Victoria and the Schools of Sorrow

I stood in the middle of the British Columbia Museum and wept.  I was reading the human history of the west coast lands, now known as British Columbia, and when I came to the period when the British began to 'colonise and consolidate' the land that Captain Cook and his lieutenant Vancouver had claimed, it was almost unbearable.

When they arrived the land was already inhabited;  and when British Columbia was annexed as Crown Territory there were still three indigenous people to every British immigrant.  Our justification was that - according to the first Commissioner for Land - the 'Indians' had no right to the land because 'they can put no value on it' and it had 'no utility for them'.  The ideology was that unless you can put a price on something or turn it into profit, you have no right to have it. Because the First Nation people did not exploit or cultivate the land and because land ownership was a totally alien concept, their land rights were simply taken away to be given 'to some industrious people' eg the British invaders.  What happened next has been referred to as genocide, but it was a complex process.

The exhibition I was looking at in the Museum, is called 'Living Language' and is placed at the centre of their permanent exhibition of the human history of the territory.  British Columbia once had more indigenous languages than any other country.  One or two of these languages have no relationship to any other language on earth - they are totally unique.  And so are the concepts that these languages express.  The word Put 'lt  for instance, means 'everything belongs to those not yet born' - a phrase you'd think that the colonialists should have listened to.  The indigenous people also believed that their language came from the land and was inextricably connected to it.  It also connects with their history.  One native speaker said to me, 'It is an invisible line from the heart into the past'.

The great power of language to connect people and communities to each other and to their land is demonstrated by the great lengths that the British Colonial authorities were prepared to go to separate the indigenous people from those languages.  To achieve assimilation and Europeanisation, the Canadian government worked with the churches to create and administer Residential Schools for First Nation children.

The openly avowed intention was 'to kill the Indian in the child' - but in many cases it also killed the child.  The death rate was around 40%, but attendance was mandatory for all children aged 5-15.  'Indian Agents' and the Police forcibly removed children from their homes and arrested parents who resisted.

These schools were known as 'the Schools of Sorrow'.  The speaking of aboriginal languages was banned, and the personal testimonies of survivors (more than 50,000 children died) makes grim reading.  They were subjected to abuse; physical, sexual and psychological.  They were under-clothed, under-fed, ill-treated, and subjected to excessive, often sadistic, corporal punishment. Many are now deaf or suffer eye and breathing defects because they were repeatedly hit over the head. Some lost limbs from frost-bite from being shut outside in winter as a punishment. They can now claim compensation, but no amount of money can ever compensate for what they suffered then and still suffer now.

Many of the children refused to be broken.  Two little boys stole a rowing boat and managed to row to another island.  There's a heart-breaking exhibit of two keys made from sardine tin openers that were made by enterprising children to break into the school's locked food stores.  And there was also, among all the terrible testimony, the underlining of the power of story-telling.  In every dormitory there was always one child who would risk punishment to tell the traditional stories and keep them alive.  'There were always storytellers', this woman says.

This is not in the distant past - the last school was closed in 1996.

Now you know why I was weeping.  And I haven't told you some of the worst things because they are unbearable.  That supposedly civilised people purporting to have Christian values could perpetrate such cruelty is hard to believe.  But we did and must shoulder some of the moral responsibility.  In 2008 the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, apologised, alongside the churches and representatives of the Police.
Unbearable testimony, but it needs to be heard. 
Against all the odds, the First Nation people managed to hold on to the shreds of their culture and their languages and are beginning to rebuild, through a process of what is called 'Truth and Reconciliation'.  Some First Nation people have even managed to regain the land that was never legally ceded in the first place.  But it's taken a long time and a lot of fighting through the courts.  It's interesting that the ones who are rebuilding most successfully are those who managed to hang on to their language - a language in which their identity, their values and their culture is embedded.

We don't deserve it, but there is considerable forgiveness and a reaching out.  This is the fabulous Haida musician Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson performing a traditional Haida Peace-making song which she will be singing in a concert in Vancouver this weekend.


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