I will never forget the first time I heard about the horror of Indian residential schools. It was 1982 and I had been commissioned to write a play for the World Assembly of First Nations. A musical combining traditional native song and dance with contemporary rock, jazz, blues, classical and operatic styles, the play was to cover 500 years of history of First Nations in North America.
My script had to be checked by elders throughout Saskatchewan, and when I told them the play was going to be presented at the magnificent mainstream Saskatchewan Centre of the Arts, many of them told me this might be a fine opportunity to finally tell the world about their experiences at "boarding school."
I had never heard about this sad chapter in Canada's history and some of the stories went way beyond what we have since learned about physical and sexual abuse, cultural genocide and the latest revelation that entire communities were used as "laboratories" with people as guinea pigs for experiments about malnutrition.
My first reaction was one of horror, then shame, then guilt, even though I knew full well I would never be a part of such atrocities and I would never support such terrible behaviour. I was pretty sure I would do everything I could to expose such a wrong and try to get it stopped and prevent it from happening in the future.
This is the natural reaction of any decent person.
But there is a major problem in all of this. And it is holding us back from dealing with the IRS experience and finding the healing we need.
I realized this when I returned home and told some of my friends about what I had learned. After an initial reaction of shock and disbelief, they were horrified, and rightfully so, because they are certainly not the kind of people who would condone that kind of behaviour.
We all agreed the impacts of the residential school experience were multi-generational and had to be dealt with, but I soon discovered most of my friends would just as soon forget about it and move on.
You see, there's kind of a stink that goes along with being the same colour or ethnic background as the perpetrators of this horror. A big stink and this is what is going to compromise whatever the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tries to do.
Because most good Canadians would prefer "denial" than face up to the fact this great country and its great people were part of such a horror.
"Look! I didn't do it. My parents didn't do it and neither did my grandparents! Why should I be responsible for something that happened in the past?"
Pressed with incontrovertible evidence, Canadians have come around to issuing a historic apology and made individual payments to survivors in addition to providing $60 million for the TRC.
There is this huge desire to put this whole sorry mess behind us.
"After all, we said we were sorry and we gave you some money and..."
But still there remains this guilt. The fact that somebody who looks like you and perhaps even could have been you could do something so horrible. Guilt by association.
Some people finally just say, "Get over it," like the longer we talk about it, the longer it stays around and the longer we feel guilty about it.
But most of us just go into deep, deep denial.
Canadians are tired of hearing about the Indian residential school experience. And they desperately want to move on.
And this is what is preventing us from doing that very thing.
We all know the mistreatment First Nations people received in residential schools created dysfunctions in later life that have passed on through generations. Loss of parenting skills, alcoholism and abuse have become a way of life for some and this is manifest in the social and economic problems we are experiencing today.
We cannot solve these problems unless we recognize where they came from and why they are happening. And we cannot do this unless we get over this collective denial and roll up our sleeves and work together with First Nations leadership to restore families and communities which were torn apart by the IRS experience.
I have watched amazed as good people, people I love and trust, almost throw their hands over their ears and shouted like little kids, "I don't wanna hear about that anymore." But no matter what the apology, the payments and the TRC achieve, we are going to have to realize the multi-generational impacts still need to be dealt with and it may take a few generations to get past that.
It starts by overcoming the denial that inflicts us all.
Don Marks wrote and directed the play in Deo, the music video Perfect Crime and other productions that exposed the Indian residential school experience.