Sunday, April 17, 2016

My Log 513 April 16 2016: Cree survivor, now an educationalist, Dr George Blacksmith sums up the impact of residential schools on his people in a painful new book

St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechu...
St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Formerly St. Michael's Residential School Buil...
Formerly St. Michael's Residential School Building, Alert Bay. Turned over to 'Namgis First Nation and renamed 'Namgis House in 2003. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

FORGOTTEN FOOTPRINTS: Colonialism from a Cree perspective: the
Social and Psychological Impact of Residential Schools on the James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec, by Dr George Blacksmith. 175 pages, Published by  the Gordon Group, Ottawa.

George Blacksmith was a small Cree boy of five when, in 1955,  he was subjected to a social experiment decreed by the government of Canada, and administered on its behalf largely by the Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian religions. He was  sent off, a trembling bewildered child leaving his home for the first time, to an Indian residential school whose objective was to detach Indian children from the “barbarous” lifestyles of their parents. Now, as Dr.  Blacksmith, describing himself as a survivor (just) , by this time with  a B.A (in education), an M.A. (in educational administration and policy studies), a Ph.D (in educational studies), and a lifetime of teaching and administrative work behind him, he has written a book that describes the experience so pitilessly that it is, at times, difficult to read.
I remember when I first went among the Crees of James Bay in 1969, one of the first things I learned of them was that a McGill University study had discovered that 25 per cent of their pre-and teenage children were already suffering from clinically observable depression. In any other population in Canada this would have aroused a fire storm of protest and objection. But not to worry, they were only Crees. They were only subsistence hunters, 6,000 or so of them, occupying a huge territory, at least as large as France, that, in the general opinion of Canadians, could be, and should be, put to better use for the extraction of  minerals and lumber.
That such a brutal, ignorant and prejudiced policy should ever have been administered in Canada is something that is still hard to believe. I remember how, a few years ago, when I occasionally talked to college students about how their country has treated its aboriginal population, many of them found it hard to believe such things had happened here.  Dr Blacksmith, too, is still busy trying to educate his fellows, and when I talked to him by phone the other day, he had just returned from a session in a Cree school, whose students, like many of those I had met, were almost reluctant to believe what he was telling them.
“I cannot say I’ve fully recovered from the ordeal of my residential school experience, or if I ever will,” he writes. “On leaving school I went back to my roots for five years to find true healing…. Today I am very  proud to have regained my language. I have become a skilled hunter and well-versed in the ways of my people and understand the language of the Elders. I have now been educated in two cultural traditions and understand the distinct content and structural differences inherent in each. I can survive in both worlds and comfortably live in harmony and walk with nature. My tongue no longer hurts when I speak my language.
“When I talk about my culture and express my pride in my people, I am no longer ashamed of who I am. I now accept what has happened to me. I turned to my people for healing on the land and personally took concrete steps, through work and schooling, to stop being a prisoner of the system or a hostage to despair. I did not let Canada’s aboriginal education policy control the direction I needed to take in my life. I decided to ask for forgiveness from those I have hurt --- my family and friends --- for my negative actions due to the personal pain and suffering I endured. Yet, at the same time, I have struggled with my own conscience for years to offer my forgiveness to those who did me wrong in the hope that their lives, too, can now go on.”
I think it would be good if everyone aspiring to any sort of leadership in Canada could read these words, to give them an idea of some of the grimmer realities of life in this country. I am writing this as news is being distributed about a reserve in northern Ontario just across the bay from Dr Blacksmith’s homeland,  where eleven children attempted to commit suicide in one day a week or so ago, and today it is reported that another five children have attempted suicide. If we cannot respond decisively to such a tragic call for help, whatever will we ever respond to?
When I was first confronted with the puzzle of trying to figure out what might be the best way forward for the depressed native population, the first thing that seemed necessary was that they should recover their pride in their history, beliefs, practices, and culture. After that, they needed something of the white man’s education so as to equip them to handle the powerful governmental and business machines that constantly confront them. I am pleased to find that this has been George Blacksmith’s opinion, too. for he speaks of first going back to his roots, educating himself in the traditional life in the bush, learning the skills traditional among his people. Many white observers in recent years, newly aware of the native people and their difficulties, have concluded that the answer lies in assimilation. As this book demonstrates, this is arrant nonsense, because it ignores that assimilation has always been the policy, and is directly responsible for the current condition.
The residential schools had existed almost since the passing of the Indian Act in 1876, but they did not really affect the Cree of northern Quebec until the 1930s. By an accident of history these people had been been almost left alone by Canadian governing authorities. For generations they were serviced through Hudson’s Bay directly from Britain by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which has always operated trading posts --- now more likely retail stores --- in the communities throughout the region. The Bay had always provided the minimal goods the hunters --- transformed into trappers to meet the needs of the fur trade --- took with them into their traplines, and they came to collect the furs in time to transport them to  the coast and back to Scotland each year. The relative isolation of the people from outside influences was what enabled them to keep a coherent hunting culture together, their language under no threat for generations, and their beliefs and practices more or less intact in spite of their acceptance of the Anglican missions who came to them from 1840 onwards.  
But the 1930s brought a railway into the southern reaches of their territory, and that brought white trappers who had no idea of living in harmony with other creatures and quickly cleared out the beaver.  James Watt was a notable Hudson’s Bay factor who helped establish a system under which the beaver recovered, allowing the trappers eventually to administer their own subsistence life as it continued through to the imposition of the James Bay hydro project on them in 1971.
Dr Blacksmith in his book has divided the victims of the residential school system into three generations. The First Generation were those taken into the schools (with the reluctant acquiescence of their parents) from the early 1930s through the 1950s. The Second Generation were people like George himself, and he describes his experience in these words, calmly, but with dramatic effect: “I have been institutionalized for fifteen years of my life. I have personally experienced language and cultural deprivation, family separation, physical and psychological abuse and also experienced the sexual acts of abuse that have shattered the lives of many of my friends from the Cree communities of James Bay.” (Elsewhere in the book he speaks of undergoing a forty-five year drug and alcohol-related addiction, arising from those schooltime experiences)
He allows others of his acquaintance to provide their own testimonies to the impact of these experiences on their lives and those around them.  It is clear that this brutal schooling has carried over into crippled personal lives in the communities.  The list of effects is long and Dr Blacksmith  describes them in great detail: lack of parenting skills, deliberately  inculcated feelings of worthlessness, loss of contact with the original culture and of the skills needed by it, depressions and and other psychological effects --- all these have been among the most drastic effects  of  this so-called educational experience.
The Third Generation are students who have gone  in more recent times to schools that have been often in or close to the communities they serve, “but (these schools) brought with them the same attitudes and three generations of legacy,” Dr. Blacksmith comments. These students have years later been affected by parents and grandparents who are still trying to come to terms with what they have undergone in this immense and totally bizarre social experiment, leaving with them as it has feelings of guilt and betrayal that have become endemic.
Dr. Blacksmith deals with Stephen Harper’s sort-of apology for the residential school system. “In his apology Prime Minister Harper, while not fully understanding the magnitude of the impacts of government policies, acknowledged its ongoing effects,” he comments. “Yet no one from the government ranks has made any meaningful commitment to foster positive change, especially for our young people.”
It is to be hoped that the new government will do better; but it is notable that the aboriginal people are wary of their promises, and are waiting for more concrete proof of their goodwill.
In the last chapters of his book Dr. Blacksmith, who knows whereof he speaks, expresses his dissatisfaction with the results achieved by the Cree School Board now nominally under the control of the Cree, but yet hampered by having to adhere to the Quebec school curriculums and standards. “The same issues in education we had ten years before the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement are still issues today,” he writes.
“There are many assumptions made by outside experts regarding Cree education. As valuable as children are, it is difficult to understand why many of our experts on Cree education continue to impose Western educational assumptions instead of searching for a deeper understanding and a solution to the problems.”
One of the problems here is that the white invaders from Europe assumed that the native people they came in contact with had no system of education at all. Such attitudes obviously still persist. “Traditional education included  the spiritual, physical, social and cultural connection to the land. When the newcomers arrived, the Cree people noticed that the newcomers looked at the land and its resources from an ownership perspective. Many of them considered land something they must possess --- a commodity, which they could sell to make a profit --- and looked at owning all of its resources and eventually establishing their own communities to control the assets…. For the Cree people taking care of the health of the land --- its creatures and water --- was a daily teaching where there were no lesson plans, but all activities were interrelated and central to the survival of their traditional practices.”
Here we come to the nub of the problem: the traditional attitudes and beliefs of the indigenous people are radically different from those of the invaders, but Dr. Blacksmith is too wise to believe his people can manage in the modern world without taking advantage of modern knowledge and learning.
I hope this book gets wide distribution, especially among our decision-makers. The signs for it are good. Published apparently by the Gordon Group, 334 Churchill avenue north, Ottawa, a company with commercial links to the Cree governing bodies, it has been  issued in 1,000 copies, which have been snapped up within the Cree communities, leading to a second printing of 5,000.
Apart from anything else, it is a remarkable testimony to the life experiences of people whose understanding of nature, whose perceptions about the place of human beings among other creatures on this earth, although constantly under attack, are now needed by all of us as never before.


  1. An excellent book, full of truth. Thank you George for your work. I hope all administrators, including school principals and staff, in the Cree entities read this book, so they have a better understanding of our history and the steps necessary to take the long healing journey we are embarking on. Also, I hope some insiteful teachers use this book as a tool to teach our youth the history so they can understand what went wrong and therefore they may find answers. Because it is better to see the truth than it is to be blinded by silence.

  2. I have been trying to find a way to purchase this book, but a Google search has not turned up any results. I even went to the publisher's website. Maybe I missed something. Does someone know where I can purchase this important work? Chiniskuumiten in advance!