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Purging the ghosts: Former residential-school student pens moving memoir

Posted: 08/30/2014 2:02 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 08/30/2014 6:14 AM | Updates


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Once considered proud symbols of Canada's contribution towards maintaining homogeneity within the British Empire, today, their harshest critics call them ugly scar tissue from a government-sponsored attempt at revising history through cultural genocide.

In 1996, the last residential school closed its doors in Saskatchewan, ending a shameful, century-long forced assimilation of young indigenous people disguised as an education opportunity.

What happened at these often-secretive institutions is now public knowledge, gleaned from testimonials of former students at various commissions of inquiry, but this aptly-titled, well-crafted book is an especially poignant reminder of the harm they caused.

To paraphrase Churchill's famous descriptive, Up Ghost River is a memoir containing a polemic wrapped in native history.

Erudite, with revealing photographs, it contains a series of recollections written by an award-winning Cree activist and educator, now in his late 60s.

Metatawabin was a translator during hearings leading to the Ontario Supreme Court's decision in January 2014 that forced the federal government to release all records of abuse from residential schools.

Much of this book consists of reassembled memories, where raw, often-coarse dialogues between various individuals offer emotional connections for readers, allowing insights into Metatawabin's strong support for the growing activism by indigenous groups, like the Idle No More movement.

It's an effective writing style, for by weaving together memoirs and indigenous cultural practises, the case that he makes for a louder voice in the country's political, economic and environmental decisions is cleverly strengthened.

Nightmarishly vivid confessions -- being sexually abused, whipped, forced to eat his vomit, and suffering jolts from a crude but functional electric chair -- complement those heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that opened in Winnipeg in June 2010, and is now scheduled to present a final report in July 2015.

From his memories of the 1950s, Metatawabin recalls the gist of the principal's annual lofty words to new students, like those at the start of his own eight-year stay at St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany, northern Ontario: "We are here to make you into good Christians and honourable members of Her Majesty's Kingdom."

Lined up according to height, the small-statured, Cree-speaking, seven-year-old Metatawabin is told "Number 4" is now his new name, but after learning the new language remembers thinking, "even dogs have real names."

For many of the more than 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Métis students who attended such schools, the insensitive and often-brutal treatment spawned a litany of consequences: Loss of language and culture; loss of respect for education and authority; loss of faith and trust in government; devastation to self-identity; and confusion about family roles.

Metatawabin writes, "the harms done to one generation become the fate of the next," a grievous observation supported by the disproportionate number of indigenous people crowding our penal system.

Being a capable student, Metatawabin was spared a similar fate, but separation from his Cree roots led to an identity crisis, negating the positives in his life, like a degree from Trent University and a loving wife and children.

He recalls how memories of former abusers made it difficult to "get over it," and not until he travelled to Alberta to learn more from elders about Cree rituals and spirituality was he able to reconnect with his culture, purge his ghosts and control an alcohol dependency.

Elected chief of Fort Albany, Metatawabin then helped arrange conferences in the 1990s that became precursors of historic lawsuits by indigenous groups and subsequent convictions of former abusers, prompting apologies from church leaders and from Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.

The $2 billion awarded to survivors of residential schools is another measure of atonement that Metatawabin feels justify his attempts to "honour the memory and harms done to the ancestors."

Metatawabin hopes his activism will help him find the quiet waters of peace and forgiveness, the place where Justice Murray Sinclair, who heads the TRC, has often said all Canadians must someday meet for true reconciliation to occur.

Acknowledgment of Metatawabin's mentor and researcher, Alexandra Shimo, a former editor at Maclean's, together with a heartfelt tribute by acclaimed aboriginal writer Joseph Boyden, both add to this memoir's sincerity.

It's a notable depiction of a dark period in native history, and like Beatrice Culleton's intense account of being a Métis in Canada (April Raintree, 1983), it reminds us that biased perceptions create harsh realities.


Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2014 G5


Updated on Saturday, August 30, 2014 at 6:14 AM CDT: Formatting.

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