OPINION: What we didn’t learn in school

Truth Telling: A writer who has worked with Coastal First Nations for 15 years offers a glimpse into residential school life

Mark Kiemele

Special to the News

Think about your earliest memories of elementary school, the deliciousness of new friends, naptime or falling in something like love with a kindergarten teacher.

Think about your parents praising your crayon art or the shape of your letters that printed your name.

Now imagine this: five- and six-year-old brothers walking home hand-in-hand from a day playing in the forest. They hear strange moaning noises coming from their neighbours’ houses.

They find out later the sound comes from parents crying because priests and police had taken their children to residential school. The next day, the brothers are taken, too.

Or imagine this: students lined up, those with curly hair in one line, the straight-haired ones in another. Jokes are made of the straight-haired ones, the beginning of divide-and-conquer techniques that would continue over the school years.

Modern schoolyard bullying looks tame in comparison.

Or perhaps you can imagine a priest throwing jelly-covered pieces of bread on the ground and laughing as children run and struggle for the only sweetened thing they would taste that day or week.

Maybe, in your darkest moments, you can imagine a child having a hatpin driven through her tongue for having the audacity to speak the only language she knows. That language is not English.

Or, even worse, perhaps you can imagine adults sexually abusing children in their care, night after night, picking victims as they lay in their beds thinking about their parents and the place that was once home.

Those parents, living some sort of half-life in their childless villages, felt deep sadness and heavy guilt, blaming themselves for allowing their children to be taken away.

This is not some ancient history or a story from some far-off third world country.

This is modern Canadian history and the people telling it are the peers of us baby boomers.

Most of us are comfortable in our own childhood memories.

The residential school near my town of Chemainus was closed in 1976 on what was then called Kuper Island. The Penelakut people made sure that hulking physical burden on their memories was destroyed. But they, and other First Nations people from throughout B.C. who had attended the school, which opened in 1890, could not destroy a lifetime of negative thoughts and emotions.

Some will make a start at Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Victoria.

The ‘reconciliation’ part of the event is up to the rest of us. That journey begins as we bear witness to the legacy of the residential school system and begin to learn all those things we did not learn in school.

For the past 15 years, Mark Kiemele has used his journalistic skills exclusively for First Nations around the Salish Sea. The Chemainus resident is currently editor of the on-line news site www.klahowya.ca.


Part 1 of the series: Victoria artist explores shared pain of residential schools, through art

Series introduction: Residential school survivors tell their truths in Victoria

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