Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reader's Diary #687- Albert Canadien: From Lishamie

The long term impact of Stephen Harper's residential school apology in 2008 remains to be seen, but I have to wonder if it was partly behind the reason why I find myself the owner of not one but two residential school memoirs written this past year (the other is Alice Blondin-Perrin's My Heart Shook Like a Drum). Are there more being published? Or am I just more aware?

Of course when most of us who didn't go, and didn't have relatives that went, think of residential schools, our mind immediately goes to the stories of physical, emotional, and even sexual abuse. Certainly the media has highlighted many such tales, but Albert Canadien's memoir helps show the more chronic, corrosive side. My dad (a white Newfoundlander), as many in his generation would tell you, went to a school where teachers would think nothing of smacking a student in the back of the head if they weren't on task, sticking a dunce cap on a child and poking them in the corner, giving a child a belt, physically and verbally disciplining and intentionally or otherwise, humiliating them. My mom tells a story of getting an inch long welt across the back of her neck from a piece of chalk fired from across the room when she whispered to her friend. Schools back then weren't great for anyone, and I guess for some, they aren't great today, but that's getting even further away from my point. What is my point? When you look at isolated pages from Canadien's book, you could make the case that things weren't that bad for Albert Canadien, or at least any worse than other Canadians in non-residential schools; he got cracked across the knuckles by nuns with soup ladles or keys and watched his friends get kicked or humiliated by teachers. Horrible yes, but not out of the ordinary. There were even some fun days: trying skis for the first time, fishing, and so on. However, it's in the larger context where Canadien excels.

Albert Canadien, a Dene man originally from Lishamie, Northwest Territories, and now living in Yellowknife, recounts being taken away from his parents at the age of 7 to Fort Providence to attend Catholic school. If my parents saw or experienced abuses at their schools, they still went home at the end of the day. Canadien did not. If my parents disobeyed the rules, they at least new what the rules were. Often, especially at the beginning before learning English, Canadien did not. The teachers at my parents school were of the same culture, Canadien's were not.

Some of the grey nuns (Canadien's teachers) were nice people, some were not, but it's the ones that meant well and missed the mark that I found most depressing. In one particularly poignant scene, Canadien recounts a day when the nuns decided to do something fun for the kids: pick a king and queen for the day. Boys put their names in one hat, the girls in another and two names were drawn. This couple was honoured with makeshift crowns, given a special seating at the dining hall, and lavished with attention. The nuns were practically giddy. The kids on the other hand were mortified. Those not picked were relieved and felt sorry for the chosen two, who were being stared at and paired unwittingly with a member of the opposite sex, who for the most part the nuns had been keeping separated prior to this day. What did royalty mean to these kids? They're almost irrelevant to most Canadian kids today, let alone to Dene Canadian kids back in the 50s and 60s, most of whom hadn't even heard of fairy tales before attending residential schools. This discord between the nuns' intentions and the sorry outcome may not be one of the more horrific stories you'll ever hear connected with the residential schools, but something about it really saddened me.

At other times Canadien's account seems too factual, nearly void of emotion. Very often his feelings needed to be inferred. However, in one short paragraph, he hints at why this might be and arguably the style of the book itself becomes another tragic reminder:
...being forced to follow a structured life under the strict watch of the priests, Sisters, Brothers, and being afraid to question anything or show emotion, did have an affect on me. [...] It is one of the legacies of residential school life.
From Lishamie is a highly controlled, very detailed memoir, but traces of emotion and Canadien's warm personality manage to seep through. We should be happy that he managed to hold on to that. He has my utmost respect.

4 comments:

Kate said...

Wow. Sounds like a compelling read.

Megan said...

Any desire I might have had to read this book went out the window when I heard the author on CBC, comparing his experiences to those of people in Nazi concentration camps. He made this comparison repeatedly; it wasn't a slip of the tongue.

John Mutford said...

Kate: It is.

Megan: He does that once or twice in the book, too. I took it as merely noting some similarities rather than saying everything was identical or that things were equally as bad all around. I don't have an issue with that, but perhaps it's wise not to go near those comparisons. When it comes to Nazis and concentration camps maybe there is no "merely."

Barbara Bruederlin said...

This would be a difficult book to read, but one that ultimately needs to be written.