Residential school survivors group seeks to fill gap in Canadian knowledge
Chief Robert Joseph was just two weeks shy of his seventh birthday when he was sent to residential school in Alert Bay, off of northern Vancouver Island.
The 72-year-old, who is a hereditary chief of the Gwa wa enuk First Nation, remembers many things about his residential school experience, but one of them was the food.
“My worst memory of food was, I was so hungry one morning when we got to breakfast, and they had our porridge in little bowls in front of us, and they had all these little black-headed worms dancing in the porridge—and I was so hungry I just ate it,” he told the Georgia Straight in an interview in West Vancouver.
Joseph also experienced abuse, was forbidden to speak his language, and was told that he was “too dumb”.
“It involved physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, being quarantined and not being allowed to speak to others,” he recalled.
“Those things, you live with forever,” he added. “You try to erase them from your memory, but when we’re least expecting it, haunt you sometimes…It’s so life-long a scar.”
Joseph was among more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who were placed in 130 government-funded, church-run residential schools across Canada, the last of which closed in 1996.
Joseph is now the executive director of the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society, an organization that provides crisis counselling and support for residential school survivors. The group also focuses its work on education, and on increasing public awareness of residential schools and their lingering effects on many aboriginal families.
The Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study (UAPS) released recently by the Environics Institute indicated that just fifty four percent of urban non-aboriginal Canadians have read or heard anything about Indian residential schools. In Vancouver, sixty four percent of residents say they are aware of the schools.
Comparatively, eight out of ten aboriginal Vancouver residents say they have been affected by residential schools, either personally or through a family member. Of those respondents, sixty percent said it had a significant impact on their life, while 24 percent said it had some impact in shaping their life.
While Joseph noted that progress has been made in terms of public awareness of the issue, he conceded that “it is discouraging to know that even after all these years, most Canadians don’t know and don’t care”.
“People don’t care about marginalized people,” he claimed. “They don’t want any responsibility I don’t think for marginalized people, and that’s why marginalized people have to take responsibility for themselves, and to articulate what their vision might be, and to begin advocating for change.”
The elder remains optimistic that positive change is already taking place.
“We’re off to a good start, and that’s got to drive us,” he said. “You gain one heart and one mind at a time.
“In this work, you’ve got to be hopeful, or you go crazy,” he laughed.
Among the challenges the organization faces is dispelling negative stereotypes of aboriginal people.
According to the UAPS, most urban aboriginal residents believe that they are seen in a negative light by non-aboriginal people, and that indigenous people are associated with a range of negative stereotypes.
“I think because we’ve never had a level of dialogue between us that has brought us to a point of thinking really deeply about our history together and its impacts, people actually believe we’re inferior—they really do,” said Joseph. “That somehow we’re not as smart. And most people will think that, and it’s too bad.”
Despite the challenges his organization may face in breaking down stereotypes, Joseph’s hopeful outlook is rooted in his own experience. As the elder explains, the journey from residential schools has not been trouble-free.
“I stumbled out of that school broken, addicted to alcohol, all of the things I learned in that school, I transferred to how I treated my wife and my children, and it cycled,” he explained.
Joseph’s marriage quickly broke down, and he was separated from his wife and children.
The elder has since mended the fractured relationships with this family. Now, the chief helps other families to cope with that cycle through his work with the society.
“I began to recognize that I could have some value in my life, that I could do things that I thought I wasn’t capable of, and that I had worth, and slowly I began to think, ‘my God I have a purpose here’,” he recounted.
“There was a purpose in all of that, even with all that misery and pain. So I feel really good about working with others.”
Joseph, who is known by many around him simply as “Bobby”, explained the organization’s objective is to support people like himself and their families.
“What we’ve learned over time is even though children after us never went to those schools, they now have an intergenerational impact on them,” he said. “And the kinds of things that we learned are passed on to them–residual anger, dysfunction, addictions, violence–and it’s amazing how that system broke the family cultural aboriginal reality.”
The hereditary chief explained his own ability to forgive those behind his experiences in the Alert Bay residential school, and to move forward.
“My ears – if I take out my hearing aids, my whole world goes silent,” he commented. “And that was because of part of that experience. But I can still forgive people because I know now that if I continue to be angry and hurt and broken, that I’m just going to pass it on again to somebody else. To my kids, my grandkids. What’s the point of that?
“I think I’m in a position now to build a better world because I’ve had this experience,” he added.
In addition to his work with the society, Joseph has acted as an adviser to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and was one of a small group of elders who met with and advised Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the wording for the official apology he delivered in the House of Commons in June 2008 to residential school survivors.
While Joseph conceded that Harper’s apology has drawn criticism, he sees the gesture as a critical “building block” to moving forward.
The elder is now focused on continuing to build those blocks, through initiatives such as a project to develop a Grade 10 curriculum on residential schools for all Vancouver schools that may want to use it. In addition, the society is working on organizing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event planned for Vancouver in 2013. (The commission is also scheduled to be in Victoria for a regional event in April 2012.)
Joseph’s work has even taken him overseas to countries such as Israel, South Korea and Mongolia, to talk about peace “with anybody that’ll listen”. The elder’s voice still conveys a sense of wonder at the way life has evolved for him since those early and unforgettable years.
“I’m more hopeful now than I’ve ever been,” he noted. “And here’s a guy who was broken, wasn’t educated, wanted to do this, wanted to be that, wanted to be part of something good.
“That’s what it’s really about—just to be a part of something good.”
“And so I’m 72 and I’ve still got a whole lot of living to do, like Elvis says in that song,” he added, a wide smile taking over his face.