I come from a culture where, traditionally, fair skin is prized. As a child, whenever I became deeply tanned from playing outside during the summer in southern Ontario, my parents would tell me that I looked like a Siwashee. I never understood what they meant, but I knew that it was uncomplimentary. It was only in later life that I realized that Siwashee was actually a mispronunciation of the word Salish.
It seems that creating a social pecking order in which you always have some other group to look down upon is a universal human trait, and it certainly applies to the Chinese community in Canada. This gives me an interesting perspective from which to view a book like Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River, a harrowing memoir of his experiences at a Native residential school and beyond. I may not carry the full baggage of white guilt regarding this troubling chapter of Canadian history, but I carry baggage nevertheless.
The first chapter of Up Ghost River opens with the death of Edmund’s baby sister. It was the early 1950s and the family, living in the bush north of Fort Albany in northeastern Ontario’s Cochrane District, rallied and consoled one another, overcame the tragedy and remained whole. But a few years later, when Edmund was only seven years old, he was sent to St. Anne’s, a residential school run by nuns and priests in Fort Albany.
He arrived at school in clean clothes and wearing a pair of beautiful beaded moosehide moccasins made by his mother. Almost immediately a nun told him and the other new arrivals to remove their shoes and clothes and to line up in order of height, from smallest to tallest. Each child was given a number. Young Edmund was number four. From that moment forward, he would be called by that number and was told to refer to himself only by number, never by name. Next, the children were doused with white powder and then lined up in a shower. Afterward they were given standard-issue clothing that they were expected to wear during the school year. When Edmund returned home for the summer holidays, he made no mention of those precious slippers and I found myself wondering about them.
That was only the beginning. For the next eight years, Edmund and his classmates would suffer physical and sexual abuse ranging from being fondled, having to eat one’s own vomit to being strapped in a chair, hooked up to electrical wires and shocked. The first time this happened a boy had stolen a can of beans from the pantry. The students were gathered together and made to watch as the child was strapped to the chair and electric shocks were sent through his body. “Sister Wesley kicked the boy’s foot,” Edmund writes. “It didn’t move.” He was sure the boy was dead.The first evening in the dining hall, Edmund and his classmates watched as the priests and nuns ate delicious-smelling roast beef, potatoes with gravy and chocolate cake while the students ate a watery stew of beans and tiny pieces of meat. Young Edmund pulled an Oliver Twist and asked for a second helping. He was whipped until his back was raw and bleeding.
Each summer Edmund returned home to his family, but things were never the same. He was unable to tell them about his new life, concealing the anger and the shame that festered inside. With each summer he grew more distant from his parents and his brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, he persevered and graduated from grade 8, along with twelve other students from an original class of 30. That fall he left Fort Albany to attend high school in Kirkland Lake, where each year he lived with a different foster family. Life there was better than at St. Anne’s. They were taught by lay teachers and no longer terrorized by nuns and priests.
By this point in Metatawabin’s narrative, I found myself thinking about the early Chinese who came to Canada at the turn of the last century. My father had told me many times about the Chinese head tax and the Exclusion Act of 1923, both racist pieces of legislation that cast a shadow on Canada’s early history. I also recall hearing that the early Chinese immigrants who were not accepted by mainstream white society on Canada’s West Coast sometimes turned to the Native people, who offered help and acceptance. But as the Chinese became more prosperous and more integrated into the mainstream, their connections with the Native population dwindled. It is clear from Metatawabin’s memoir that aboriginal Canadians were left entirely on their own in coping with the aftermath of the residential schools tragedy.
Edmund’s dream was to become a teacher. In 1968, after graduating from grade 13, he was offered a job teaching adults English as a second language in Fort Albany. It was there, in his home town, that he met Joan Barnes, a young white woman, and married her. Together they started a family, eventually having four children. But the horrors of his past continued to plague and torment him. Alcohol provided relief from his memories, until it became an addictive, harmful force that threatened to destroy him. There was a failed attempt at rehabilitation through Alcoholics Anonymous. Estranged from his family and with his life in ruins, he agreed to travel to Edmonton where he immersed himself in Cree culture, participating in healing circles, sweat lodges and learning from Native elders. These were the sessions that ultimately led him full circle, to understanding his past and to forgiveness. It was not an easy road, but he was now ready to reunite with his family and to rebuild.
In time, Edmund returned with his wife and family to Fort Albany. By then he had a master’s degree in environmental studies from York University. But whenever he walked past St. Anne’s, he was haunted and wanted justice brought to the nuns and priests who had tainted his childhood.
In 1988 he was elected chief, promising to “focus on taking our power back from the Ministry and giving it to our people, the Mushkegowuk.” He worked tirelessly to expose the wrongdoings of St. Anne’s, culminating in a recent court case against the federal government demanding that school records be released to the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the eventual conviction of several of the nuns and priests at St. Anne’s. Considering the horrors that the children at St. Anne’s endured for so long, it seemed to me that the punishments were light. One of the nuns was sentenced to eleven and a half months’ house arrest. Of the three men who were convicted, only one was sent to prison. Three of the priests (including the one who built the electric chair) had died before the proceedings began.
The story of surviving the horrors of the residential school experience has been told by many others. But Edmund Metatawabin’s Up Ghost River is told with such unsettling bravery, in plain, honest language, that this intimate portrait of his childhood resonates long after the pages are closed. Reading it was an exhausting but important experience for me. In spite of the fact that my father was the victim of racist and discriminatory legislation in early 20th-century Canada, and in spite of my own experiences as a young child growing up in small-town Ontario where I was stung by racial taunts and name-calling, I have come to realize that, as a Canadian who has benefitted from living in this country, I am obliged to embrace all of Canada’s history, the shame along with the glory, to examine its past and, above all, to ask questions.