Sept 27, 2023
Father’s Day, Labour Day and a whole myriad of events are designated as “the day’ for supporting or celebrating that particular thing. While it is significant to bring the subjects of these days into the light it is also important to remember that in some cases these acknowledgments should be on-going, not just for a day but for every single day of the year.
It is interesting to note that the collective “we” choose to pick just one single day to acknowledge those things we deem important to all of us. Father’s Day, Labour Day and a whole myriad of events are designated as “the day’ for supporting or celebrating that particular thing. While it is significant to bring the subjects of these days into the light it is also important to remember that in some cases these acknowledgments should be on-going, not just for a day but for every single day of the year.
So as we approach September 30th, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, I think we should all recognize that this path of healing that this nation is committing to with our First Nations brethren is to be a continuous process of recognition, healing and acts of kindness. Every single day. This national holiday is one set aside to honor, reflect and learn. “Everyone needs to work together to create an environment free from racism and discrimination, and where all people feel safe and respected.”
I have been on my own journey the last few years delving into the history of our First Nations peoples and it has been a difficult one for me. As a historian I look back at how things unfolded and share them when I think they are important.
First Nation’s stories are rife with pain and crushing oppression. At every turn, in every book I have read, the anger and the shame of how we have treated them overwhelms me. Amongst my library collection is a book entitled, “Clearing the Plains – Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life by James Daschuk. It should be required reading by all Canadians. It demonstrates “how infectious disease and state-supported starvation combined to create a creeping relentless catastrophe that persists to the present day.” This goes very deep with 55 pages of notes and a 50 page bibliography, so the research is rock solid.
Recently I revisited my copy of Ten Lost Years (1929-1939) Memories of Canadians Who Survived the Depression by Barry Broadfoot and discovered there was a chapter, in his compendium of interviews, entitled They Didn’t Consider Indians As People. I don’t like using the word Indian because as we all know it is a terrible misnomer but in the context of this book and when it was written, it was, like the word Eskimo, the commonly used term.
There is a brief introduction to the chapter where Broadfoot states the following about how it was for them during those years. “….an Indian, if he lived in the city or near one, or on a reserve, was in far worse shape during the Depression. Under the thumb of the white man, the police, the magistrates, the relief people, the Indian Affairs bureaucrats, the residential school teachers, the store keepers and the whiskey peddlers, he and his family didn’t stand a chance. “
There are only a few profound stories in this chapter, each being a painful personal remembrance of how it was and how they were treated. One interviewee stated the following, “About 1931 when the federal government pushed through emergency assistance payments, the city family got $15 a month and the country family got $10 a month because they’d likely have a cow and a pig and a big garden- and the Indian family got $5 a month because they could live off the land! Indians haven’t lived off the land since the days of Custer, but you couldn’t tell the bastards in Ottawa that. I honestly think they didn’t consider Indians as people”
In the last couple of years I have had several encounters with the Piikani First Nation and each time I have come away struck by their kind gentle nature. The first was a significant moment in time when members of the Piikani met with museum staff to discuss moving forward with finally interpreting their long history in the area. At the meeting were several elders and three young men who sat quietly and listened for some time to the exchanges. Then one of them gave a hugely impassioned speech about who they are and what they believe and then he sang a special Blackfoot song. They also smudged and blessed the meeting room and the doorway with a sacred rock they carried. There was no condemnation or bitterness discernible within them all. We were all humbled by them.
My second encounter was when I was invited last spring to write about an amazing Piikani woman by the name of Beatrice Little Mustache. The occasion for the article was her receiving a Doctors of Law from the University of British Columbia for her 42 years of service to her people in the health care and child welfare system. Again what I encountered was a kind, gentle natured person with humility. Beatrice’s credo that she was taught by her Blackfoot parents is to be “kind, caring, gentle and positively assertive when I need to be. “ Someone who had endured the residential school system and carried on to achieve such a phenomenal record that an honorary law degree was deemed appropriate. I saw once again in her the special nature of these people.
My most recent encounter was at the July 19th “Fist Full of Dollars” Roxy Theater event in downtown Coleman. It was a grand affair and several Piikani had been invited including a remarkable man named Peter Strikes With a Gun. Peter, a former Piikani Nation chief sat and played old tunes on his guitar and then sporting his traditional headdress stood proudly and spoke to the crowd. It was not evident to study this man that at 8-years of age he was abruptly taken away from a life where he already drove tractors and teams of horses as well. Peter recalled at a reconciliation event in 2021 that, “At the residential school that I went to I never felt loved. My number was 56. I remember getting whipped three times a day for one week and I didn’t know a word of English.”
It was truly a special moment that day as he reflected on early memories of Coleman where he smiled and recalled that many years ago at a restaurant down the street one could buy a wonderful dinner for a dollar. He acknowledged the efforts of what was going on with the Roxy and its importance in preserving this “lodge” and all the memories that go with it. I found it incredibly ironic that, at this place where for years cowboy movies were run that vilified the Indian, now a magnificent chief stood and gave a special Blackfoot language blessing over the theater. It is a beautiful language to listen to. He joked at one point earlier on that they never wanted to be the Indians in the movies themselves. How gracious is that?
Again I saw this prevalent kind gentle demeanor that is so common amongst our Piikani brethren. When Beatrice Little Mustache spoke to the graduating class at UBC she challenged the grads to step out of their comfort zone and go educate themselves on First Nation territories. “Learn our culture and our protocols; maybe even attend a powwow. By doing this you will see a world different from who you are. You will see the seven sacred teachings in action.” Truth, humility, wisdom, honesty, courage, respect and love.
September 30th is Orange Shirt Day, a day when we remember the intergenerational effects of residential schools and acknowledge that “Every Child Matters”. When Phyllis Webstad prepared for her first day of school at the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School near Williams Lake, B.C. in 1973 she was sporting a brand new orange shirt her grandmother had picked out for her. It was immediately stripped away from her at the school and was the first of many atrocities and traumas that this now respected author and creator of Orange Shirt Day experienced.
British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon have designated September 30th as a statutory holiday. It falls on a Saturday this year but regardless of the day it lands on, try and find time to reflect and learn more about the residential school story. And think about Beatrice and the seven sacred teachings of the Blackfoot.