|What if I'd been born a butterfly?|
|Who IS that guy?!?|
Howard Cameron told a group of us at a church conference last weekend that during his days as an angry, self-destructive young man he was having coffee with his father one day. His father broke the silence at one point with a baffling question: “Who are you?”
Confused, Cameron could think of nothing to say other than, “Well, Dad, I’m your son, Howard.”
His father persisted: “I know you’re my son Howard, but who are you?”
I recently heard a guest on CBC’s Tapestry claim that there are only two questions we ever have to answer in our lives: Who am I? and What, therefore, do I do? (I may not have quoted this exactly, but I think I have the gist of it right.)
Cameron’s talk to us was planned by the conference organizers to give participants a first-hand witness to the consequences of generations of one family trapped in the holocaust that was the residential school system. The topic was occasioned by the fact of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings currently taking place across Canada.
As Cameron spoke, some things became clearer to me. Most importantly was the insight that it wasn’t the presentation of the Christian gospel, per se, that did the great harm in the residential school system; it was the false and foolish misconception that it would first be necessary to scrape away all remnants of Aboriginal children’s identities in order to make room for the “right religion,” hence the “right civilization.” Language, culture, folkways, identification with the ancestors, the comforts of centuries of spiritual continuity, all were brutally whipped (not a figure of speech) out of these poor little children, simultaneously depriving them of the love and embrace of their parents and grandparents.
How was this possible? Why didn’t these same parents and grandparents stand between their children and the authorities and say, “You’re taking my children away for ten months at a time?? Like hell you are!” Those who experienced the system would be far better qualified to answer, but I can imagine that on the bleak and hungry horizon that was reserve life at the time, the promise of warmth and food for the children convinced communities and families that it would be the best they could do.
Maybe it’s time for all Canadians—aboriginal and immigrant—to sincerely revisit the “Who am I” question; we are all signatories to the treaties made so long ago, treaties that should have defined our identities and secured our contiguous futures for generations to come. What does it mean that only the dominant culture has truly benefited from them?
Before the two nations in Canada—the aboriginal and the immigrant—are reconciled completely, it will be necessary that they agree on some important basic truths. So Truth and Reconciliation is aptly titled, and the order is important. I would urge everyone to attend one of the hearings to learn first-hand the truth about the course aboriginal people’s lives took in the wake of the residential school experience. To get in touch with the process, please click on http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=3.