioning adults ready to take their place in society?
Without their language, without the years of learning the skills necessary to survive, it was difficult and often impossible to return to native communities and take up a life there.
So profoundly had they been uprooted, in every sense, that many never even attempted to return to their families.
As for integrating into the dominant society, the white society, what was the plan?
Where were they supposed to fit in, these damaged people who were now neither white nor Indian?
The white society was no more welcoming of Indians than they were of black people, or Asians, or anyone of colour.
Were there any support systems in place to help them make the transition from school to a workplace?
We all know of people, white people, who suffered neglect and abuse as children; it is rare that these folk have segued from childhood into adolescence into a happy and productive adulthood.
Quite the opposite, in fact, with most of these victims needing several years of therapy along with great personal effort and resolve in order to achieve healthy relationships, let alone the ability to find and keep a job.
Many have never made it out of the darkness resulting from a childhood of cruelty and betrayal.
In these days following the public apology, I find myself exhausted by all I have learned, and by all I have yet to learn.
I am wanting a break from the awfulness of it, and feeling guilty about being able to take that break; for those who have suffered, there is no respite.
How will this public confession and subsequent apology affect this town?
How can it not?
We cannot unknow what we learn; the knowledge of the residential schools belongs to all of us now, those who experienced it directly and those of us who have been told of it — there is no going back.
Now when I see a First Nation person, I see them through this lens of understanding; through days of in-depth media coverage, so much about their present circumstances has been explained.
The idea central to my thoughts these troubled days is this:
If we are not all OK, then none of us are OK.
Love and peace,
Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.