Governor General Mary Simon has spoken of reconciliation and moving forward. But such talk is meaningless until Canada owns up to the extent of its crimes against the indigenous peoples.
Recently, I wrote about the sudden emergence of media attention to the horrific issue of the Canada-wide “residential schools”, where starvation, torture, sexual and physical and mental abuse were rife.
In spite of this being raised for decades, and largely ignored in media, recent months has seen interest rise around the globe and suddenly the news awash with reports on the mass graves of native children interred at those institutions.
After publishing my thoughts on the matter, I received an email from Roland Chrisjohn, a PhD-educated clinical psychologist. He is also a professor heading the Native Studies department at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
His email was lengthy, for good reason. For decades, he has been “fighting to get these issues in front of the public. And I admit it has been frustrating.”
Following our email correspondence, I spoke with Dr. Chrisjohn.
“I was contacted in about 1986 by the Caribou Tribal Council in Williams Lake, British Columbia. One of the First Nations in the Council was Alkalai Lake, which had experienced a lot of deaths and suicides. They attributed that to the fact they had a 97% alcoholism rate, including children as young as 10 years old.”
At some point, Chrisjohn said, local women decided to fight this, in just a few years radically tipping the scale to 97% sobriety.
Like many who drink, they had good reasons to, Chrisjohn said. “It was a form of self medication, to forget what happened to them in the Williams Lake residential schools.”
He went on to describe a nearly three-year-long study conducted by residents of Williams Lake, with his guidance, and published in 1991, “Faith Misplaced: Lasting Effects of Abuse in a Native Community.”
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“It’s still the only real study of the lasting effects of residential schools. Everything else in the literature is simply reminisces of individual people, autobiographies, not data.”
According to Chrisjohn, the Caribou Tribal Council wanted to expand the study, and needed funding to do so.
The Catholic Church, he said, agreed to help with funding, “if the Council & nations would sign an agreement that there would be no litigation, no charges brought, no suing of the Catholic Church. [They] quite naturally decided to walk away from that agreement. This was the late 1980s, the church was already covering up what it knew would be a problem.”
When the Council didn’t agree, Chrisjohn said, the Church succeeded in disrupting the study by calling potential participants and threatening excommunication.
“We finally got 187 people. We were targeting 500 people (in the study). The Church pulled the plug as best they could.”
In 1993, Chrisjohn was contacted by The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), to conduct a psychological and social study which he noted, “never intended to address residential schooling; in fact, they were quite explicit about not conducting any kind of investigation of it.”
Chrisjohn explained that eventually he wrote The Circle Game, a book rejecting the predominant narrative that the schools were “a well-intentioned mistake, that had caused Indians to come down with ‘residential school syndrome’, which (3) modern western psychiatrists, psychologists, and (especially) social workers could (and would) cure (for lots of money), and which (4) would clear up all the muss and fuss that was associated with Canada’s long history with Indian residential schooling.”
While, according to Chrisjohn, the feedback was “it is brilliant”, and an executive summary was requested, after providing it, he never heard officially from any member of the RCAP.
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Not merely neglect, but torture
I asked Professor Chrisjohn about torture, having previously come across articles detailing grotesque methods employed at residential schools to discourage indigenous children from speaking their language and retaining their culture.
He spoke of a native man named Fred he had interviewed, who when he was a child said a word in a native language. The nuns stuck a knitting needle through his tongue, which he had to endure all day, to make an example of him for speaking in a native language.
He spoke of children in Fort Albany, northeastern Ontario, being tortured with electric shocks.
“What could a kid have done to force you as a disciplinarian to electrocute their genitals?”
Lest this seem one-sided, I refer to other sources incriminating the Canadian government and churches for their role in torture and murder of indigenous peoples.
A recent article by Quebec-based journalist Robin Philpot cited former Chief Medical Officer of the Department of the Interior – responsible for the health of Indigenous children in the residential schools – Dr. P.H. Bryce, who became an early whistle-blower, publishing as early as 1922 about the crimes against indigenous kids.
At the time, tuberculosis was rampant, and Bryce was attempting to bring attention to it.
Philpot wrote: “In the residential schools, the death rates were devastating, continually on the rise. The Indigenous population was plummeting each year because of tuberculosis, but each of Dr. Bryce’s reports was snuffed out. Worse yet, representatives of the Indian Affairs Department did everything possible to prevent Bryce from speaking out in public.”
According to Chrisjohn, the tuberculosis epidemic was portrayed as an issue of natives being genetically predisposed.
Tuberculosis is exacerbated by nutritional deficiency. “If you don’t get sufficient protein in your diet [and the bacteria which causes it is present], you will get it,” Chrisjohn told me. “When you’re feeding children desiccated, five-year-old, oatmeal with ground up cardboard added to it as filler, when you give that to native kids, they’re not getting B vitamins, not getting adequate nutrition, then they come down with Tuberculosis.”
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Why the poor-quality oatmeal?
“Indian agents were given a per capita budget. Anything that they don’t spend out of the budget, they get to keep. So while they had enough money to buy real oatmeal, dessicated oatmeal is free. It appears on the books as oatmeal. And the Indians die.”
He referred to a book written on the matter, “Enough to keep them alive,” noting that was the instruction given to an Indian Agent. “Enough to keep them alive, that’s what your job is. As long as we can deny that we actually killed them, then we’re good.”
I can’t continue without noting this reminds me of the strikingly similar Israeli policy of drastically limited imports into Gaza, to enforce a starvation diet, something revealed by Israeli journalist Amira Hass.
A 1998 report submitted to The Law Commission of Canada cites a number of researchers, including Chrisjohn. It begins:
“Several generations of native people over the past one hundred and fifty years attended residential schools. Many children were subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse, sometimes lasting over periods of year, and many of them died. Far more children experienced a standard level of brutality, in an environment characterised by forced labour, poor and inadequate food, harsh discipline, little or no medical attention, the absence of family and community ties, and a complete lack of emotional nurturing.”
Citing Chrisjohn, the report’s section on abuses includes highlighting: “forced sexual intercourse between men or women in authority and girls and/or boys in their charge; Forced oral-genital or masturbatory contact between men or women in authority and girls and/or boys in their charge; Arranging or inducing abortions in female children impregnated by men in authority; Sticking needles through the tongues of children, often leaving them in place for extended periods of time; Inserting needles into other regions of children’s anatomy; Burning or scalding children; beating children to the point of inflicting serious permanent or semi-permanent injuries, including broken arms, broken legs, broken ribs, fractured skulls, shattered eardrums; Using electric shock devices on physically restrained children; Forcing sick children to eat their own vomit…”
And, according to that report, beatings were administered with “Leather and rubber straps (used on children as young as four years old); Straps with tacks, nails, or wires embedded in them; Studded belts; Whips…”
As for the accusations of genocide, it noted: “Knowledge of the genocidal intent of the colonisers is well entrenched in aboriginal consciousness, but is still unknown and unrecognised by the larger Canadian public.”
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Media silence, empty words
Chrisjohn’s work has now been noticed but, in general, the media has been predictably silent, save the recent flareups.
Following our interview, he commented in an email that the news has already gone completely dead on this, after inundating us with “’tragedy’, ‘healing’ (healing the dead? they’re going to get better?), and a ‘new page’ (aren’t we skipping huge sections of a book no one has been allowed to read?).”
And, he rightly noted that while there was talk of “healing” there was, “no discussion of the pursuit of justice.”
As for justice, as complicated as it might seem, the first step is fairly straightforward.
“My ninth recommendation in The Circle Game is: come clean. Stop temporizing, stop evading, stop covering up. Covering up is a crime as big as the crime. You’re an accessory after the fact.”
Back to our initial correspondence, Chrisjohn wrote, “You ask, ‘why this is happening only now?’ Short answer, based on my experience: it had been systematically suppressed and misdirected.”
I asked his opinion about the recent Governor General appointment of Mary Simon.
“It is symbolic.”
I have to agree thus far. When appointed, she spoke about the need to balance the “tension of the past” with the “promise of the future,” and vowed to carry out her work with “humility and purpose.”
Words are cheap, and untold number of indigenous are waiting for actions, justice, not more words.
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