Trying to understand the First Nations experience

Tears came to my eyes as the stories were told. To listen of the pain and suffering of survivors of the 60s Sweep reminded me that Canadians have a long way to understanding the atrocities our governments have done to the indigenous people from sea to sea to sea.

To hear the story of one woman who was removed from her parents at 10 days old and taken from her culture to another one. Her parents did not consent to this, the powers that be just decided as a First Nations child she would better off in a white family. She spent the next year-and-a-half being transferred from one foster family to another.

This survivor is now in her early 50s and reconnected with her birth father only when she was 35. But the connection still isn’t one of dad and daughter. It is more adults who never knew each other before.

The exercise takes people through a two-hour journey of reading snippets of the succession Canadian governments’ treatment of First Nations. It’s called the Kairos Blanket Exercise

People stand on blankets representing the lands of the First Nations. As the history is told the blankets grow smaller. As the banning of speaking of native languages happens the blankets grow smaller. As dedicated reserves are removed by the Federal Government some blankets disappear.

For each one of participating in that room, the emotions came out. Each one of us had a different reflection on the Canadian experience for the First Nations across the land.

For me, it was the faces of so many First Nations people that have passed through my life.

I grew up a 15-minute walk from the Musqueam Reserve in Vancouver. In a way, the Musqueam Band was both a part and not a part of our neighbourhood. As a young kid, I would sometimes wander through the reserve. Seeing the cemetery, the homes, and the kids playing. I knew this was their land. But I didn’t know why. And it always seemed to an “us versus them” feeling. But I didn’t know why.

A few years passed and I was in Grade 9. Suddenly my high school had an influx of Musqueam kids. I didn’t know why they came a year late, but they did.

Many of my classmates treated very poorly often calling the boys gigolos and taunt them with racial slurs. One wound being my lab partner in Grade 9 science. Wayne and I would light the gas jets on fire and did other pranks rebellious teenagers might do.

Over in typing class, the teacher was an older man who always wore a cardigan and kind of reminded me of a military Mr Rogers. During touch typing if he caught you looking he’d rap a yardstick across your hands. One day he caught Leonard looking. Just after the yardstick hit Leonard’s hands he grabbed it and broke it. I didn’t understand why the anger.

The Musqueam boys all left high school when they could at age 16. They never graduated with the rest of us. And time passed.

Over the years I met many First Nations people but rarely got to know them. It was like two distinct worlds in one land.

A little over 25 years had passed and I hadn’t seen Wayne, Leonard, Ron or the others.

I keep going back to the nieghbourhood to visit my mom and my brothers. One day I went to the local Save-on Foods when I bumped into Ron. He remembered me and remembered him. We were doing that thing when you meet an old classmate of talking.

Suddenly Ron’s face winced in a bit of sorrow. He started telling me before he went to Point Grey all of them had been in residential schools. He didn’t say much but the tears in the corners of his eyes told me more than his voice might ever say.

Now I was able to understand what was going. I can’t live it, but I can listen to it.

Yesterday, the Kairos Blanket Exercise brought back all those faces and many more. It brought back to stories of lives and communities broken. It took me ever so briefly on a journey of hearing Canada’s story through their voices.

As a nation we have a long way to go on reconciliation with those nations and peoples who had their lands well before the first European arrived. It will be a journey for all of us and at times it will not be easy. It’s time that we work with the First Nations and listen to their hurt, the people they lost in an attempt to make them Canadian and “cultured”. Their languages, cultures are lost never to be replaced.

It is necessary to forge a new Canada where the people who were here before the explorers and settlers arrived are actually equal to all of us.