Indian Time - A Voice from the Eastern Door

Nothing for us without us

 


By Doug George-Kanentiio

Two weeks ago the students in the Akwesasne and Cornwall school acknowledged one of the most bitter episodes in Canada’s history by wearing orange to draw attention to the Residential School era. As is now known those Native children taken from their homes and placed in these institutions were subjected to great physical and psychological abuse which in turn has had a harmful effect on their respective families and within their communities.

There were hundreds of Mohawks placed in schools located hundreds of kilometers from home. They were essentially abandoned to endure conditions of depravity marked by hunger, violence and cultural suppression. There are now about 50 residential school survivors from Akwesasne now living. I am one of them, having been taken and assigned to the infamous Mohawk Institute in Brantford over 500 kilometers away.

I recall with disturbing clarity specific events in which we were abused but when I am asked what was the common experience I reply - hunger. We were never given adequate food. The Institute was called the “mushhole” for good reason as we were fed barely edible porridge or gruel every morning with burnt white bread toast, powdered milk and small pats of something called oleomargarine. Lunch and dinner consisted of the same “milk” with globs of beans and watery potatoes along with that same white bleached bread.

It was a diet unfit for any child and resembled most the kind of food given to prison inmates. It led to our being sick and stunted our growth. The only partial relief was the Sunday evening meals when we might receive vegetables and fruits. Our only taste of things like ice cream came on Wednesday when we were forced to listen to a lecture by the Anglican minister who was the director of the Institute. While he and the staff were very well fed the Rev., Conrad Zimmerman thought it was amusing to toss out small cups of ice cream after his hour-long pontifications as to how his church was saving us from damnation.

Of course, we wrestled and fought over those tiny cups like dogs in a pen. The staff must have been taught by prison guards as they knew the most effective way of maintaining control was to have us fight one another and giving the okay for the older ones to beat up on the younger.

In April of this year a delegation of former residential school inmates met with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. We had presented the Council with our proposals for compensation as most of us had our claims rejected by Canada. We said the “Truth and Reconciliation” program put in place by Canada and costing millions of dollars was a failure. We said it failed completely to consult with us as to what we thought would work. We said that it did not give us a chance to confront our abusers and the monetary amounts given were ridiculously low in comparison to what the Catholic Church was providing to those children abused by priests.

We also pointed out that the band councils were also involved in the removing the children from Akwesasne. The way it worked was the non-Native nurse would inspect a home and if that person decided that the home was inadequate, she would call the RCMP to take the children with the support of the band council. They would have the children declared “wards” of the federal government which meant if the parents intervened, they could, and would be arrested.

Imagine the trauma for the children ripped away from their families and the humiliation endured by the parents.

Yet our survivors do want fairness and justice. Attached to this column is our plans for healing which place a heavy emphasis on education and preserving our stories. For far too long we have been ignored or silenced by rules and regulations not of our making.

We are now entering our elder years. We want the resources to enable us to heal and to teach. We need a resolution made by one of us or a family member to the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne to formally adopt our proposal as binding on behalf of the people.

As one individual I am prepared to speak directly to the school students about our time at the Mohawk Institute so they can hear from us without filters. We represent a sad time in our history but I am grateful we are still here to teach.

Editor’s Note: The Akwesasne Residential School Proposals/Work Plan Nothing for us without us was submitted by Doug George-Kanentiio. According to Kanentiio, “The MCA has not endorsed our proposals, has not acknowledged the active role the Council-formerly the St. Regis BC, played in taking the children and failing to protect what is supposed to be most precious to any society. They have never admitted their part or done anything to compensate the great harm endured by their children or the terrible effects the schools had on every one of us.”

 

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