One of my summer reads has been Thomas King’s ‘Indians on Vacation.’ It’s my second time through. I’m seeing more of the dynamic of a close-to-retirement husband and wife on vacation, away from the norms of their day-to-day Life, in the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague. Bird Mavrias and Mimi Bullshield are indigenous (Mimi – Blackfoot, Bird Cherokee, and Greek). They live in Toronto. In one sense, the vacation draws them away from the norms of their everyday lives, lives in which their indigeneity and that of indigenous persons within Canada are at issue. As well, it draws them out from their daily lives in Toronto.
While the proposed purpose of their trip is to search for evidence of Mimi’s Uncle Leroy and his European travels as part of an ‘Old West’ show and the medicine/memory bundle he would have carried, Mimi and Bird explore Prague – museums, walkabouts, the Charles bridge and more. While each is present to each site they investigate, each point of interest, as touchstone, leverages memory, the residue of significant happenings in their Lives – narratives of things done, not done, incomplete, and yet to complete. Each memory becomes a current stepping stone for what has brought them to Prague, each spilling out in response to what they encounter, and each often associates to unfinished/incomplete works in their lives.
Mimi and Bird move through Prague as ‘near-to-be’ retirees. They observe, they chat, they chuckle … they pull each other along, they love each other. Mimi has a moment in one of the museums, where she recalls a by-the-way kind of fact, ‘you know, they did that [ … ] at residential schools.’ The statement comes across with sober, unflinching anger. It is one inconceivable act (a haunting, repulsive consideration in this read) among the many that surfaced in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. ‘So, we’re in Prague …’ begins most chapters. In structure, it’s a re-orienting phrase that allows Bird to recap and move forward in his telling of what’s next. Occasionally, perhaps often, the statement is a way for Bird to step into his day. It often comes across as resignation – a way of saying, yes this all happened. But, it comes across with resolve too – I still choose to move forward.
Prague’s Charles Bridge seems significant. It is a medieval, sandstone structure and along either side of the bridge are statues of saints, the Madonna, the crucifix, and Calvary – there are thirty-one statues they encounter strolling from one side to the other. In one sense, the statues may act as the grandfathers do in terms of Tipi poles – anchoring points for wisdom to be lived out in action. Perhaps the intention is to contrast the saints encountered in Prague with those encountered at residential schools.
In my grappling with what residential schools were and all I am coming to know about their history and Canada’s history, I note that ten years ago the dominant word used would have been colonization and reference would have been made to colonizers. Now, ten years on, we seem to be in a time acknowledging the guilt of wrongdoing by the government and those running residential schools. Now there are Calls to Action that follow from the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One action taken as a step forward occurred this past summer. Pope Francis came to Canada and Maskwacis in Alberta and apologized to residential school survivors for how members of the Catholic Church co-operated in the cultural destruction of Indigenous Life.
My learning about residential schools came about as an educator beginning my teaching career at a school, on-reserve within a fly-in community. In the early nineteen nineties, my wife and I taught at a First Nation school in northern Alberta. As we began our first teaching year, there, an addition was being built onto the school. Students and staff weathered the inconveniences of learning and teaching in a school while a part of it was under construction. We completed our year well.
As we returned to school in the following year, the school’s renovation was complete. Classrooms would make do with existing furniture until new desks, chairs, and tables would arrive once the ice bridge allowed transport trucks across the river to the community. In that last week of August before the start of school in our renovated school, there was an occurrence. Staff were at the school into the evening with their work, readying the school and classrooms for learning, assembling the year’s plans for teaching. It might have been 8:00 p.m. and staff that had been at school began to leave for home, their teacherages.
One of our educational assistants, indigenous and fluent in his Cree language and culture, walked past one of the new classrooms, one that would be used for a kindergarten class, a class meant to acquaint students with the routines of school and to help them work in a bilingual Cree and English learning environment. No one was in this classroom as our educational assistant walked by. School corridor lights were starting to be turned off. The classroom’s lights had been shut off. As our educational assistant walked past, the classroom door opened … on its own. This event was significant and troubled the educational assistant. He took the information to community elders. We, as a staff, heard about the event days later.
Elders were concerned and did not want to send children to school. One of the elders asserted that the incident had to do with the souls of students who have died. A Jesuit priest who served the community was called upon and asked to perform an exorcism of the school using the burning of sweetgrass and holy water. We did begin the school year, but it took six weeks to gather most students into a regular pattern of daily attendance. All that happened in the fall of 1992, in a new school within a First Nation in its first years of self-government.
There is a learning point for me, here, though – something I had not grasped until 29 May 2021. From the time of the door opening in our new school and the community’s response to it, I grew to understand more and more about the residential school survivor experience. Through time survivors and counselors who worked with survivors would tell me little bits of what had gone on with residential schools and about impacts. As a teacher, attention would be drawn to the matter of taking children away from their parents and being without parent examples through their time at residential school as a dynamic impacting the parenting choices of residential school survivors – a void of parenting knowledge. My understanding began to grow about something called ‘Residential school syndrome,’ something similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Here, the First Nation we worked with, back then, is to be commended for one of the primary goals they asserted for their teachers – in all that teachers did and would undertake in their teaching, teachers were to work from a stance of ‘good understanding’ when working with students and their parents.
But, there was more. A newer revelation came my way. I had not yet grasped this other potentiality for First Nation parents and families. On 29 May 2021, the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia disclosed that the remains of approximately two-hundred children were found buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. In hearing this news, I understood something significantly more disturbing than what had been my understanding about survivors and their families. While Indigenous children were taken from their families to school, it sometimes was the case that children did not return home. In the case of the Kamloops residential school, these two-hundred children are now considered missing children because their deaths are undocumented.
Michelle Good’s novel, ‘Five Little Indians,’ opens out the experience(s) of residential school survivors. What is more, though, parts of the novel have the reader consider that it was sometimes the case that a child’s parents were never informed of their child’s death. Children did not always return home to their parents and family from residential school.
In northern Alberta, at the school we taught at all those years ago, the kindergarten door opening in front of our educational assistant at a newly built school now had a deeper significance. At that time, the elders had considered that the souls of children who had not returned home from residential school were responsible for the classroom door opening. In May 2021, with the Kamloops residential school disclosure of graves surrounding the school, I was now able to understand more of the reality behind the elders’ concerns in sending students, their children to school.
Listening to: Bob Dylan’s ‘Dignity,’ John Prine’s ‘Summer’s End,’ Bruce Springsteen’s ‘One Step Up,’ and Blue Rodeo’s ‘Hasn’t Hit Me Yet;’ also a good listen to Gord Downie’s ‘Secret Path for Chanie Wenjack.’ Listening as well to Northern Cree’s ‘Straight Song,’ ‘A Song for TJ,’ and ‘Wah-Yo, Always Pray It Will Take You a Long Way.’
Quotes to Consider – “The residential school experience is one of the darkest, most troubling chapters in our collective history.” — Justice Murray Sinclair, the commission chairman, in his final remarks on the report.