An elder's response

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada worked for five years and spent $60 million to put together the six-volume study of Canada's residential schools.

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.” – an excerpt from the report

The schools were established in the 1840s to "take the Indian out of the child" and lasted until the 1990s.

About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools, with some 80,000 still alive today.

The tragic and heart-wrenching stories they heard and shared in the report may be a surprise to most, but not those who lived it.

“I am not surprised,” says Eric Mitchell, an Okanagan Indian Band elder who recently shared his residential school survivor story with Castanet.

“Indian people know the truth, they have all along.”

Mitchell was pleased with the TRC's findings and 94 recommendations brought forward to bring change in Canada.

He truly believes if Canadians knew what the aboriginal people went through, they would have never let it happen.

“The real truth is 90 per cent of what we call the Canadian population knows nothing about us. Ninety per cent has probably never sat next to an Indian, let alone talk to them, so that is where I am at today,” says Mitchell.

“It is a hidden history. The federal government did a very good job of hiding the fact all this was going on right next to those people without their knowledge. I believe if the Canadian public knew the truth of what was going on, there would be enough good people to say ‘Enough is enough’ and ‘Stop that’.”

Mitchell has been working for decades to ensure the story of the residential schools is told.

For nearly 30 years, he has worked as a cultural consultant teaching groups of school children about his people.

Groups are able to join him at Komasket Park on the Okanagan Indian Band reserve to learn about cultural practices and check out a traditional winter hut, built by Mitchell himself.

Mitchell is optimistic now that the truth is out, no Canadian can claim ignorance and change can happen.

“I tell my students they have three choices when they go out that door now that I have shared this with them,” explains Mitchell.

“You can throw it in the garbage as you go out. You can take a look at it, put it in your pocket and think about it later. Or, you can take a good look at it right now and figure out what it is that your part is going to be to help make sure it never happens again or to change things so it is better for our people.”

“The one thing you cannot do anymore,” he tells them. “Is to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I didn’t know.'”

Mitchells says he took time to review the 94 recommendations that came out of the TRC.

He says he was impressed with the detailed analysis and work. Mitchell says some of the recommendations are ones he and his wife share in the course they provide to nursing students at UBCO.

“We talk all about those things and if we were to make the recommendations, it would like our own words anyways,” says Mitchell.

One thing that struck him was the desperate need for First Nations history to be properly taught in schools – as it stand many Canadians seem unaware of the truth.

He says when they share their story in residential school with the UBCO nursing students, they often get the same reaction.

First, anger that it has taken until third-year university to hear about the history of residential schools, and then sadness about how that important education at a younger age could have changed their interactions with First Nation people in their life.

So far they have shared their story with 950 nursing students at UBCO

While some in the First Nation community have commented nation wide nothing will change, Mitchell is optimistic change has started and is coming.

“If things are going to change at all it is going to be very slow, so what I would like to say to ordinary Canadians is, remember, the problem is not over in Ottawa it is right here, right in our restaurant, in our businesses, in downtown where you walk up and down Main Street and there are no brown faces working in public view,” says Mitchell.

“Don’t think it is over there, it is right here that we have to start.”

He strongly believes the federal and provincial governments have maintained a policy of denial when it comes to their aboriginal title and their aboriginal rights.

But, he says, the government won't change until Canadians change their prejudice toward aboriginal people.

“If Canadians can adjust their attitude towards us just a bit, that will create an opening for change to happen,” says Mitchell.

“Unlike the government, if people could start viewing us, not as competitors for the resources and the land, but as partners and equals in building this country. If they can do that, then all the rest is going to happen.”

Mitchell says nearly half of the 94 recommendations are already slowly in progress.

“The changes are already happening, the federal government and those laws – they are the ones that are behind,” adds Mitchell.

He says the biggest unanswered question now lies in where the bodies of an estimated 50,000 children who allegedly died in residential school are.

“That is the part we are waiting for.”  

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