I arrived in Canada the following year after the last residential school has been closed (in Saskatchewan). Little did I know about the “Indians” of this land… most of our knowledge over there in Eastern Europe came from J.F. Cooper’s five books, and some novels of the German writer Karl May, who, allegedly, never stepped on this continent. And of course, some crazy movies, which we knew even at that time that they were fake: based on said German guy’s popular books, produced by the DDR (East Germany!) and filmed in Yugoslavia, featuring the Serb actor Gojko Mitić as the good Indian… Those were the times we grew up in.
Then I arrived in Canada when the Confederation turned 130 years old, and the only person I knew living here was an old Hungarian “fifty sixer” who happened to marry a First Nation woman and they raised six kids. She was a nurse in her active years. My first dinner invitation was at their house, my first visit to a reserve was with them, my first trip to a powwow happened thanks to them and so on. And, of course, I’ve learned a lot about the Native culture, about their lives. I met all the “kids”, by that time already adults with different career paths.
No, at that time I didn’t know about the residential schools. As the years went on, and I wanted to know everything about my chosen country, I came to face not only the glorious and admirable history but also the ugly… Every nation has skeletons in the closet, some say. This is true but when it comes to children, defenceless and innocent children – it is revolting. And sad, extremely sad.
Now my friend’s wife and he are both gone. One of the children also died in his forties. The others are still around but didn’t meet them for long years.
When I was present, we never discussed this kind of whites vs. “Indians” issues. Although we passionately talked about the living conditions on the reserves, the possibilities to eventually change things, health care and economics, and all the things that affected their lives.
I am not sure what would I say to them today, on this Canada Day… I am also lost when I need to define for myself where do I fit in this narrative? Yes, I am a European white male, and I came to Canada because after living and settled in two and working altogether in four countries on the old continent, I realized that this land might offer what none of those places did. I exchanged my unhappy minority status over there to that of a first-generation immigrant to speak and write in a foreign language over here. Canada provided what “promised”… and God kept our land glorious and free. Nobody told us about the price the Aboriginals paid for this.
We have to admit that the previous generations did terrible things to the First Nations while building a young and dynamic country. And it wasn’t even necessary – the good country that it became by these days, didn’t need this stain on its honour. But where do I fit in this story? Would it still be possible to sit down with my good late friend’s “Indian” children and have a chat about life? Or just due to belonging to the race of the oppressors by the accident of being born in Europe, am I now also the enemy? Also, I am not a member of the Catholic Church or of the Anglican Church, United Church, Presbyterian Church – or the Government and RCMP. I am just a latecomer who is witnessing only the aftermath.
Can we still say, “Happy Canada Day”? Or…
I used to be a teacher at the very beginning of my professional career, and I can’t even fathom or imagine the unspeakable things that happened in those residential schools. Yet, we do have to speak about them, we all have to come to terms with this tragedy. But I just can’t. I don’t know what to say anymore. I don’t know how to hug my late friend’s children anymore.
Oh, you, Canada – why did you do this to us?
Featured image: Norval Morrisseau, Self-Portrait Devoured by Demons, 1964
Acrylic on paper, 209.2 x 78.7 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.