Fighting the Legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools

As two First Nations men navigate Canada’s prison education system and the not-so-distant memory of Indian residential schools, one unravels the colonization of his mind.

Purple Howl

Here I was reading and referencing correctional laws and policies for a man two decades my elder. I was “educated” and he was not. But we were both affected by colonialism, just differently.

Illustration By Mark Anthony Jacobson

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George was a stocky, whisker-faced, 48-year-old Cree man who covered his wiry black hair with a purple “Native Pride” trucker hat. He spent his entire life incarcerated—in Indian residential schools, foster homes, mental wards, provincial jails, and federal prisons—and learned one thing: how to fight. So I was thankful my encounters with him were nonexistent. That is, until he came to me with an issue too traumatic for him to deal with, let alone spell out. Having seen me work as a tutor in the prison’s school, I guess George thought I could offer some help.

“Hey-uh, Moses … I have sumthin’ here for yah,” he said as he looked down at the white paper in his hand.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a … well … come over here and I’ll tell yah.”

I cautiously walked over to his cell, not knowing what he was up to.

“See, the staff, well, they tellin’ me I can’t do my Pathways program. Says I gotta do their school. Just like how that damn reza-dental school told me I couldn’t speak my own language.”

George went on trying to explain his problem to me. As I looked him in the eyes, I did not see a hardened convict. Instead, I saw a helpless man-child desperately attempting to articulate himself. After asking a few questions, I had the gist of the issue.

George was suspended from school for absenteeism and low grades. His teacher, Ms. Campbell, told him he could not participate in his Aboriginal cultural program, Pathways, since it was in his correctional plan to be in school. George was below a grade 10 educational level, and so school was made mandatory for him.

He went on to tell me that he had spoken with Ms. Campbell a few weeks ago and told her he was going to dedicate himself full time to the Pathways lifestyle and planned to complete his education in his community upon release. Since Ms. Campbell did not mention that there would be any problem with his plans, he was under the impression that he had successfully transferred from school to Pathways.

Something about the whole thing made me suspicious. But seeing how distraught this made George, an otherwise hard-hearted man, I agreed to help him write a complaint that made clear his position and that would request his suspension be overturned.

Later in the day, as I sat in my cell searching for the right words to defend George’s position, I heard a knock at my door. I turned to my left and saw the upper part of George’s face poking up into the door window.

“But when you fight the prison system, it’s like an old reserve dog chasing its tail!” he said as he chuckled and walked down the corridor.

“How true,” I muttered as I clutched a fist around my pen and began to scribble down a few notes. I moved on to George’s educational history and the similarities he perceived between residential and correctional school, mainly how he thought government agents were punishing him for practicing his culture and forcing him to learn their forms of knowledge on their legislated terms and time frames.

Here I was reading and referencing correctional laws and policies for a man two decades my elder. I was “educated” and he was not. But we were both affected by colonialism, just differently.

Soon after graduating from high school, my Uncle Mel suggested I pursue First Nations studies at the University of Northern British Columbia. If I had followed his advice, I would have learned that Aboriginal peoples had a dysfunctional relationship with what western society calls “literacy.” I would have learned that, prior to contact, there were no written language systems in North America, that Aboriginal peoples lived in oral societies and were forced to be “literate” by the federal government’s residential school system. These institutions, however, were based on cultural illiteracy and control. According to George’s complaint, the prison school system was based on the same model.

But I didn’t value my Uncle Mel’s advice. For one, I thought the university was too close to my reserve. Secondly, I thought that such a field of study was somehow illegitimate and inferior. So I never pursued it. Instead I studied Western philosophy at Trinity Western University, a Christian liberal arts institution over 1,000 kilometers away from my village.

As I concluded George’s complaint, I reflected: Am I the ultimate product of a successful assimilation policy, where Aboriginal peoples no longer need to be physically forced to attend a Christian-based school but disconnect from their communities and go of their own volition? Was I an accomplished undergraduate, or was I incarcerated in colonial ideology, trapped in the thought that Western culture was intrinsic­ally superior to my Aboriginal culture? Too ashamed to learn about my own heritage, did I lose myself intellectually, reading and writing myself deeper into assimilation, saturating my mind with European thought—Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes?

Sure, I learned how to read and write, but I never learned how to live. George didn’t know how to read and write, true. But at least he was trying to learn how to live right by following the Red Road in his Pathways program. Why would Corrections not allow him this opportunity? I thought to myself. By the time I sifted through my own thoughts and George’s complaint, it was about two in the morning. I went to bed for the night.


May 19, 2008

In the morning, I typed up George’s complaint and handed him a fresh copy at lunch. He looked it over and even attempted to read out some of the words.

“I am … dis … sat … is … fied … with the … foll … ow … ing … desish … uns,” he sounded out like a focused kindergartner.

He approved of my work and quickly handed it into the correctional officers on duty. Ten minutes later, George again poked his head into my cell window. This time he had something with him.

“Hey-uh, Moses. Check this out,” he said through the crack between the door and wall. In that small piece of window I saw vibrant shades of red, black, and white painted into drawn ovoids and u-forms, arranged and shaped to create the crest of a wolf.

“Man, that’s beautiful, George.”

“You like it? Well, that’s good, cuz it’s yours!”

“What? No, I can’t take that from you.”

“Don’t be like that. It’s my gift to you. For helping me.”

“Well, if you made it for me as a gift, then …”

“Sure, well-uh, it’s what brothers do for each other.”

“Thanks George. That’s the clan I’m a member of too. Wolf.”

“I know.”

As my cell door unlocked for count, George handed me the canvas painting and walked off to his cell before I could say a word. Then I asked myself: Did he draw and paint this the same night I wrote his complaint? Was he using his drawing and painting skills to honor and represent me the way I was trying to do with my reading and writing skills for him? And how did he know I was a member of the wolf clan? I never found the answers to these questions, but I like to think George was gifted with a spiritual understanding that no philosophical treatise could ever expound.

Late that day, the correctional officers on duty approached me.

“Nice writing, Moses.”

“What are you talking about?”

“C’mon, we know you wrote that complaint. We’re not idiots, like some people.”

I became irate. I stared him down, straight into his blue eyes and found nothing but cold indifference.

“Well how long will it take to be processed?” I played along with their charade.

“No idea. Thought it wasn’t yours.”

“It’s not, but while you bring up the topic, I might as well solicit some information on the complaint process.”

They laughed, did their rounds, and as they left the range, the other officer said, “Clever, Moses. Real clever.”

I returned to my cell, lit some sage in my abalone shell, and prayed for George’s truth to be heard.


June 11, 2008

Weeks passed, and nothing happened on an institutional level. I didn’t expect there to be a quick response. There never is. But something did happen on a national level—Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to residential school survivors. As I came back from my morning class, I turned on my 13-inch television and laid there on my bunk bed, listening to this long overdue political oration:

For more than a century, Indian Residential Schools separated over 150,000 Aboriginal children from their families and communities … Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture … Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child.” Today … I stand before you, in this Chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to Aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the Indian Residential Schools system. 

I muted the volume, ready to holler for George to tune in, when I heard a quiet sobbing coming from a distant cell. It was George. This man, still isolated from his family, still punished for living his culture, still having western education imposed on him by the federal government, this vulnerable child, was finally vindicated from that dark chapter of Canadian history. Tears ran down my cheeks as a solemn thought entered my consciousness: He may be locked up, but the Indian and child in him have not been killed. I lay back down on my bed, unmuted the volume and listened.

When our cells unlocked for lunch feeding, I found George walking by.

“So what did you think of the apology?”

“It was …” he coughed, trying to clear his throat. His eyes were bloodshot.

“It was … good,” he said, with a simple smile of gratitude.

Nothing more. What could I expect? A doctoral dissertation for a response?

George was a survivor, and that, in and of itself, was more impressive than any sophisticated speech or literary discourse. George was alive to listen and receive those historical sound waves so many of his peers did not live to experience. I patted him on the shoulder. Then, breaking convict etiquette, I hugged him. I hugged George, the lonely child in a Native man’s body, right in front of the two correctional officers to whom he had submitted his complaint. And for a brief moment in prison time and space, I swear, those two officers for once saw beyond the “Aboriginal offender” label and witnessed two resilient human beings consoling each other, appreciating the other’s survival. At least that’s what their looks of epiphany told me, right before they ordered us to take our lunches back to our cells and lock up.

As I peeled an orange in my cell, I listened to our national chief, Phil Fontaine, respond to Harper’s apology. What resonated with me was his talk about the “irresistibility of speaking truth to power.” I felt privileged for having done this in writing for George, articulating his human right to practice his culture and spirituality to the prison system, an institutional microcosm of First Nations-Canadian relations, if you will. The only exception: George is still waiting for a response. It, too, is long overdue.

Vernon Wilson is a Gitxsan First Nations person from the village of Kispiox, B.C. He holds an associate of arts degree from Thompson Rivers University and a creative writing diploma from the Surrey Writers’ School. Reprinted from Briarpatch (March/April 2013), a bimonthly Canadian magazine with a radical, grassroots perspective.