Imagine It…..If You Can

Indian Residential Schools: Acts of genocide, deceit, and control

Children’s graves a crime against humanity

Many Canadians don’t seem to care about lasting effects of Residential Schools

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Imagine, if you can, the idea of having someone show up at your front door one fine day, armed with a court order from the government that authorizes them to take away your children, ages six and seven, and send them 500 miles away to be raised and educated in a state- or church-run residential school.

Inconceivable!  Couldn’t happen!  I mean, we all have our rights as citizens of this fair land, and so do our children, right?

Nevertheless, try to imagine your horror if it did happen.  Imagine seeing your children whisked away in a government vehicle, in the company of two stern, efficient-looking caseworkers, and you rendered powerless to stop it by the police in attendance.

Imagine your grief when you enter your children’s empty bedroom that first evening, only to see their favourite cuddly-toys lying on their beds, overlooked by the uncaring abductors in their rush to pack and go.

Unthinkable!  This is Canada, after all.

Still, imagine the anger engulfing you as you try over and over again—always in vain—to find out why this happened. 

Imagine your frustration as every phone call, every letter, every face-to-face meeting, every court appearance results in the same outcome.  You are told time after time, endlessly, that your children have been removed to a ‘wonderful facility’ to ensure they receive the best education, the best care, the best upbringing—all designed to guarantee they will eventually fit into the culture and norms of the broader society in which we all live, unencumbered by the standards and values that you, as their parents, might otherwise have instilled in them.

Impossible!  No one has the authority to take children away from their parents unless those parents are deemed unfit.

So then, imagine your shock when you learn that the authorities do consider you unfit to raise your own children.  And why would that be?  Well, maybe because you look different than they do, or you speak a different language, or you worship differently, or you are uneducated, perhaps impoverished, or you don’t live in a respectable neighbourhood—or any of a number of other specious reasons they offer up in support of their decision.

Imagine going to jail if, overcome by exasperation, you take matters into your own hands to recover your children—illegally, according to those same authorities.

Imagine the weariness that finally overtakes you as you try—always in vain—to fight the inevitable.

This is a silly exercise!  I can’t imagine such a thing happening!  This is Canada!

It’s true, this is Canada.  But indulge me by persevering with the exercise a while longer.  Try to imagine the soul-withering despair you would feel as day after day goes by, week after week, month after month, year after year, and you do not see your children.  Perhaps, if you are lucky, you receive letters from them now and then—more frequently at first, printed in pencil in block capital letters—less often as time passes, in cursive writing, using pen and ink.  And always in English.

Imagine writing letters in return.  What would you say?  How sorry you are that you let this happen to them?  How hard you’ve been trying to get them back home?  How much you miss them?  How much you love them?

And then imagine what you would think when their letters stop.  For how much longer would you continue to write to people you hardly know, perhaps grown into their late-teens by now?  Would you write forever?  With no response?

Couldn’t happen!  The authorities would be obliged to keep me informed.

Really?  So in that case, imagine the overwhelming grief and sense of loss that would sweep over you when you are informed—in an official, impersonal letter, typed in crisp black letters, on school letterhead paper—that your children have died.  They have died!

Shallow graves…..deep scars

Even worse, imagine that they die and you are never informed!  They die, and you never know about it.  Your children!  All you know is they were taken and you’ve never seen them since.  Never is a long, long time.

And finally, perhaps worst of all, imagine that you do learn of their deaths—likely not until long afterwards—but you are never told where their remains have been deposited. Try to imagine the unspeakable horror of knowing that, not only have your children been taken from you, not only have they died, but their very existence has been expunged, as if they never even mattered.

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I spent a happy day this past weekend in the company of my daughters and their families, including my five grandchildren.  And, although I am not usually prone to dark thoughts on such occasions, I tried to imagine what it would have been like if my sweet girls had been taken from me in infancy, what life might have been like if I had never seen them again.

I confess—it was nigh to impossible to imagine my family enduring such a horrendous, calamitous event.  I mean, we have our rights as citizens, and so do our children, right?  No one has the authority to take children away from their parents, right?  I can’t imagine such a thing happening!  This is Canada!

Except…except, such things did happen.  As recently as thirty years ago, and going back almost 200 years.  Right here in Canada. 

It seems to me that what happens next—what our nation does about this—will go a long way to informing us all of what it means to be Canada.

Imagine it…..if you can.

The Railwayman

Again this year, I know I’ll receive warm hugs and kisses from my daughters in recognition of yet another Father’s Day, my forty-ninth such occasion.  It never grows old.

We fathers grow old, however, despite our best efforts.  And in so doing, we lose our own fathers as they board the last train to glory, to borrow from Arlo Guthrie.  My dad departed the station almost twenty years ago, but he remains with me almost daily in my reveries.  And never more so than on Father’s Day.

When I was a young boy, he would take me to local railroad crossings to watch the big steam locomotives and their endless caravans go storming by.  I treasured those occasions because I would have his undivided attention, a not-so-frequent circumstance in a family that eventually numbered five children. 

He enjoyed the time with me, too, I’m sure; but he loved those trains even more than I did, a boyhood fascination he never lost.  If he could have been anything else in life but an insurance executive, I believe he’d have been an engineer on one of those behemoths. He was truly a railwayman, if only in his dreams.

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As a lad, it never occurred to me to ask him if his dad, my grandpa, had taken him to see the trains, and I’ve often wondered if, during those times with me, he might have been fondly remembering standing by the rails with his own father.

At the time of his passing, I wrote these lines to commemorate what he meant to me, to express my love for him, and they comfort me still—

The Railwayman

You’d take me down beside the rails to watch the trains go storming by,

And tell me all those wond’rous tales of engineers who sat on high,

In cabs of steel, and steam, and smoke; of firemen in their floppy hats,

The coal they’d move, the fires they’d stoke, as o’er the hills and ‘cross the flats

The locomotives huffed and steamed, their whistles blowing long and loud.

And one small boy, he stood and dreamed beside his daddy, tall and proud.

Terrifying monsters were they, bearing down upon us two, who

Felt their force on that steel highway, hearts a-racing---loving, true.

I’d almost flinch as on they came toward us, with their dragon-face

A-belching, spewing, throwing flame and steam and smoke o’er ev’ry place.

But you’d stand fast beside the track, and, oh! the spectacle was grand.

So, unafraid, I’d not step back, ‘cause you were there holding my hand.

Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, I’m glad you knew when you grew old,

How much I loved you---Dad, my friend---who shared with me your dreams untold.

Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, if I, beside you once again,

Could only stand safe in your hand, awaiting with you our next train.

All aboard, Dad…all aboard!

And Happy Father’s Day to all who, like me, are both fathers and sons.  We are blessed.

[A slightly different version of this tale was first published here in 2017.]

Is This Who We Are?

I am asked from time to time, as perhaps you are, what my views are on various issues confronting us in this country.  The questions are usually friendly, coming from younger family members (there are none older, alas!), friends and neighbours, and readers of this blog.

Two recent topics of concern have centred around the grisly discovery of more than 200 Indigenous children’s bodies, buried in an unmarked grave on the site of a former Roman Catholic residential school in British Columbia, and the horrific murders of a Muslim family here in Ontario.

I have tried to imagine myself being approached on the street by a news-channel reporter interested in my opinion, and asked: What do your people think of these horrible events?  I would have trouble with the question because I’d not be sure what is meant by the phrase, your people.  I am a married, White, straight, Christian, male septuagenarian of comfortable means, so which of those categories does the question imply I represent?  All of them?  Only some?  Which ones?

In fact, of course, I represent no one other than myself.  The question is idiotic.  It would never be asked of me.

Nevertheless, I have watched on TV as persons of colour—Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, mixed race—have been asked that very question by (usually) White reporters: What do your people think of these horrible events? 

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the reporters in wanting the answers, but I question the ingrained attitude that presupposes a person of colour other than White might be qualified to speak for an entire cohort.  That presumption is equally idiotic.

I am also dismayed when I hear people in positions of power or authority—people who have it within their scope to enact laws and influence public perceptions, but don’t—passing along their deep thoughts and prayers to the families of victims of crimes like those cited earlier.  Such thoughts and prayers following on the heels of a tragedy are worth nowhere near as much as education, legislation, and enforcement beforehand, all measures to help prevent such tragedies in the first place.

Helping our young people learn about our history of racism, the reasons for it, the work of countless advocates to reverse it, and how they might become more tolerant of differences among us is surely one such objective.  Helping them devise skills to confront overt racism and discrimination of any sort when they face it is another.  Aiding them as they grow into adults who will understand that actions have consequences is yet another.  All of us must know we will be held accountable for what we say and do.

After such horrendous events occur, it bothers me to hear apologists proclaim: This is not who we are!  Who do they mean by the word, we?  The Canadian people?  Only some of the Canadian people?  Which ones?

The fact is, in both tragedies I have referenced, the perpetrators were White and (ostensibly) Christian.  In other tragedies I might have cited that have befallen this nation, those responsible have been persons of colour, or persons of different faith, and even persons with serious socio-emotional problems.  But they have all been Canadian.

So, I think this is who we are, in fact—a conglomeration of people of all races, ages, individual gender-identities, different religious and political affiliations, divergent economic situations, possessing and acting upon a value system that ranges from what is broadly considered within social norms to the lunatic fringes.

And for this reason, I think no one can truly speak for the Canadian people.  We are not one happy, united clan living in the true north, strong and free.  Rather, we are a collection of clans—clans whose members overlap, to be sure, in our workplaces, our schools, our places of worship, even our homes; clans who freely subscribe to many of the tenets that bind us as a nation; clans who, for the most part, want to live in harmony with each other; and clans who demand for their members the same fair and equitable treatment afforded all citizens.

But there are rogues among us, unfortunately.  And they, too, are members of our clans.  They are part of us, and so they play a part in defining who we are.  The reasons for their behaviours—the grievances they nurse, the anger they manifest, the helplessness they harbour—all contribute to the actions they take.

Until we understand the causes for those grievances, that anger, and until we take steps to alleviate the conditions that spawn them, we shall never be free of their rogue behaviours.  Looking back at our past can certainly help us understand where such hostility comes from, but perpetuating that past will doom us to more of the same.

I was discouraged when a major political party in Ottawa voted against a federal non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia in 2017, and again when the ruling party in Ontario this past week blocked a motion calling on the legislature to unanimously condemn Islamophobia.  Unbelievably (or perhaps not), in a startling display of hypocrisy after those votes, the leaders of those parties quickly trotted out their timeworn thoughts and prayers mantra following the most recent tragedy. They do not walk their talk.

As a nation, we need to take positive steps to redress the wrongs of history by charting new paths, new legislation, new opportunities, that will promote and ensure equality for all citizens, not just the privileged few.  We need a generation of leaders with the courage to walk boldly.  

I confess I am unsure if we have it in us as a people to make that happen.  And if we do not, I am left with one troubling question—

Is this who we are?