Month: June 2021

How About Reconciliation Day?

On June 21st, the first day of summer, citizens of BC were urged by their Premier John Horgan to modestly celebrate National Aboriginal Day. It was a quiet reminder that the arrival of the summer solstice had been a day of celebration for several thousand years and that ancestors of those first inhabitants of the vast Canadian wilderness were still around.

The celebrations would be modest this year because Canada, like the rest of the world, appeared to be coming to the end of a science fiction-style plague that had killed millions worldwide before it could now, nervously, claim to be under control. 

It remains a hesitant claim but the first day of summer was a good time in 1996 for then Governor General of Canada Romeo LeBlanc to proclaim that henceforth the first day of summer would be a special day. As the sun rose on the longest day of the year, “the cultural richness of contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people” would be remembered.

It took 21 years for our national government to embrace the concept of recognition but it did in 2017 with a Prime Minister’s announcement –

National Aboriginal Day would become National Indigenous People’s Day.

And, nobody seemed to think it a little unusual that Canada would now have two “National” days – the first to honour the original first citizens of what was then an extremely wild land; the second revered as Canada Day, July 1, to honour the success of white settlers from France and England and later the world, as they conquered the residents by arrogantly outnumbering them. 

Then, not content with taking possession of the land and relegating the original occupants to confined zones called reservations, the government decided to re-educate generations of native children. For assistance in the giant brain-washing scheme, they enlisted the aid of Christian religious leaders, with disastrous results.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was eventually established to check out some ugly stories emanating from the residential schools involving physical and sexual abuse of male and female children. The findings continued to provide shock waves as unbelievable horrors of residential schools were exposed.

A few days ago, two Roman Catholic Churches located on Okanagan reserves were destroyed by fire. It is possible that by the time you read this, the perpetrators will have been arrested and brought to justice. Anger against the church for evils wrought by priests and nuns may be understandable, but revenge can never be acceptable.

I have mentioned before the repeated hope of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that truth would lead to trust and trust would lead to desired reconciliation.

Maybe a sensible next step would be one more name change for a national holiday inclusive of Indigenous and Settler. I’ll leave renaming to sharper minds, but it is important that all talks are dominated by truth and trust, shared and held inviolate.

I modestly suggest, as a “thought starter”: Reconciliation Day acknowledging Indigenous tribes, their language and beliefs while honouring the generations of white settlers who have shaped modern Canada.

National Indigenous Peoples day (June 21) and Canada Day (July 1), re-titled Reconciliation Day – could become a day remembered each year as the day Canada began a long overdue search for redemption for terrors inflicted in the name of  God.

A Prophet in His Own Time

Finished up last week’s blog with an advisory to readers to remember that when we hear church bells tolling for child victims of Canada’s Indian residential schools mini-holocaust, they also toll for those of us who permitted it to happen.

Thought it needed a little further explanation so, with apologies if needed: As a working journalist in Western Canada from the 1950s through to the first decade of the 21st Century, I heard stories from time to time about tough discipline in residential schools but paid little attention. I figured the discipline at Manor Park Senior Secondary back in the UK had been pretty tough in my final years of basic education.

Three far-from-gentle cracks of a cane across a bare hand; six on each hand for “serious” offences like cheeky replies to a teacher’s verbal rebuke. Complaints to an adult brought little consolation. Mother might offer words of comfort. Dad would say: “You probably deserved it.” 

I guess I grew into adulthood thinking much like my father when it came to corporal punishment and stories of rough treatment at church-run schools. Even when, as mentioned last week, my old mentor in native affairs, George Clutesi of the Tse-shaht, talked to me with sadness about life at the Alberni Residential School. He never spoke with bitterness; always with the hope that with patience and goodwill, truth and justice would prevail.

So, I heard about the evil side of “the schools” back in the 1950s. So did many others of that same generation, including public servants and high church authorities. And, like the good people of Munich in the 1930s where Hitler’s first concentration camp would be established, most of us closed our eyes and our ears and said: “We never knew.”

But, George Clutesis and Aboriginal leaders across Canada knew. So did church leaders and the governments – national, provincial and, in some cases, municipal. They knew the ultimate aim of the Indian residential school program was to assimilate an entire race of human beings to mainstream culture and Eurocentric beliefs and values. 

The shameful plan failed because Aboriginal people proved tougher to crush than the white invader thought. Strong and articulate native voices began to be heard. White leaders of good conscience were prepared to listen; and, the general population was shocked to awakening as the plan to absorb to cultural extinction all native tribes was exposed in horrific detail.

George Clutesi is one of the strong native leaders to emerge in the 1900s. I’m just happy he’s one I was privileged to meet and be friended by, on my life journey. His first book Son of Raven, Son of Deer – Fables of the Tse-shaht People, was my introduction to native culture. Readers who visited Montreal’s Expo ’67 may remember the large Clutesi mural in the Indian Pavilion. I remember as I write this that I always forgot to ask George if he used any of the brushes and oils Emily Carr bequeathed to him in her will on her death in 1945.

His books can still be found at https://abcbookworld.com/bc-bookword-archive. And if you’re an old movie buff, you can find on a website dealing with oldies, Dreamspeaker (1977), Nightwing (1979), and Prophecy (1979); three movie titles that could readily be changed to George Clutesi – the native born Canadian who was in real life a dream speaker and a prophet for his people.

“For Whom The Bell Tolls”

”It must 50 years since I talked to George Clutesi in his neat cottage home on Somass River Road in Port Alberni. I was a newcomer in the Albernis having been transferred to the Valley to open a news bureau for the Nanaimo Free Press.

The newspaper had ambitions way back then to spread its new daily wings beyond the Hub City. The Free Press no longer exists; its expansion plans in the Alberni Valley and later Courtenay wrecked by the Internet and other electronic marvels.

My new home with four children and a fifth due in a few months was on Stirling Arm on Sproat Lake not far from the old and famous water bombers, which provided wonderful entertainment during pre-fire season practice and during high fire years when local forest fires kept the flyers busy.

It was a great spot for raising children and a short drive to and from work, shops and schools, and George Clutesi – artist, actor, movie star, and a treasure chest on Tseshaht Nation’s legends and history – was a new-in-town-newsman’s dream. I was not a frequent visitor nor could I ever boast I was a close friend. I was one of those annoying acquaintances who dropped in unannounced occasionally, made myself at home – and was always made to feel welcome.

I’ve been calling George to mind in recent days as I have ploughed through the thousands of pages comprising the report of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, published a couple of years ago.

It contains a lot of George Clutesi’s thinking, although he died in 1988, sometime before the Commission report was published and morphed into the permanent National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

One of the themes echoing Clutesi thinking has to do with revenge for the evils perpetrated (and placidly accepted as valid by the people) imposed by white governors as they tried to whip the aboriginal tribes of Canada into sub-servant replicas of their proclaimed masters’ society.

I asked George why young aboriginal Canadians were so hang-dog submissive; why they tended to step to one side on a downtown sidewalk to give white folk clear passage. He politely saidI was misreading their feeling. He said it was sometimes a serious challenge holding the young bloods in check. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report echoes that warning with the oft-repeated theme that its emphasis is, and will always be, on reconciliation, not revenge.

And I’m wondering if the majority of white people feel that way. John Donne (1572-1631) once wrote: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Next time you hear them, ringing “from sea to shining sea” in Canada, remember the answer.

Reconciliation Is Never Easy

“Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem; it is a Canadian one. Virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered.”

The words are part of the introduction to the voluminous report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published in December 2015 and still producing shudders of embarrassment in Canada as details of years of practiced cultural genocide continue to be revealed.


The latest shock wave came a few days ago when it was revealed that the graves of 215 children have been located on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School for indigenous children.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, made public after several years of cross-country study and thousands of interviews with former students arbitrarily confined to the schools, defined cultural genocide as: “The destruction of those structures and practices that allow a group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.

“IN ITS DEALING WITH ABORIGINAL PEOPLE, CANADA DID ALL OF THESE THINGS.” (The emphasis is mine)

During many months of listening to testimony from more than 6,000 witnesses the Commission said it was often difficult to believe that what they were hearing had happened “in a country such as Canada which has so long prided itself on being a bastion of democracy, peace and kindness …”

TypicaI of hard-to-believe-but-horribly-true was the story I wrote in June 2014 about an inquest into the deaths of four children from Lejac Indian Residential School back in 1937.

The four lads were runaways who had decided New Year’s Day would be a good time to be home with their family on the Nautley Indian Reserve some six or seven miles away. It was nine o’clock in the evening of January 1 before the boys – Alan Wylie, 9, Andrew Paul and Justa Maurice, 8, and John Michael Jack, 7, were reported missing. The temperature was below zero and falling.

At the subsequent inquest into their deaths BC Police Constable H.J. Jennings testified he had found the four bodies roughly three quarters of mile short of the Nautley Reserve where their families lived. He estimated they had been walking for about six hours before they fell and froze to death.

Const. Jennings testified they were wearing “underwear, blue denim shirts, overalls, heavy woolen socks, low rubbers, no hats. One boy had lost a rubber and a sock. His foot was bare. Three were lying huddled together; the fourth, some 80-feet away, died alone.”

But the most telling and disturbing testimony came from School Principal Father Patrick MacGrath who, according to press reports, “expressed surprise that the four dead children had fled the school unprepared” and added that “they could and should have helped themselves to more clothing.”

Father MacGrath was also reported to have filed a signed a statement saying: “Ninety per cent of our children are present at the school against their parents’ wishes and are not disciplined by their parents when they do run away so that it is hard (for us) to prevent them.”

The coroner’s jury was not impressed. It found: “More definite action by the school authorities might or should have been taken … and that more cooperation between authorities and parents would lessen the incidence of runaways.” It also decried the use of excessive corporal punishment and strongly recommended there would better understanding between disciplinarians and pupils “if the latter were English speaking.”

The Inquest had revealed that the teaching staff strictly enforced the “no native language rule” for students even though they had only limited knowledge of English.

Truth and reconciliation still lie just beyond our reach. But, not without hope.