Sharing Their Stories

One of the most difficult sessions taking place at the Truth and Reconciliation commission was the Sharing Circle. Sitting down and listening to elders speak about what they went through in the residential schools. Rebecca Williams and Barney Williams were two members of the TRC survivor committee who acted as moderators for the other speakers. Barney started by thanking the creator for giving him and the survivors the strength to speak and for everyone for attending.

One of the first speakers, Norman Mianscum spoke about how the majority of his family had ended up in the schools. “In all they were 28 nieces and nephews that grew up not knowing their language and culture because my siblings who had attended the schools were to ashamed to teach it to them”. At the bequest of father, Norman became the caretaker of all the children because he like his parents didn’t drink. He helped his mother take care of those who needed it, being a teenager in the 70’s and 80’s he was tramatized by everything he saw. It was only when he came to Quebec when was he was 24 to find himself and begin the slow journey to healing himself.

Norman’s story as difficult as it was a common theme during the sharing circles, the way survivors talked about the abuse made it hard to imagine that kind of evil happening to children. Connie Shingus who went to a school in Saskatchewan, talked about being separated from her sisters due to age. She talked about the sexual abuse how a lot of the girls including her were targets of the staff. When she arrived at the TRC she wasn’t sure she would want to speak about what went on in the school and how it had destroyed her family. “ I wasn’t planning to be here in this circle, I here because I want so badly for it to stop running my life. I live that shunned unwanted feeling daily, I’m lost, my family is broken up and I came in hopes of finding pictures so that I was see the truth of what happened to me.”

Connie echoed what a lot of survivors feel and what the schools were successful is accomplishing was not only killing the Indian in the child but also destroying their self worth, trust and putting fear in it’s place. Elisabeth spoke next, she talked about the separation from her parents and how she didn’t understand why she and her cousins were in the school? Why were they beaten because they spoke their own language and why was their hair cut?

Naturally the sexual abuse was the hardest to listen to, one survivor had talked about how she had been raped at the age of 12 by the bishop who was visiting the school at that time and how she had gotten pregnant from that rape. When the child was born she was told that the child had died. The rapes continued once month for 6 years while she stayed at the school. She talked about her difficulty share her experiences with her children and how it would be years before she could talk about it.

One of the many services the TRC provided were health care workers for the survivors and their families as well as for the guests, many of which were wiping away tears. Another service was a smudging room, where people could go to be alone with their thoughts or just to talk to someone. The survivors also had access to daily sweat lodges which took place at the botanical gardens, a shuttle was provided to take them to and from 4 times a day. The TRC made sure to organize the event around the survivors and their families. To make sure that the process was as comfortable as possible. The House of Friendship provided many of the volunteers and many of the events will posted on the TRC website.

Irkar Beljaars

 mohawk_voice (Twitter)

It Matter’s to Me By Irkar Beljaars

One of the events the TRC was a town hall discussion about residential schools, a chance for the public to speak about how they felt. The event was moderated by long time CBC news anchor Dennis Trudeau who took questions in both English and French and it wasn’t long before people were up on their feet sharing their stories. Trudeau was quick to ask follow up questions in hopes of finding solutions to the problems facing a lot of survivors. Solomon Wawatie a residential school survivor asked about how reconciliation took two people but the truth has not come out. “The truth is not being entirely told from my perspective, there are five elements that are considered genocide, one of them is outright killing, killing the spirit, residential schools, sterilization, and starvation. What happened in Canada is genocide and until the Canadian Government and clergy acknowledge that there will be no reconciliation!”

One of the statements came from Stuart Myiow Jr from Kahnawake talked about crimes committed against the Indigenous people, crimes like kidnapping, and forcible confinement. “We have to understand that people form within a government , people from a religion caused great pain and suffering, Stephen Harper apologized said that it was wrong!” He went on to talk about crimes committed by people within the highest levels of government and the highest levels of the Catholic church and because Harper said he was sorry that these people who committed these horrendous crimes would not be charged. He said that just because there has been forgiveness does not mean people who committed these crimes then there must be justice.

Trudeau asked the question if there was significant movement towards reconciliation? To which Myiow said no! Myiow Sr then entered into the conversation, spoke of his love of hunting and how the distruction of the forests affected his life. Myiow Sr went has far as to say the Harper should be shot. Trudeau quickly stepped saying that violence doesn’t beget violence and that there needs to be a better way to bring reconciliation to Canada. Trudeau then asked former Conservative MP David McDonald who seated nearby about his thoughts on what had been said by the first few people. MacDonald serves as special advisor to the United Church Committee on Indigenous Justice and Residential Schools. Mcdonald found himself surprisingly in agreement with a lot of what was said.

The one thing that hasn’t mentioned here that I believe needs to be said if we think governments have done a pretty terrible job, I would say that we’ve all done a terrible job in regards to public attitudes.” Mcdonald would go on to add that when issues happened in First Nations communities like Attawapiskat, the Canadian public didn’t understand beyond the superficial and often blamed the victim themselves. He acknowledged the gulf between First Nations and Canadians and asked if there were bridges that could be built?

Lee Grayfeather a MicMac residential school survivor, had this to say. “When Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologizes to us and then the very next cuts out over 8 million in grants to women and children and to this day does nothing else.” Irene a survivor and elders coordinator, talked about how she worked to build her family back up after spending 6 years in the schools. “ We can stand here and blame everyone in our lives but where is the reconciliation, an elder told me, the more things happen to you, the stronger you become”. Irene Barbeau a residential school survivor of two schools has been working with survivors for over 30 years long before any agreement was signed. “We recognized that we needed to heal ourselves ans since nobody was going to do for us, we decided to take the bull by the horns and heal ourselves.” She talked about she could finally reconcile with her own life and how it could be accomplished for others. “What I had to do was forgive someone, but everyone that was there was now dead so I forgave the system”

The last person to comment was CBC’s Sheila Rogers. “I want to thank everyone for speaking from the heart and that I hear you. I feel very uncomfortable but when is growth not uncomfortable?” She also suggested that Aboriginal people should be Aboriginal teachers and for making for making her uncomfortable.

Irkar Beljaars

mohawk_voice (Twitter)

Two Row Wampum and Reconciliation

The discussion on the Two Row Wampum a treaty between the the Mohawk and Dutch was one of the highlights of last Thursdays events. It began with a few words from moderator Ellen Gabriel who talked about the importance of Mohawk treaty rights and how the government could learn from the the Mohawk about good governance. Tom Porter a Mohawk teacher from Kahnawake who brought some of his students to the TRC opened with a greeting in the traditional language. “The Reason we do this greeting is so that you can hear and see things clearly, that you can have an open mind about the discussion.”

In her discription of the the Two Row wampum Gabriel spoke of how the rivers never crossed, I sign of respect that neither culture would disturb the other as was written. She talked about when the British arrived in upstate New York they made treaties with Mohawk. “This is about peaceful coexistance the original peace treaty with one of the original democracies” Gabriel then went on to introduce John Cree a Mohawk Elder from the Bear clan of Kanesatake. who started by talking about the creation of the two row wampum.

It brought us the great laws that were very easy to follow but now not so much and when the Dutch came we made sure that we would respect each others culture” Cree went to add that the the land belong to the women of the community, that like women the land provided for the people. The next panelist introduced by Ellen Gabriel was Tom Porter a chief of the Bear clan in Kahnawake. Tom echoed the words of Gabriel and Cree. “Before the whites arrived, we had a system of government, we had a set of laws and unlike the ancient Greeks our women were equal and we didn’t have slaves.

He quickly moved to the subject of the residential schools, native children suffered severe abuse at the hands of the church’s who ran them. “We were told that we had to change our names to christian ones” He spoke of the schools in the United States, Australia and New Zealand where similar abuses happened. “We have a duty to share the stories of the residential schools with younger generations to insure that we learn and understand why it happened? We to insure that we teach the culture, songs and stories so that we can maintain who we are” Tom’s message was that of pride, pride in who we are as so that we can undo the damage to our communities and our culture. He referred to his students sitting in the front row that they had their names and spoke their languages and that they were now teaching the older ones that knowledge.

The final panelist was Skawennati Fragnito who talked about why she had been invited to speak about she had been born in exile. “I have a Mohawk mother and a white father and two Mohawk grandparents but I am not on the registry in my community because my mother married my father” She compared the Indian act to one of the omnibus bills currently passing through parlinement, she talked about how native women lost their right by marrying white men while native men did not have that problem.

And that was how it was designed to work, a forced assimilation for the women who married outside their race lost their voices within their communities. It was a very effective piece of legislation. “Who we were came through the women in the community, the children lost their rights as well. It split up families and caused a lot of pain” In 1985 the Indian act was ammended to include those who were originally with rights got them back. Unfortunately the damage was already done because a lot of those children were not welcomed back into the community because of their white liniage. “I don’t want to be called a survivor, I don’t want to be a victim I want us to thrive. We had a strong culture in the great law of peace, we are sharing this land and we have break that cycle of father and son.”

She concluded by saying that we all have to come together in order to thrive. Ellen finished with speaking about the children and how of all the subjects spoken very little is said about the two spirited people that the LGBT community needs to be recognized as well. That the band councils were just an extension of the government, that we needed to acknowledge the societal problems facing the people in our communities and urban areas.

Irkar W Beljaars

 mohawk_voice (Twitter)

Marching for Missing and murdered Native women by Irkar Beljaars

February the 14th has become synonymous with missing and murdered Native women, marches and vigils take place all across the country and like the sisters in spirit which takes place on October 4th, questions still remain. The most common question that I hear as both a journalist and an activist is why? Why is this happening? Ellen Gabriel the former president of the Quebec Native Women Association has said that violence against Native women is directly linked to colonialism, when she spoke at this years march in Montreal. “It isn’t just 500 women, 600 women, 800 women it’s millions! Since the time of contact, it’s been about economics, a land grab and the best way to destroy a nation, a nation who lived sustainably on mother earth was to attack the women.”

Gabriel went on to mention the report from Human Rights Watch detailing the abuse by the RCMP. HRW had spent a decade talking with Native women and girls about violence against Native women and how the RCMP had failed them but also that they were victims of police brutality, over policing and sexual abuse. This report is clearly another black eye for the national police force who is still reeling from the sexual abuse scandal involving female RCMP officers which came to light in 2011. Gabriel asked the question “Who are we supposed to go to?” when referring to the to RCMP.

Prime Minster Stephen Harper had this to say when asked in the House, “If Human Rights Watch, the Liberal party or anyone else is aware of serious allegations involving criminal activity, they should give that information to the appropriate police so that they can investigate it” It’s this quote by the PM that has many asking why should cops be investigating cops? HRW has since fired back at Harper for telling abused Native women to “Get on with it” which begs the question, how do you tell a police officer that another officer raped her? In my opinion that would be like asking the Klu Klux Klan to take a survey to see if any of their members are racists. I mean seriously, how are police officers supposed to remain unbiased?

Many of the speakers believe that a national inquiry is the only way to get answers and some measure of peace for the families who lost loved ones. But there is also a need for a national civilian body to investigate police misconduct claims says Gladys Radek the founder for Walk4Justice based out of Vancouver. Radek who spoke at the march talked about how she had been raped three times by police officers and how she had lost her niece Tamara Chipman who disappeared along the Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia in 2005. Radek had taken my film partner and I to the site where the Pickton farm had been just last year.

Bridget Tolley, who founded the Sisters in Spirit back in 2005-06 and helped found the Families of the Sisters in Spirit just over two years ago after the Harper government cut funding to the sisters in spirit. Tolley of Kitigan Zibi, QC, lost her mother Gladys Tolley when she was struck and killed by a Sûreté du Québec cruiser in 2001. Bridget is afraid that she may never see justice but hopes her work will prevent others from going through what she has. “ We are going to continue to fight for the families, we are going to fight until Stephen Harper does something about this issue because we are not going anywhere!”

Though many marchers demand that the Harper government do something to address the growing violence against Native women many believe that will only happen if there is a change in government which brings us to the question, will the NDP or the Liberals do anything if and when they get into power? Bridget Tolley mentioned Evidence to Action, the group that replaced the Sisters in Spirit, what I want to know is why was evidence to action even needed when the Native Woman’s Association of Canada had an already established data base ready to be used to solve cases?

Over the last 7 years that I have been a part of this, there has been one underlying message, my sister, mom, grandmother, niece or auntie has disappeared. The police haven’t done anything and now the trail has gone cold. It is a common message and the grief is common too for all family members want is justice but it continues to allude them. One thing that hasn’t stayed common is the faces of the 1000’s that march, there increasing in number. Native and non Native alike, women and men, their voices saying enough is enough. One of the many things I took from that march was something Gladys said, that for every woman that goes missing child loses their mother and a mother loses their child. Something to think about, for whatever happens, it is clear that those 1000’s that marched on February 14th is that this issue is not going away and the people are far from IdleNoMore!

Irkar Beljaars

mohawk_voice (Twitter)

Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week!

Breaking Down Stereotypes and Raising Awareness

 

The Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, in partnership with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, presented their aboriginal awareness week event last week in Montreal on December 2nd. Emcee’d by Harvey Michel, it brought First Nations together to help support change in aboriginal communities in regards to AIDS. Unfortunately, AIDS is still a four letter word in most First Nations communities. Nakuset, the Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, spoke about how little is being done for aboriginal women in regards to AIDS in Montreal, and how important it was to have this particular event to draw attention to the lack of services native women receive in this city.

 

Naturally, change starts with attitude towards a disease that is seriously on the rise in First Nations communities. Aboriginal people in Canada continue to be over-represented in HIV/ AIDS epidemics. The 2010 EPI Update from the Public Health Agency of Canada reports that 4,000 to 6,100 First Nations, Inuit and Metis are living with HIV, including AIDS.

 

The theme for Aboriginal AIDS Awareness week this year was a focus on community. National Chief Sean A-in-chut Atleo commented on the role we all have to play in responding to HIV/AIDS. “Everyone has a part in creating change. The fact that you are gathered here today demonstrates your commitment to addressing how HIV and AIDS are unfolding in First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities. You are leaders in your own right.”

 

Many of the speakers on Friday shared a common message: the situation is getting very, very serious, especially for Aboriginal women. Part of the message was defeating the myth of AIDS as just a gay disease. A big issue of the spread of AIDS is drugs, and how rampant drugs have become in our communities. Also part of the message was the need to get beyond condoms and work on self-healing. The rise in AIDS can be linked back to residential schools, due to the lack of sexual education and the fracturing of the family structures that happened on many First Nations reserves. There are also links to Native youth depression and self-esteem, which have been a factor in the increase of AIDS. Fiona Cook of the Native Women’s Association of Canada had this to add:
“People are scared in the communities[…] there was better work 25 years ago than there is today, which increases the importance of friendship centres. Old myths die hard”! Cook went on to talk about the need for resources and proper investment in First Nations communities. “We cannot combat AIDS if we don’t have the resources.”

 

One of the most powerful presentations of the morning was from Visioning Health: Arts and Positive Aboriginal Women (PAW). Doris Peltier talked about her battle with sexual assault and how she became an activist:

 

“The essence of who we are is beautiful.” Peltier went on to speak about the display of HIV Positive Aboriginal Women’s artwork from all across Canada, proving that being Positive isn’t a death sentence. There is life after becoming Positive.

 

Former Liberal MP Marlene Jennings talked about the importance and much-needed work in both Native and non-Native communities to combat AIDS, and like Chief Atleo, Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq sent a message talking about how pleased she was to mark the 23rd World AIDS Day and the start of Aborignal AIDS Awareness Week in Canada:

 

“The Government of Canada recognizes that Aboriginal people are over-represented in the HIV/ AIDS epidemic. We are committed to keep working with aboriginal communities to reduce the spread of HIV while providing care and support for those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS.” The government of Canada this year alone has invested more than $72 million in programs, research, surveillance, and a greater awareness under the Federal initiative to address HIV/AIDS in Canada. But when it comes down to it, it’s all about attitude. Attitude towards people with HIV/AIDS and the fear that people still have of people living with these diseases.

 

I recently saw a story on CNN about a non-Native teenager being denied admission to a prep school because of his HIV status. The prep school’s position seemed to be the archaic 1980s point of view about the disease. One of the fears the prep school mentioned was the fear that this child would become sexually active, which was the basis for their denial of an honour student who just wanted to go to a good school.

 

Now, the fact that a non-Native prep school for well-to-do families can still use archaic stereotypes to deny an honour student the right to a good education goes to show that the fear of HIV/ AIDS crosses class lines and culture lines: it can be a community in Canada or it can be a community in the Midwestern United States. These stereotypes are what Aboriginal AIDS Awareness Week are trying to eliminate.

 

In the end, we should be embracing people with HIV/ AIDS and not discriminate against them, and hopefully initiatives like AAAW will help to do that.

 

You can listen to Irkar Beljaars on Native Solidarity News every Tuesday at 6pm on CKUT (90.3 FM) and @Mohawk_Voice (Twitter).