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.

3 comments

  1. My schooling in post-war Canada included corporal punishment and abundant verbal abuse from teachers. I thought it normal and strived to avoid it by behaving. This was obviously the point.

    I didn’t know about residential schools back then. But if I had heard reports of rough treatment I might have thought it wasn’t so different from my experience. It would have been a mistaken impression.

  2. Hard blog to writ as a young reporter, since the publication of the children’s death I have read other other documents that say the same thing. Governments and churches turned a blind eye.

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