Then and now: Visiting the first residential school in Canada.

Two women led us through the oldest residential school in Canada this afternoon.  One was a survivor.  People who spent part of their childhood in a residential school are known as survivors. The other had a grandfather who lived in this residential school in and around 1899.   They both generously took us - seven Canadian family medicine residents - through one of this country's darkest legacies. 

The Mohawk Institute. 

The Mohawk Institute. 

The school - known as The Mohawk Institute - is located in Brantford, Ontario.  This is where I am training to be a family doctor.  It was formerly run by The Anglican Church but, when the school was shut down and given back to the Six Nations Reserve, it now stands as a living monument for learning and recovery as part of the Woodland Cultural Centre

The "So what?" question for residential schools looms loud in how we talk about the realities of the Indigenous experience in Canada today.  Over 150,000 children in this country were housed in schools like The Mohawk Institute from the early 1800s to the 1990s.

So what?

Some parents gave their children over to the schools and some children were literally plucked from their mothers' arms.  Some were taken by Indian Agents while walking on the reserves.   Some kids were told to go run and hide in the bush whenever they saw a white person approaching so they wouldn't be taken. 

So what?

The stories the two women told today, stories of their own and stories of other survivors, kept triggering some sort of deja vu for me: Oliver Twist, Lord of the Flies, how I imagine the orphans of the Soviet Union lived

The children were referred to by their numbers, never their names? Schindler's List. 

The children beat the living snot out of each other?  Driving through the mean streets of Kabul watching sinewy, dusty little children bully each other, wrestle over food and money and rank. 

So what?

Some children were sexually assaulted.  Repeatedly.  By teachers, staff and even the older boys.  

Children who weren't assaulted were outright neglected.  No human touch.  The slightest bit of bad behaviour meant they weren't eligible for visits with their siblings or parents.  Children who did not speak a word of English were told they were allowed to speak only English and so they were silent. 

Children were told and shown that they were dirty, dirty Indians.  The children were bathed in lye when they first arrived at the Mohawk Institute to signify a deep cultural cleanse. 

So what?

These children turned 16 and were sent out into the world.  Most didn't know their families, their language, their customs.  They weren't quite sure about a "home."  

And most of these children, despite living 24/7 in a "school", did not ever learn to read, write or do math. 

Basement play and school room at The Mohawk Institute.  Courtesy of The Toronto Star. 

Basement play and school room at The Mohawk Institute.  Courtesy of The Toronto Star

These children were so unattached, so developmentally deprived that they could not function like other 16 year olds.  The comparisons to survivors of other collective traumas are apt in that these indignant, demeaning experiences took little holes out of the hearts of these children.  

There was no healing.  There were no services available for survivors because the government of Canada still thought they were doing these families a favour by beating the Native out of them. 

There was absolutely no culpability.  The Anglican Church website talks about The Mohawk Institute as though they operated a prestigious private school, not a national cavern of shame and trauma. 

So what?

Indigenous Canadians tend to die earlier and of more preventable causes.  Indigenous Canadians experience incarceration and homelessness at rates far higher than non-Indigenous Canadians.  Even now, when kids being born today are third and fourth generation survivors, the drivers of these statistics permeate the lineage. 

But our national conversation is rarely one that begs for insight into the Indigenous experience of the past 500 years.  Our national conversation still blames Indigenous Canadians for these inequities in health and social outcomes.  Sure, the CBC gets it but we have such a gaping blind spot when it comes to how the day-to-day life of a 1950s child living in a residential school in Brantford tells you so much about a 26 year old Aboriginal facing jail time in 2016 for violent offence.  

What do I do?

I can't undo the actions of my ancestors.  I can't personally tear down white privilege in this moment, try as I might.  I can't spend all of my time wading through sadness, shame and guilt as a result of the actions of the powerful in my country. 

And people who commit violent offences cannot go without penance.  But things like Gladue sentencing allow Aboriginal offenders to have their crimes put in context, at the court's discretion. 

But I can't sit idly by when some knuckle-dragger on Facebook blames the "Indians" for their own problems in a storm of racist, factually-incorrect ignoramus bluster.  And neither should you.  Learn the stories and share them.  Learn this part of our history and tell your children, your mother, your congregation. 

But I can try to see my patients who struggle with substance abuse, mental illness and isolation more clearly.  Even if they aren't Indigenous or even if they aren't survivors, they've probably survived something.  

When a patient asks me for Traditional medicine, I now see it as an effort to fill those little heart holes inside the bosom of a cultural medical tradition that was almost entirely wiped away a few decades ago.  Western medicine so inadequately deals with trauma of this kind.  Even if I think Traditional medicine isn't going to fix a sinusitis, it doesn't mean it won't fix something much more important.  And that's good enough for me.  

If this moves you, please donate to the Save the Evidence campaign which will try to restore The Mohawk Institute and create an endowment to fund research and preservation activities.  The campaign came out of the work and findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada