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Missing pieces: Alexandra Shimo on preserving Canada’s dark history

up ghost riverAt my book launch in August, a 70-year-old woman named Margaret slowly walked to the front of the room, and looked out at the audience. She began speaking in a deliberate voice, even though there were times when she became overwhelmed by emotion and stopped, the room electrified by her silence. Her story began when she was 12, when several men woke her up and led her into a little room to be raped by a priest. I had already covered the story: it appears in Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History (Knopf Canada), the memoir of Cree activist Edmund Metatawabin, which I co-authored. Hers was one of the many incidences of abuse that happened in St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany, Ontario, a place that is now notorious­ for the cruel punishments inflicted on children. Nevertheless, hearing it that night cut me to the bone. I sat there transfixed and horrified. Many in the room wept. It had been 58 years since it happened to her, but she transported us back there, to the last thing she saw just before the robed man put a paper bag over her head.

I knew Margaret’s story, but there were a couple of details that were only revealed to me that night. And I was left wondering, was there anything else I missed? The research and writing of Up Ghost River was one long revelation of the stuff I didn’t learn from Canadian history books, an alternate past where our government wasn’t (and still isn’t) very nice. From the first point of contact, aboriginal people were marginalized, pushed to the least fertile land even as their criticisms of treaties were ignored. They were prohibited from religious ceremonies and wearing traditional costumes, banned from political meetings, voicing complaints, or exercising the right to vote. Under the Sexual Sterilization Acts of Alberta and British Columbia, residential school students were made infertile without consent.

For many years, the general public didn’t seem particularly interested in these issues. In the decade that I have worked as a journalist, I have been told by publishers, agents, and magazine editors that stories about First Nations aren’t worth covering because they usually don’t sell. To read the success stories of the authors discussed in this magazine is to know how much things have changed. Those once relegated to the margins of history have moved into the spotlight. Tales that were once considered dry, unimportant, or off-putting – about the treaties, Indian Act, or systemic racism – are now on bestseller lists. Readers have responded: Joseph Boyden’s third novel, The Orenda, won this year’s Canada Reads and Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America became an instant bestseller. King took home the RBC Taylor Prize for the book, naming indigenous writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson the inaugural recipient of the prize’s Emerging Writer award.

When I met Edmund Metatawabin, he was already well known as a Cree activist; he had won awards for his decades-long advocacy on behalf of the survivors of St. Anne’s residential school and his work teaching Cree traditions to youth. As I learned more about him, I was often touched by the modest way he recounted extreme acts of resilience and bravery. His whole life has been a courageous quest to be heard – first in a residential school that whipped kids for talking and beat those who tried to complain. Many accused him of exaggerating and claimed that the terrible things did not happen.

After years of campaigning, Metatawabin finally pressured the federal government and Roman Catholic church that ran St. Anne’s to acknowledge the veracity of the survivors’ stories. As Chief, he took his fight to the courts, and helped those who were ashamed of the abuse to speak out against their perpetrators. Today, this struggle continues. Former students are still trying to access the official papers that detail what happened to them, and uncover sections of the documents that Ottawa has blacked out.

Metatawabin continues to work tirelessly to publicize these injustices and bring awareness to these issues. He teaches kids in the James Bay area – a region with low youth literacy – about native rights and the challenging history of the residential schools. At our launch, he encouraged 70-year-old Margaret to speak, gently supporting her throughout. I’m glad he did. The history of the cultural genocide that happened in the residential schools must be preserved, even if it is difficult to understand or accept.