More than 300 people applauded author and activist Wab Kinew Saturday in Langley as he called for an unflinching examination of the residential schools program that tried to extinguish indigenous culture in Canada.
Any review of the forcible removal of First Nations children from their families must be “a no-holds-barred look at what happened,” Kinew said during his address at Langley’s Yorkson Creek Middle School.
Kinew wrote The Reason You Walk: A Memoir, which describes the damage the government-approved residential school program did to his father, Tobasonakwut, who was sexually assaulted by a nun during his stay at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School.
The book was called a “must-read” by the Globe and Mail newspaper, which called Kinew’s account of his family’s journey toward forgiveness “not just a memoir, it’s a meditation on the purpose of living.”
Kinew, who is Anishinaabe, switched between his language and English as he spoke Saturday, saying “every time I speak my language, Sir John A. Macdonald (and the other architects of the residential school program) spin in their graves.”
To say the schools were allowed to continue as long as they did because no one knew about the abuse is not true, Kinew said.
He said the schools continued to operate long after a major Canadian newspaper revealed in 1965 that, among other things, one administrator admitted to deliberately starving the children in his care.
More recently, a report by a University of Guelph food historian found that between 1942 and 1952, indigenous children were used as unwilling subjects to research the effects of malnutrition on northern Manitoba reserves and at six residential schools across the country (milk was withheld, dental services refused and some children were given vitamins and minerals while others received none).
The attitude of cultural superiority toward indigenous people that made the schools possible is still out there, Kinew said.
“This is the uncomfortable truth of reconciliation,” Kinew said.
“In order to fully grasp the enormity of what happened, we have to take a no-holds-barred look.”
Kinew said the executive summary of the final report of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which details the residential school abuses and lays out a program of action, should be made required reading for all Canadians.
He added that the racism of the residential schools has also hurt non-indigenous Canadians.
“You have been damaged on a moral level, you have been damaged on an ethical level and you have been damaged on a real and literal level,” Kinew said.
Kinew was the keynote speaker at ‘A Community Day of Reconciliation,’ part of a weekend-long event organized by former Langley school trustee Cecelia Reekie, whose father is a residential school survivor.
Kwantlen First Nation chief Marilyn Gabriel also spoke at the Saturday event, recounting how she recently encountered a residential school survivor who was just 42 years old.
“It’s not that long ago,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel said children in what is now known as the Kwantlen First Nation were taken away to the Kuper Island Residential School on Penelakut Island, sent a great distance to make sure they wouldn’t be able to run back to their homes.
“They were taken away, some as young as four.” Gabriel said.
Gabriel recalled her mother telling her how her sister, who had eczema, was scrubbed so hard with a brush at the school that it left her bleeding.