My mother is 87 years old. Her mind is still sharp and she will make you a hot cup of tea should you care to pay a call. Catch her in the right mood and she will tell you stories. Mention that you know me and she will tell you stories of my childhood. One of the stories she will tell you is of the day I left home.
I had graduated from High School and had been accepted at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto in their Radio and Television Arts Programme. On the last Saturday in August, 1982, my mother took me to the train station and watched as I boarded the VIA Train (Canada’s version of Amtrak, for my American friends) taking me to Toronto, the largest city in Canada. I was only 18 years old. This was the first time I had travelled alone.
It was some years later that I got to hear my mother tell her version of the story of this day. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she had watched the train pull out of the station and immediately got in her car and drove to the next station stop down the line, in the hopes that I would have changed my mind about leaving and had gotten off. I passed through that station never knowing she was even there. I never knew she had been at the third station stop, either. But, she had. Then, at last, she turned the car around and went home. I understand that there were tears.
As for me, I made it to the heart of downtown Toronto in one piece. Dazzled as I was by the sights and sounds of a city bigger than any I had ever known, struggling as I did to find my academic footing in university, tempted as I was by the alcohol and girls that were made readily available to me at parties that seemed to be everywhere, all the time, I did not call my mother for a full four weeks. Needless to say, that first phone call was met with a mixture of emotions on both ends of the line. I have called her every week since, for the rest of my life. I never realized, up until that first phone call, how much I really meant to my mother. Children, sometimes, take their parent’s Love for granted.
The scene that I have described is not unique to me and my family. Every year, parents take their university or college-aged children to far flung locales and bid them teary goodbyes. There is always a mixture of sadness and pride amid the tears that flow. As parents, we want our children to be happy and safe and successful in life so, at some point, we have to say good-bye and trust that they will be ok without us. It hurts. But, at the same time, it fills our hearts with Hope.
Regardless of any family’s specific story, the general truth is that these separations are planned for well in advance. There is a whole process of applying to various schools, gaining acceptance at one or more, discussing the pros and cons of each choice, dealing with finances, accommodations and much, much more. There are timelines to follow and milestones to pass before there is ever the chance of the tearful goodbyes at an apartment building or dormitory steps. That is the way it was for me and my mother. It is the way it is for countless other families, too.
But, at one time in Canadian History, the idea of children leaving home to attend school far away was, in fact, viewed as Government policy; not for all families in the new land of Canada but, specifically, for the children of Indigenous families. Indigenous nations existed in all regions of, what became Canada, long before European settlers crossed the Atlantic. Their cultures and traditions were rich and well-established. However, as European explorers arrived and began claiming tracts of land for foreign masters across the sea, they did so with a mindset that dictated the need to “civilize the Natives”. By this, they meant forcing the existing Indigenous populations across the land to abandon their own customs and beliefs and adopt those held by the European settlers. One way these beliefs were turned into actual policies that were set into motion came in the form of the Residential School System.
The thinking behind the establishment of the Residential School System was relatively simple; if they could “educate” children in the ways of the Europeans then, these children would grow up to be, more and more, European and, less and less, Indigenous. If successful, the Residential School system could completely transform the thinking, attitudes, beliefs and customs of the entire Indigenous population in only a few short generations. Assimilation would be complete. Indigenous life, as was known at the time, would disappear. Canada would be “civilized” from coast to coast to coast.
When these schools began operation, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and families. They were sent to schools which were, in many cases, hundreds of miles from their homes. Once they arrived, their hair was cut, their clothes were taken from them, they were not allowed to speak in their own language and they were treated with harsh discipline. It was a terrible time for these children and their families.
To get a sense of how Indigenous children suffered in the Residential School System, please watch Gord Downie’s cinematic re-telling of the life and, subsequent death, of one such child, Chanie Wenjack. There is no happily ever after in this story.
Eventually, the Residential School System came into disrepute and ceased to exist as formal Government of Canada policy. But that was not before lasting harm was caused to many Indigenous Nations, their families and to the children who were taken from their homes against their wills. The utter failure of the Residential School System can be seen in a renewed call for understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness between Indigenous Peoples and those of us who call ourselves Canadians. One of the first steps taken on this healing journey was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many victims of the Residential School System were allowed to appear before the Commission and share their personal stories. Many Indigenous elders were asked to document the toll these policies took on their communities. The pictures painted by their words were not pretty. When all were heard, the members of the TRC issued a number of “Calls to Action” aimed at raising levels of awareness of Indigenous issues across the country, as well as, helping to implement systemic changes in how Indigenous culture is recognized, celebrated and appreciated. One of those calls to action can be seen in public schools all across Canada in what has become known as “Orange Shirt Day”.
Today, in classrooms all over Canada, students are being encouraged to wear an orange shirt. They will hear the story of how a young girl, Phyllis Webstad, had her orange shirt taken from her on her first day of Residential School. These modern day students will come to learn of the broader story of what happened to so many Indigenous children and that it was an attempt at, what some, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, term “Cultural Genocide”. Hopefully lessons, painful as they sometimes are, will begin to be learned and younger generations of Canadian students will grow up with a greater level of respect for Indigenous culture, customs and beliefs, as well as, those of other countries, too. When we all take time to appreciate the beauty and wisdom found in cultures different than ours, we all grow richer as a result.
So, when my mother tells her story of the pain she felt as I boarded that train, I have no doubt that her pain was real. But, the choice to leave home that day to go to school far away was mine to make. My mother was involved in every bit of planning that led up to our train station goodbyes. Despite of a few forks in the road, my life has been a happy and successful one since that day.
But, I can’t even begin to imagine how different everything would have been if I had been forced to leave. If soldiers or police officers had dragged me away from all I had known to a life completely unknown. In Life, the freedom to make our own choices is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of how we live. During the time of the Residential School System, freedom to make decisions that affected the most important part of life….Family……was taken away. Powerlessness and anguish followed in its’ wake. Those were terrible times for Indigenous families and stand as a black mark on Humanity.
As my daughters left for school today; Sophie with me to her school and Leah, with my wife, to Leah’s school, all four of us wore our orange shirts. Orange Shirt Day is a somber day but, a hopeful day, as well. Sometimes, going to school brings academic lessons. Today, on Orange Shirt Day, the lessons will be a bit more primal. They will be about the bonds of Love that unite families and how nothing is more important than Love and Family.
Leaving for school and then, coming home to those you love, should always be the bookends to one of childhood’s most important memories. May it always be so for all children, forever more.