I have been really struggling with the latest Indian Residential School story and primarily people’s reactions to it.
So many people are expressing shock and horror — but this is exactly what residential school survivors have been telling us for years.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission — headed by Sen. Murray Sinclair — documented thousands of stories of abuse told first-hand by survivors of residential schools and this information has been public for a very long time.
My father, a Métis Member of Parliament (Gene Rheaume) fought hard against the residential school system. He told me a story when I was a little girl that has stayed with me. In the Northwest Territories where we lived, kids from residential schools would be flown back home for the summer.
As a social worker, Dad was on the shoreline waiting with the parents for their kids to return. One by one, the kids jumped out of the floatplane and onto the shore where they were greeted by their families and whisked away home.
The priest was the last to get off the plane and there were two parents still waiting for their daughter. They asked the priest where she was, and he said “Oh, she died,” and just walked away.
In my career as a video producer, I have had the great privilege to travel across our country and interview countless First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. I have interviewed many residential school survivors and heard their tales of abuse and suffering.
One video I produced, (directed and edited by my brother Dave Rheaume) was commissioned by the federal government, INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada). It documented the Stain Glass Window installation on Parliament Hill as “a gesture of reconciliation for residential schools.”
My script was rewritten by the feds (during Stephen Harper’s term) because they did not want the kids referred to as ‘residential school survivors’ — they had to be titled ‘former residential school students.’
Other settlements and ‘gestures of reconciliation’ have been sanitized. I did a video for INAC about the Madawaska Maliseet land claim settlement. The big pulp and paper mill outside the reserve ran a huge above-ground pipeline right through the First Nation’s land.
The pipe would frequently break and spew toxic waste right where the children played, making them sick. Decades later the First Nation received a financial settlement, but the feds removed the photo evidence of the pipes and the interview clips I had in the video with Elders talking about it. This really made me feel ill at ease because I felt the truth should be told.
So, while I’m really glad that more Canadians are learning about this cultural genocide — wearing orange t-shirts, putting ‘Every Child Matters’ frames around photos of themselves, placing teddy bears on their front steps — I hope that this is not just the news story of the week that goes away again, and that people start to have some true compassion for the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
Jocelyn Rheaume is a Métis video producer/director/writer based in Ottawa