Even before I spoke with Chief Kenny Blacksmith, I suspected Canadians were talking past each other on the subject of residential schools.
After speaking with him I was convinced of it, primarily because Chief Blacksmith speaks directly from inside the experience of those schools. He survived them. Maybe more importantly, his reaction against them sparked a deep and enduring Christian faith.
To hear him speak is to realize acutely how even though most Canadians had heard of residential schools before now, they had no idea just how awful many of these institutions were. An odd effect is that many people remain strangely uncomfortable with recognizing the extent of the trauma inflicted on Indigenous people, perhaps because some of these schools were run by Catholic and Protestant clergy.
It can be true that individual clergy or educators were not personally guilty of any abuse. Many were even well-intentioned despite being participants in a fundamentally unjust system that had the State kidnap children for the express purpose of destroying their connections to their family and culture. As I wrote earlier, the entire system’s functioning by State-perpetrated family breakup should confirm that its underlying ideology defies everything fair-minded liberals and true social conservatives claim to hold dear.
Instead, the discussion bogs down into largely irrelevant discussions about whether the graves of the incarcerated children were unmarked, or simply forgotten; whether they were “mass” graves or whether children were simply buried en masse due to disease-ridden conditions. These are mere details in the context of the underlying crime itself. Yet arguing about these details allows us to miss what should be the very obvious point of this all.
And then there’s the arsonists who, more than likely, are not justifiably angry survivors but activists taking advantage of this moment of reckoning to stoke the flames of animosity against churches. Burning churches, incidentally, also provide the perfect opportunity for people to avoid the difficult discussion at hand and instead direct their anger at the anti-Christian Canadian elites who, one suspects, feel warm and fuzzy at the sight of religious sites crackling merrily. Revolutionaries don’t lose their Neronian tastes just because they happen to be in power.
From this morass, Blacksmith, now in his 60s, brings the clarity of context. I first saw him deliver a public prayer at the March for Life on Parliament Hill some years ago and was impressed by his powerful words. He is passionate about protecting the pre-born, has a deep love for Canada, and is solidly Christian in his convictions. He is Cree, and has served in many leadership positions over the years. To hear his story is to have all doubt removed, once again, that this system was a wicked endeavour.
“I was but five years old when I was taken away from my mother,” he told me. “I don’t recall much about how I felt on that particular day, nor in the months that followed. I do remember we were given brown paper grocery bags as suitcases and told to put only a bare minimum of belongings in those bags. One of the mothers in our community recently told a story about the effect on the community of our being forcefully taken away from our homes. Many children cried. Our parents brought us to the departure point by canoe. Many canoes travelled the 10 miles in silence. Once there, we were hustled into school buses and driven for seven hours on mostly gravel roads to La Tuque, Quebec.”
“This mother told of the eerie silence in the community, and then there was much mourning and weeping. She spoke of the emptiness in the homes. The children were gone. They were no more. They didn’t know where we were taken.”
La Tuque Indian Residential School was run by the Anglican Church of Canada at its founding in 1963 before being taken over by the federal government in 1969. It shut down in 1978. Blacksmith’s memories are a glimpse of what took place in these institutions—and La Tuque was by no means the worst of them.
When the children arrived, the boys were sent to one side and the girls to the other. Siblings were not only separated, but “forbidden to see each other.” Blacksmith’s sister was brought to the girls’ side, and he was not permitted to visit her. The children were lined up by age and given army-style haircuts—those who resisted were punished. They were immediately forbidden from speaking their native tongue, Cree, on pain of punishment. Counsellors paced about the dining area to enforce this rule, and those who did—or who committed some other infraction such as putting their elbows on the table—would be instantly disciplined.
“The counselor would come and slam our elbows on the table,” Blacksmith recalled. “Often, we were humiliated in front of the whole group. I remember one time speaking in Cree, and the counselor came, slapped me on the back of the head, pulled me out of my chair, and made me stand in front of the whole group with both arms extended in front of me and a stack of trays were put on my arms. I was told to stand like that until everyone was finished with their meal. Every time my arms lowered, the counselor came and smacked me on the back of the head and told me to keep my arms extended straight.”
By day, Blacksmith said, the school was run like a bootcamp—lineups everywhere, children organized into dormitories, and the same meals, over and over again. Minor infractions were almost always punished. Activities were always done in groups, and the children were fed breadcrumbs for snacks. “Eventually our daily routine was to go to chapel before each meal; line up in twos and walk one mile to the local school and walk back for lunch, and back to school; the daily walk was four miles, and in all types of weather, for about 280 days of school.” Going home for holidays was forbidden, and parents were forbidden to visit. In fact, the parents did not even know where their children had been taken.
As horrifying as this was, it wasn’t the worst of it. “At night, you could hear the whimpers,” Blacksmith told me. “The counselor stayed at night, made his rounds, and made sure everyone was quiet. It was in the silence and covering of the night that we would be sexually molested. I remember quietly talking to each other of running away, but we didn’t know where we were. Some did try and were brought back by the police and punished. Everyone was included in the punishment. I remember one time we had to scrub the hallway in our dormitory with our toothbrushes.”
“I remember some things, but most times it is easier not to remember those days.”
Kenny Blacksmith was 17 when he was finally able to return home. By then, he could hardly speak Cree and “didn’t know how to live culturally as a Cree on the land.” His loving mother awaited him, but he did not have her for long. “Our son/mother relationship was about seven and a half years from the age I was a child to when I was seventeen. I had about two and a half years of getting to know my mother again before she passed away. Our relationships with our home and community were broken forever.”
“In between the ages of five and 16, I went through a battery of ups and downs emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Mostly, I was lost. I felt like I had fought every step of the way to survive. Eleven years in La Tuque Residential School shaped me, for better or for worse, to face life in the world around me. Eleven years in a foreign prison. Eleven years of my basic human rights and freedoms taken away.”
Blacksmith summarized his experience thusly: “Forced to live away from home, stripped of your true identity and punished every time you tried to express yourself, you learn to keep quiet, and you whisper in your own language in the dark of the night. You resolve to never lose your true identity—who you are, your language, your culture. It’s amazing—once you know why you are treated the way you are, your resolve to not be broken is much stronger. I lived in life-giving memories of my mother, my family, and my community, and these kept my mind and my spirit occupied in hope.”
In the years after his residential school experience, Blacksmith read books on the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, researching their ways. He particularly enjoyed those by Farley Mowat, and even headed out to Belleville, Ontario to meet with him. He had dinner with Mowat and told him that “his stories kept our First Nation culture alive even while I was in an Indian Residential School.”
Blacksmith’s Christian faith also played a significant role in his healing. At La Tuque, he did not consider himself Christian. All children were forced to attend chapel three times daily, but this only caused disillusionment. Blacksmith wondered how God could be forced on people. But when he returned home, he discovered that his mother “had become a born-again believer,” as had many others in the community. “Seeing my mother so happy and full of new-found hope, healing, and freedom, she began to press upon me a much-needed new relationship with the God of all Creation.”
“She couldn’t read or write, but she was filled with such an unconditional love,” he told me. “She embraced me in all my flaws as a rebellious young son. I think my rebellion came from my experience from the way the ‘church’ tried so hard to assimilate me into their so-called faith in God. I suppose when I acknowledged their role was to implement government policies of assimilation of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, I couldn’t embrace Christian faith.”
But several months after his mother died, while out hunting, “I had an impactful encounter with God as a loving Heavenly Father…There was no pressure, just a total succumbing to the power of His love. I realized then that God was not a white man’s God or the only expression of faith in Him. I found God could speak my Cree language and it was okay—to be Cree and still follow, believe, and serve in His love for all others.”
When I asked Blacksmith what Canadians need to reflect on during this time of painful rediscovery, his message was to the Christian church. “The early church’s mission to Christianize the savage was demeaning to say the least,” he said. “All human beings, regardless of skin color, language, and cultural identity, are created in the image of the God of all Creation. The ‘Church of Canada’ took part in and implemented, knowingly or unknowingly genocidal, ethnic cleansing, dark, cold, evil, wrongful assimilationist policies of the governments; and they did this with wilful determination and conviction that this was alright with God.”
“In this way, the ‘Church of Canada’ tarnished the image of a loving Heavenly Father. The message we heard was the Bible was a white man’s gospel, and in order to be Christian we had to be like the white man in all his ways. We cannot limit God. We cannot whitewash a historic wrongful past. We know now what was and is hidden will be exposed sooner or later, one way or another. We must own up to our respective failures. We must be determined and convicted to make a wrong right. We owe it to ourselves now, and for future generations. We owe it to God to be better in every aspect of talking and walking in a one new man expression of faith in God.”
The solution, for Blacksmith, is not political, but spiritual. “God is everywhere. God is a good God. God heals. God frees the captive from a negative past of sin. God forgives. God gives life, and more. His love is unconditional. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. Forgiveness cannot be bought, sold or traded. Forgiveness is not political. Forgiveness is spiritual. The person to benefit the most from forgiveness is the one who forgives—not the one forgiven. This is where our healing comes from.”
“Let’s give God a chance - He knows how to make things better. Canada belongs to God.”
It is a profoundly counter-cultural message, and not one I expected when I reached out to Kenny Blacksmith and asked him to share his experiences as churches burned across Canada. But we are being told that we must listen to survivors and to heed their advice. His is not the advice most people want to hear. But it is, perhaps, what we need to hear the most.
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