September 30th was our first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. It has made me pause, reflect, and think about my own conscious and unconscious bias.
I was born and raised in Thunder Bay. There is a large Indigenous population there, something I was aware of growing up but quite honestly didn’t give it much thought and when I did, it was usually not in a positive light.
I look back and I’m ashamed of the racism that existed within our city, and still does, within our neighbourhoods, our schools, our families and me. With all that has come to light in the past year, it has become crystal clear to me now what I did not see back then. Nor, did I learn about in school, or question. Why did we refer to our First Nations people as Indians? Did they want to live on reserves? Why were the kids not in school? What was the cause of the problems they experienced?
One incident that has stuck in my mind and really in my gut all these years is a time in elementary school. I was probably 10 or 11 and an avid skier back then. We skied as much as we could during the winter and right into the spring. After one particular sunny spring weekend of skiing, I came to school on Monday morning and someone remarked to me that I looked like an Indian because my face was tanned. I distinctly remember not liking that one bit.
Of course, I can’t change how I thought and felt in the past. And it doesn’t do any good to beat myself up about it now. I have to make peace with it and move forward. What I can do is increase my awareness and knowledge and change the way I think and act going forward.
Another shocking, yet not so shocking, discovery came to light while I was recently visiting my sister in Thunder Bay. She has our old family piano. I was plunking away at it trying to remember how to play Heart and Soul. Although I have my Grade 8 Royal Conservatory of Music (does that even exist anymore?), it was a very long time ago. I enjoyed playing but was not particularly talented and I definitely cannot play by ear. Somehow we got to talking about when I started playing the piano, who my piano teacher was, and where I went for lessons.
That brought us to the topic of St. Joseph’s Boarding School which was run by the Catholic nuns. My piano playing days started in that building. I vividly remember not liking, even dreading, going there every week. I liked the lessons, loved my teacher, but not the place. There was something about it, as I sat in the vestibule before and after my lesson, that gave me an uneasy feeling, made me feel afraid.
It was dark and gloomy. There was a big staircase that made its way up to the second floor. It was always so quiet. Occasionally, a stone-faced nun would walk by never greeting me or saying hello. Once what looked to me like a grownup man with dark skin whom I assumed was Indigenous and was probably only a teenager, wandered into the front hallway, walked right up to me, looked me in the eye, let out a little laugh, and then walked away. I can tell you I was terrified. Other than that, I never saw or heard a thing.
It turns out St. Joseph’s was a residential school. That realization hit me like a ton of bricks, and it all made sense. We pieced together a timeline from an article we found online. I would have been 5 years old. I could have only gone there for maybe a few months before it was closed, but to me, it seemed like forever, at least a year or more. How I came to take lessons there, I have no idea. My mom has long passed away so we can’t ask her. I’m quite certain she wouldn’t have known it was a residential school. No one did.
I now understand why I stopped going to St. Joseph’s for lessons and started going to my teacher’s apartment. Again, I didn’t ask why. I just knew I was happy not to have to go there anymore.
We were all saddened and sickened by the reporting of the children’s unmarked graves in BC. How could that happen? I felt a queasiness in my stomach and a heaviness in my heart. Now knowing I was inside a residential school brings it to a whole other level. So close to it and yet so far away and unaware.
I had recently read the novel Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese after my daughter read it in her Grade 12 English class. She told me it was the best book she’s ever read. After learning about St. Joseph’s residential school, my sister and I watched the movie on Netflix. Difficult to watch but so necessary. How will we learn without looking at the past? How can we move forward with reconciliation without seeing the truth of what happened? Imagine as parents, what it would be like to have your children taken from your arms, your home, never to be seen again. So much generational trauma. How can we heal that? It seems impossible but we have to try as individuals, as communities, and as a country.
I’ve been sitting on this knowledge, the photo since I got back from my trip to Thunder Bay. I’ve told friends about it, but should I write about it? Is it my place? Is it my story to tell? But a coffee shop member in the Create the Space to Write session encouraged me to write about it. She says it’s important for all of us to hear. It’s vital to hear the stories from Indigenous people themselves. And, it’s important to hear the stories from those of us who were there and oblivious. I agree.
Until next time,