Speaking to a committee of the BC Legislature a week ago, Richard Jock of the First Nations Health Authority mentioned the legacy of residential schools and the continuing effect on First Nations people.
Liberal MLA Linda Larson(Boundary Similkameen) asked:
How long do you think before the legacy of those residential schools finally burns itself out of the First Nations people?
Afterward, NDP leader John Horgan said:
A question like that reveals remarkable insensitivity on the part of an elected representative toward the tragic experiences suffered by First Nations people in B.C. residential schools.
We should never forget what happened, so that we can ensure nothing like that ever happens again. Premier Christy Clark should immediately ask her MLA, Linda Larson, to apologize for her offensive and insensitive comments.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, talked about Larson’s comments:
I thought they were absolutely inappropriate, ill-informed and, quite frankly, incredibly ignorant. Just as the world still remembers other human-rights atrocities, like the Holocaust, to honour victims and learn from the past, the lasting effects of residential schools on First Nations people must also not be forgotten.
She should know and understand that. That’s why I find it absolutely astounding that she would make such comments.
In response, the MLA accused her critics of playing petty politics. Apparently Linda Larson paid little attention to or learned nothing from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It gave this background to institutions of confinement that lasted about 120 years and ceased to exist only 20 years ago:
Residential schools for Aboriginal people in Canada date back to the 1870s. Over 130 residential schools were located across the country, and the last school closed in 1996. These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children.
During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents’ wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.
The commission described its purpose:
There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.
The expressions by an elected government member demonstrate that racism can be like incurable viruses that reside and reproduce in hidden places. Disease can be resistant to treatment, racism can be resistant to education. It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation’s indigenous people have long been subject to unfair treatment.
UBC historian Jean Barman first published The West Beyond the West in 1991. I’ve been reading a revised edition from 1996. Barman says that in the mid 20th century, First Nations people:
had forced on them a realization of their dependence and subordination. …one of the biggest problems for the Indians was that they weren’t equal to other citizens of Canada. Conditions of everyday life were often appalling. …in some communities, public places refused to serve Indian people. Natives knew that if they walked into a restaurant, they would be asked to leave, and if they refused, the police would be called.
…Veterans and others realized that, despite war service, Indian people were not even citizens…
It was not until the sixties that aboriginal people had the same theoretical rights to purchase and consume liquor in British Columbia as non-aboriginals. I remember informal segregation in my hometown of Powell River. The senior high school enrolled its first students from the Tla’amin Nation in about 1963 and there was very little social interaction and certainly no teaching of indigenous history to school children. Unless one drove almost five miles north of the townsite, there was little evidence of aboriginal presence.
My wife, a long time critical care nurse, worked in the Powell River hospital as a teenager. She still shudders today at a recollection of being told that an indigenous patient’s name did not matter, all that was needed was her band ID number.
Yet, I am sure that much progress has been made in my lifetime, apparently not including MLA Linda Larson. Gwen and I visited Alert Bay three times last year and had opportunity to visit First Nations people who have pride restored but still understand the depth of harms visited upon their elders and the residual impacts that linger on. Generations of parents had children stolen and many youngsters grew to be adults with family bonds injured.
It is vital that we go forward recognizing and respecting the need to reconcile. The BC Liberal Government ought to make clear they believe this is required because it is just, not because it is politically convenient.
My video from a community meeting in Alert Bay to view director Barbara Cranmer’s film.