“I was just a little girl. I was just a little girl when I went there, and he took so much away from me.” – Margaret Commodore. September 18, 2013.
Those few words echo in my mind still, almost a week after hearing them. The words capture the story of a woman who was able to forgive everyone if in her life, but not her abuser. The words capture the heartbreak of cultural assimilation, experimentation and execution. They capture the story of Margaret Commodore. Unable to come to terms that she was abused by her educators, she has spent most of her life repressing her emotions and anger; passing on what she repressed to her children. On Wednesday September 18th, in front of a crowd of thousands, she choked out her story in perfect english. Like so many others, her story follows the common narrative of residential school survivors. As a little girl she was stolen from her home and brought to Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. There she spent eight years under the watchful eyes of her oppressors before being spat into the unwelcoming world of Canadian society. She came from a good home originally and would have been fine if she had been left alone, but “someone thought they were much wiser than the rest of us and they took as away to try to make us a different person and it didn’t work.”
As a Canadian citizen I have a unique role in reconciliation. Unlike foreign students, I have a responsibility to be knowledgable of the residential school system. I grew up in this country and it is an embarrassment and an offense to the struggle of First Nations people to be ignorant to this day. Despite the fact that I am a first generation citizen, I have to embrace the bad and good of what it means to be Canadian. If what it means to be Canadian is too deal with horrors committed by my government then I have to accept that.
I am grateful for my upbringing in the alternative school system from grades one to eight. Unlike my peers in Ontario, where Indigenous culture is not as celebrated and well known, I have always known what our society has done to Native Americans and other peoples it has deemed to be unfit for civilized life. However nothing can prepare you to deal with an issue face on. Nothing can prepare you to look at our demon, as Canadians, in the eye and tell it that you’re ready.
On the day of the TRC I went to the UBC Longhouse to learn more. They streamed portions of the TRC and we participated in group discussions to talk about our role in reconciliation. I was intrigued by the thread of education. Having started this problem in the first place, education ought to be the tool the fix it. One man said that what he learned about the residential school system in his Canadian high school was a two paragraph blurb in a textbook. Countless others confirmed his story to be true for them as well. There is a huge gap in the Canadian collective and it has affects down the line. Less educated people are prone to stereotyping and racist ideas which plagues Native communities across the country. Why is it that until this day the horrors of a institutionalized cultural genocide is not known by every Canadian? Why is it that TRC is only known in British Columbia? Why is it that Native Culture is so celebrated here rather than the rest of Canada? These question played at my mind and still do.
Every Canadian citizen, new and old has a role to play in reconciliation. Because like other speakers said during the day, cultural suppression was not limited to only Indigenous people. Through the Chinese Head Tax, the Japanese Internment, and the rejection of Jewish refugees, Canada had proven itself where it is possible and willing to go.
Education is the tool to fix this. UBC has taken a great first step, but look at the native studies classes it offers. Why are there so few courses available. Institutions, especially UBC in it’s connection of being on stolen land, have a responsibility to implement and execute campus wide reconciliation programs. Public schools have to educate the young. Kids grow up quick and it’s time that we’re frank on what happened. The only way forward is though education and it is a responsibility that all Canadians have to be part of.
You can watch Margaret Commodore’s testimony here.