Leslie Anne St. Amour
Editing by Rianna Walcott
Art: ‘Winter’ by Ernest Lawson
The first time I heard Dennis Saddleman’s poem Monster, I cried. The recording of Saddleman’s voice describes the trauma of his childhood as a ‘monster’, something all children fear, but his man-made by a government that should have protected him. It was an unexpected feature at volunteer training, which was designed to teach about current realities of oppression in Indigenous communities and the historical legacies that are to blame. It’s important to note that for many of these volunteers, including those who had attended Canadian educational institutions for their entire lives, this was the first time they were exposed to these realities.
Monster describes the experience of attending Indian Residential Schools, and the emotional scarring they leave on children forced to attend. From the 1870s to 1996, Indian Residential Schools were employed to deal with what was called Canada’s “Indian Problem”; they were designed to “kill the Indian in the child” (TRC). Saddleman describes the Residential School system as a monster, one that devoured children and removed their sense of self, their language and culture. He describes it as being dumped without “without parental support// without life skills, without any moral character, without individual talents, without a hope of success.”
Intergenerational trauma is experienced by many Indigenous people as a direct result of residential schooling. This has impacted the lives of Indigenous people today with problems such as mental health and addiction rates, lower rates of educational attainment, cycles of abuse and cycles of poverty. Part of this comes from the deliberate attempt to distance Indigenous children from their culture: “Your throat muscles squeezed my happiness, squeezed my native ways// And your throat became clawed with my sacred spirit,// You coughed and you choked and could not stand my spiritual songs and dances,” this description resonated strongly with me, as it evokes not only physical abuse but also cultural genocide as the Canadian government attempted to eliminate Indigenous cultures and languages.
Works like this, that examine inter-generational trauma, may help to eliminate misconceptions about Indigenous people in Canada. Non-indigenous people will be forced to confront their own history, and the stereotypes and bias they hold about indigenous people without understanding institutional causes of their marginalization. The first time I came across this work was at university, but not in a classroom. This is important to note because my university did not have an Indigenous studies program until 2014. Instead, students were forced to seek out this knowledge on their own, with little or no space to discuss it in an academic setting.
Indigenous people are a part of contemporary Canada, as well as being integral to its history. The history and impact of residential schools should be covered in classes from nursing and medical school (to discuss the health impacts on intergenerational trauma) to political science and sociology (to discuss the political and social impacts of this legacy). A political science class could easily address not only how non-Indigenous politicians have made decisions about Indigenous peoples, but how Indigenous political systems work and how Indigenous people interact with various political systems.Saddleman’s poem also has a place on literature courses, to discuss artistic responses by indigenous people to their marginalization. These topics are not taught in most classes due to the assumption Indigenous people aren’t in those spaces, and therefore subjects pertaining to them need not be taught.
More Canadian universities are including Indigenous content in their academic programs. However, this raises another issue, as much of the content is taught by non-Indigenous people, from a non-Indigenous perspective. That makes works such as this, coming directly from Indigenous people having faced colonial trauma, particularly important. Works such Monster provide a way for institutions currently lacking Indigenous staff to appropriately include Indigenous content, a way to literally bring Indigenous voices into the classroom. In the case of Monster, it is particularly fitting that Saddleman himself provides a reading, an audio source that can be used as a classroom resource. This allows learners to engage with the work directly from the source; no substitute for the inclusion of Indigenous teachers at institutions, but a good first step.
Contemporary Canada looking to come to terms with its racist history and make amends, often talking of ‘reconciliation’. However much of the country is still ignorant to aspects of their own history. This alone makes materials like this worthy of study, because a state cannot declare a goal of reconciliation, if that is even possible, if Indigenous peoples are still facing prejudice and stereotyping by a population unaware of their history. By studying the voices of the marginalized in Canada, and other examples of settler colonialism, we can begin to see the impact of colonialism on marginalized people and begin to correct contemporary oppression. This can only be done through the inclusion of Indigenous voices in all spaces, including educational institutions.
Saddleman, Dennis. “I Hate You Residential School, I Hate You.” A Poem from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by CBC Radio One, SoundCloud, soundcloud.com/cbc-radio-one/i-hate-you-residential-school, May 2013.
“Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=39 Winnipeg. Accessed 30 Jan. 2017
About the author:
Leslie Anne St. Amour is a member of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation located in Ontario, Canada. She studied Political Science at McGill University and is currently an OceanPath Fellow working on community development. She is accepted to University of Toronto law school to begin in August of 2017.