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For many of us, the idea of boarding school has immense appeal, conjuring images of happy young people, clad in their snappy school uniforms, forging bonds of friendship with their fellow students, playing sports, and attending classes in beautiful, ivy-covered buildings. The fact that very few of us will ever attend a boarding school, that they are usually the domain of privilege, is exactly the point: for most of us, they are exotic, foreign. They represent a lifestyle we do not share, but about which we like to read. There is, in fact, an entire genre of children's novels in Britain which caters to this desire, and despite the criticism of those who believe that the “school story” celebrates elitism, it has remained popular, with the Harry Potter books being just the latest - and most fantastical - manifestation.

But there is another, darker boarding school narrative - a tale of coercion and cruelty, the massive kidnapping of another people’s children, and the long-term, multi-generational damage done by the abuses inflicted on those children. It is NOT a story of privilege, but of privation, a story of racism, colonialism, and genocide. It is the story of the residential school system, set up to “teach” the indigenous children of this continent, and although Grant’s book focuses on the indigenous women of Canada, it is a story that has significance both in Canada and the United States.

Imagine that outsiders came to your village, and took all the children away. If you were a parent, and you tried to resist, you could be sent to jail. Imagine that these children, many of them far younger than the mandated seven years, were brought to church-run institutions, set up to wean them from the “deleterious” effect of their own cultures and families. If you spoke your own language, you were punished. If you tried to run away, you were recaptured, severely beaten, and sometimes put in isolation. Imagine being forbidden, as a young child, from going to the bathroom, except during very limited times, and then beaten for wetting yourself. Imagine that, terrified and lonely, you were watched closely, to ensure that you formed no close friendships. Imagine being told that you were “trash” every day, or being taught religion by a clergyman who used a diagram in his lessons showing white people ascending to heaven, and Indians descending to hell.

Imagine that you were never fed enough, and that the food you were given was often rancid. Imagine being ill or injured, and having your agony ignored by the adults responsible for “caring” for you. Imagine being a child at such a “school” - small and vulnerable in a world where you had no power, no voice, and no value, a world in which you could be abused with impunity. A world so permissive of sexual violation that one judge, in later years, called it “nothing but a form of institutionalized paedophilia,” run by “sexual terrorists.” And finally, imagine that this had been done to ALL the children of your cultural group, and that those responsible for inflicting such untold misery on you, were held up by society as philanthropists...

You don’t need to imagine it. Your can read about it in Agnes Grant’s Finding My Talk, a collection of “mini-biographies” of fourteen Native Canadian women who survived these residential schools. Some of the women profiled are writers, some educators, but all have struggled to find their way in life, after their traumatic early experiences. Many of the women here emphasize that their own personal experiences weren’t so bad, but whether they were victims of physical and/or sexual abuse themselves, or just witnesses to it, they were one and all abused mentally and spiritually. The terrible scars left by their youthful incarceration can be seen in the troubled relationships many had with their own spouses and children, and the long, rocky road that each had to travel, in order to find some measure of inner peace, and outer success.

This was a very difficult book for me to read, and I found that I often needed to stop, after reading only one profile, in order to reflect upon and absorb what I had been reading. As Marlene Starr noted in her foreword, these are hopeful stories, stories of survivors. But one never quite forgets that so many didn’t survive, that they weren’t meant to survive.

Addendum: The women profiled here include: Eleanor Brass (Cree, Saskatchewan); Ida Wasacase (Cree/Salteaux, Saskatchewan); Rita Joe (Mi'kmaq, Nova Scotia); Alice French (Inuit, Northwest Territories); Sister Dorothy Moore (Mi'kmaq, Nova Scotia); Shirley Sterling (Nlakapmux, British Columbia); Marjorie Gould (Mi'kmaq, Nova Scotia); Doris Pratt (Dakota, Manitoba); Edith Dalla Costa (Mixed Blood, Alberta); Bernice Touchie (Nuu-chah-nulth, British Columbia); Mary Cardinal Collins (Metis, Alberta); Elizabeth Bear (Cree, Manitoba); Sara & Beverly Sabourin (Ojibway, Ontario).
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AbigailAdams26 | Apr 8, 2013 |


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Associated Authors

Marlene Starr Foreword
William Stevenson Contributor
Caroline Flett Contributor
John Tetso Contributor
Duke Redbird Contributor
George Kenny Contributor
Sheila Erickson Contributor
Verna Johnson Contributor
Dorine Cooper Contributor
D. Bruce Sealey Contributor
Richard Delaronde Contributor
Louis Goulet Contributor
Hubert Gunn Contributor
Gilbert Oskaboose Contributor
Pauline Doore Contributor
R.Z. Nobis Jr. Contributor
Roslea Prosser Contributor
Darlene Genaille Contributor
Tom Boulanger Contributor
George Barker Contributor
Alex Grisdale Contributor
Lee Maracle Contributor
Basil Johnston Contributor
Maria Campbell Contributor
E. Pauline Johnson Contributor
Jock Carpenter Contributor
Alice French Contributor
Dan George Contributor
Antoine S. Lussier Contributor
Beatrice Mosionier Contributor
Jane Willis Contributor
Markoosie Contributor
Rita Joe Contributor
Emma LaRoque Contributor
Jordan Wheeler Contributor
Eleanor Brass Contributor
Ruby Slipperjack Contributor
Edward Ahenakew Contributor
Eva McKay Contributor



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