Laura Tabac breaks down while telling the TRC of life after her husband died. He had suffered abuse in the Indian residential school system.

Aboriginals try to reconnect with a stolen past

By 
  • July 14, 2011

INUVIK, N.W.T. — Pictures tell stories. Stories tell us who we are. For 15-year-old Mary Masazumi the story falls into the category of mystery.

Her father Alfred is dead and there are no family photo albums at home in Fort Good Hope that stretch back into her father’s childhood. Mary hoped to fill that gap pouring through binders of photos from the archives of the diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith. The diocese came to Inuvik for the Northern National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada June 28 to July 1 with as many photos of students as could be found. Visitors could take home up to five copies. The photos were the most popular attraction outside the commission hearings.

Masazumi’s father went to school at the Immaculate Conception residential school in Aklavik — at least she thinks it was Aklavik.

“He hasn’t told me about residential school,” she said.

Like many young people in the north, Masazumi grew up surrounded by adults who seemed to have no past. None of her relations ever wanted to talk about how they grew up. In Fort Good Hope just about all the older generation went to residential schools. They grew up institutionalized, away from their families, guilty of being aboriginals with the wrong language, an odd culture and suspect religious tendencies.

The Dene community sent a small flotilla of fishing boats down river to Inuvik for the TRC event. They also filled up all the available flights. For Masazumi it was a journey of discovery.

“Seeing what they’ve been through is hard,” she said.

As she scans the pictures looking for a family resemblance, hoping one of her aunts might be able to identify her father, Joe Grandjambe is also looking for family in the 36 classmates he had at Grolier Hall in Inuvik.

“This is really the only family I have,” Grandjambe said. “I really don’t have any other family that grew up in this era. I really don’t know where I would be without them... I have parents I don’t know. I have brothers and sisters I don’t know.”

But Grandjambe knows there’s not much of his residential school family left. He’s kept count and only 13 of the original 36 classmates are still alive.

“Most of them haven’t died of natural causes,” he said.

That includes former Olympian Fred Kelly, who came out of the Inuvik Ski Club to race the 15 kilometres cross country and the 4x10 kilometre relay at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.

“It was the drinking and just trying to recover from the abuse,” explained Grandjambe.

He wants to find a picture of his old friend Kelly to show young people what they could do, who they could be.

“My interest now is my kids here, my grandchildren,” he said. “To make sure they grow up in a different environment.”

But Grandjambe is on the edge of tears even as he smiles at pictures of pretty girls and handsome young men he went to school with from 1960 to 1971. He was taken away to school when he was four years old and lives with memories he would rather obliterate.

“There’s things you can’t live with. Things you can’t share with anyone else,” he said. “That possibility of suicide never leaves your mind.”

Journalists are prepared to ask questions, but we’re not always ready for the answers. What can I say to Joe Grandjambe after he tells me he thought of suicide yesterday, thinks of suicide today and his mind will probably drift to suicide again tomorrow? It is frightening to find myself in the middle of an interview hanging onto a pen and a notebook with a man’s life hanging in the air between us.

Grandjambe wonders why he’s still alive at 54.

“Why me? Is it my wife? Is it my will to just continue on? I ask myself all those questions.”

It’s a horrible history — too heavy a load for one man, or even 13. It’s a burden that ought to be shared. And that’s the point of the TRC. The commission is trying to uncover this history, make all Canadians understand their part in it, start a new conversation between aboriginal Canada and the rest of us.

This tale of colonization — an exercise of political, economic and religious might used to break down cultures and consign entire peoples, languages and ways of life to obscure history — is not how Canadians think of themselves, or wish to. While generation after generation of Americans over the last century-plus have had to own up to their nation’s history of slavery, Canadians cling to our innocence.  

“Every future Canadian, every person educated in this country, needs to learn about this,” said chief commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair. “They need to learn not only about the residential schools but they need to learn a proper history of who aboriginal people are and who Canadians are, so they can look at each other through better eyes.”

The people who have lived in the north among native people get it. Sr. Fay Tromblay is willing to face up to this history. After six years living among the Inuvaluit in Tuktoyaktuk she sat before the TRC commissioners with tears flowing. She begged forgiveness for her colonizing nation and a Church that failed to listen to children who should have received love and care.

Most of us will never go to the north. Most of us barely pay attention to news reports of conditions in native communities. How many of us will take responsibility for what’s been done in our names, by our government, with the help of our Church?

Why were there battles fought in the United States between the cavalry and Indians right into the 20th century, but none in Canada?

“We have come across documentation in government records which says any resistance to what the government is doing to these people will be overcome very easily by the fact we have their children in our schools,” Sinclair said. “They’re not going to fight us like the American Indians are fighting the American government because their children will be in our custody.”

There are two parts to this exercise — first truth and then reconciliation. To know this truth is to weep.

In Inuvik, as people told their stories to commissioners or in sharing circles to one another, I struggled to do my job. I took notes, switched on my recorder, chose the right lens and the right position to capture the moment with my camera. But I cried as I worked. I wondered how much more I could take.

Laura Tabac could hardly speak as she tried to tell of her life since losing her husband. After 30 years of marriage he had finally disclosed abuse he suffered at school. However he died, Tabac couldn’t quite say as she broke down.

“How dare they touch you, my beautiful husband?” she screamed. She is surrounded by health support workers charged with the impossible task of comforting, consoling and watching over the grief stricken. They all cry with her. So she tells them, “I don’t want to live any more.”

There are many widows who grieve. Many hearts are broken. But this is not some distant horror. This family’s tragedy, this community’s pain, has been our doing. We must admit we cannot undo 130 years, seven generations, 150,000 students pushed through a system that misused education as a weapon against people we thought were strange, a remnant of pre-history. We did it because they stood in our way, occupying land we wished to mine and forests we wished to log.

As Catholics we dare not run away from truth, even if the truth is an open wound in the body of Christ.

It is also true that there is no Church without reconciliation. The Church exists to deliver Christ’s reconciliation to the world.

To the extent we have failed, we need to join the order of penitents — to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage to reconciliation.

Petah Inukpuk came from the eastern Arctic to tell his story holding a picture of his grandfather Quaguag. He wanted the commissioners to see where he came from, what kind of people the Inuit were before residential schools.

“He had immense knowledge,” Inukpuk tells me. Having survived millennia in the Arctic his people have the gift of survival, he said.

“To live in this environment, you have to use all of your brain,” he said. “It’s finding the right solutions all the time. That is what what we’re good at. We’re not good at counting the riches, but solving problems.”

But the solution to this cultural breakdown so complete that families have been atomized, language and traditions worn away, eludes Inukpuk. This is different from knowing how to travel, keep warm and feed yourself through months of darkness.

“These people are in pain, but it’s not our nature to feel pain,” he said. “Our people are becoming like white people, lingering on their pain too long.”

Perhaps, but neither the colonized nor colonizers will be able to leave this pain behind without facing our truth and finding reconciliation.

“You will not be able to control us,” said Inukpuk. “It takes energy to control. It takes energy to get out of control. This is not productive.”

“We need to understand that while aboriginal children in residential schools were being taught this about their culture, their language, their identity and their religious views and religious belief, non-aboriginal children in Canada were being taught the very same thing,” said Sinclair. “That means for seven or eight generations non-aboriginal children were being taught that aboriginal people were inferior, their cultures were inferior, that they were irrelevant, that they could only exist in the future if they became Canadians like everybody else. That created an air of disrespect within Canadian society for aboriginal people and it contributes to a significant air of misunderstanding between the peoples, and mistrust.”

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