Right now there is a traditionally carved canoe on display in the lower rotunda of our provincial legislature buildings. This canoe was recently carved by the current Lieutenant Governor of our province, the first ever First Nations man to hold this position. There is an accompanying plaque that explains the thoughts of the LG, and why he felt such a strong compulsion to carve this piece. His quote is quite long, so I won't fully recount it here, but I will say that it ends with this resonant metaphor: "We are all paddling in the same canoe."
A few days ago I wrote a post about instant, life changing revelations. After I published that post I had an experience that did that thing that life sometimes does when we get a moment of pure profundity in the midst of the crazy, stress-filled race. I had the kind of experience that seems to cause a little shift in reality that actually, actually changes the game a bit. Instantly.
Here's what happened:
J. and I have a regular, annual gig as the writers and directors of a wonderful theatre program at our provincial legislature. Young, emerging actors are hired to assume the roles of historical characters from our province's governmental history. Because J. was far too busy, I assumed full responsibility for the rehearsal period this season.
So, for the past few days, I have been here in our capital city directing some great young performers.
The training period includes rehearsal of scripted material, training in improvised interaction, and several historically themed lectures, workshops and field trips. On a rehearsal day last week I had just finished up a one-on-one session with one of the actors before we were to head off on a field trip to a local historic hotel. I sent the actor back to the green room to put away his props. We were to meet the rest of the cast in the main building in a few minutes, so I headed to the designated meeting place. But I never made it that far.
As I was about to head up the big stone steps to the main entrance I was stopped by a First Nations man who was pushing a small, not-quite-toddler in a stroller.
"Hey, can I ask you a question?" the man said.
"Who are those guys?" he asked, indicating the security guards at the main entrance.
"Oh, just the security guards" I said.
"So, what do they do?"
"Well, they just kind of watch people as they go in and come out, you know, make sure no one's getting up to no good."
The man smiled, bemused. "Oh, so they keep people out?"
"Well, anyone can go in," I said, "I think they just need to be there to make sure, you know, no one is bringing in a weapon, or a drippy ice cream, or anything like that."
We both laughed.
"I'm from _________ Island." the man said (I won't say the name of the island, to protect his identity).
"What brings you to town?' I asked.
"Her" he says, indicating the adorable little girl in his charge.
"Is she your daughter?"
My face must have registered the shock I felt, as he instantly addressed my unspoken observation: this guy does not look old enough to be this kid's grandfather.
"I went to the residential schools," he said casually, "so we learned how to do that stuff really young. I had my first kid when I was 10."
A wave of sick pulsed through me. The residential schools.
The Residential Schools.
If you are reading this and you are Canadian, you know. You know exactly what that means. If you are not Canadian, then know this: the darkest shame of our national history is The Residential Schools. I am no expert on the subject, and the reality of this repulsive part of Canada's story is so vile it seems wrong to allow anyone who did not live it to ever dare to tell the story. But, for non-Canadians, I will explain it a bit.
For many, many years (far too many) Aboriginal families were ripped apart. Their children were stolen, forced into schools whose sinister mandate was to knock the culture out of the kids so they could assimilate into white society. These children - children! were forcibly separated from their parents, were punished for the "crime" of speaking their own language, were treated as less than human. And worse, and most shameful of all, they were relentlessly abused - psychologically, physically and sexually. Most of these schools were run by organised religions. So, much of this cruelty was in the name of God. It was a staggering act of Euro-centric arrogance and a hotbed for sadists who let themselves believe that they were somehow allowed to practice pure, conscious-less torture because these children were "heathen savages" in need of repentance.
The man then told me his story, and I will never, ever forget how privileged I felt, and feel, to have been there to listen.
The man first told me about how one of his own sons neglected his obligations to a child he had fathered. "This is not how we do it in our culture," the man explained. He told me how the elders had met and decided a course of action for this young man. They sent him to a reserve where he could get a good job, and then set up bank accounts for all of the girls he had sired. By the time these girls come of age they will all have a healthy nest egg to give them a good start in life.
Then the man told me, in a gentle but firm manner of storytelling, about the specific abuses to which he had been victim. He told me how the "brothers" tricked the young boys into the furnace room by promising a chance to carve. "All little native kids love to carve," said the man. There was no carving done in that furnace room. I won't list the abuses here, because I needn't and won't. But they were worse than anything you might be imagining right now.
By this time I was freely weeping.
The man told me of how other men from his community, now in their 50s, suffered for years from the trauma of what they saw and what they experienced. And then he told me about a time when several of these men found one of the "brothers" who had abused them, captured the perpetrator and took him to a place where they intended to cause severe bodily harm. But a small First Nations boy stopped them, and asked them not to hurt the man. And they didn't.
"The next day, for the first time in their lives," said the man "their hands stopped sweating whenever they saw a white guy."
"That boy healed them," he explained.
We spoke for some time. I told the man about the work I do - theatre in museums - and about my MA thesis, and how it specifically deals with the discomfort I feel at the often unavoidable Euro-centricity this kind of work evokes. I told him about my strong belief that, if we are to make sense of who we are now in Canada, in this post-colonial age, we need to start talking to each other about ourselves. We need to get rid of the choking political correctness that makes us censor ourselves whenever we want to talk about what happened to us then, and how it made us who we are now. We don't even know who we are now. I told him about how I am descended from First Nations, and how I went to an elementary school with Aboriginal children who were bused there from a central residence. And then I told him about how, since I was a child, I have felt a kind of yearning to know the First Nations part of myself. This is a deep truth for me. I long to know more about this blood that runs in my veins, but because I did not grow up in a household that identified itself as native, and I did not suffer any of the indignities that so many aboriginal children did, I have always felt so confused about how and if to address this empty space in me - do I deserve this feeling? Do I deserve to seek knowledge of this part of who I am?
The man said: "Here is what you need to do." And with that, he offered me precise directions on how to perform a ritual that he believes will help me deal with my own confusion about my heritage.
"I'm not a medicine man," he said, "but people seem to like the way I talk."
He told me about the work he has done to bring peace to himself - traditional healing rituals as well as good old Freudian-based therapy and counselling.
And then he said: "Well, I better go. It's all about the stories, eh?"
"What do I do? " I asked, not wanting him to walk out of my life just yet.
"What was it all for? What was all that cruelty for?"
I wanted him to answer questions for which there are no words.
"It's good to share the stories." he said. "But don't think too much. When I see someone who thinks too much I say: look at her, she thinks so much. She needs to let go, and to heal. Do what I told you."
And I will.
I watched the man walk away, pushing the stroller that contained his grand baby. I rushed off to join my cast as they toured a celebrated landmark that was built by a white guy a long time ago. As we walked the unquestionably spectacular hall, and shared stories about the rich foreigners and royals who had graced the hotel, I could not help but see the irony of the moment.
I live in a place that has yet to make its peace with its own past, and here was I, smack in the middle of the great truth we hardly ever speak: we might be descended from the people who walked the halls of this great hotel, or we might be descended from the great aboriginals of our part of the world, we may even be descended from the perpetrators or victims of the worst kinds of cruelty; but no matter what, we are all now paddling in the same canoe.
We don't see that yet.
But for a few moments, on that day, that man and I were in that canoe together.