The Canadian Conversation
A Polish journalist’s perspective on residential schools
Toby Obed was born in Hopedale, a coastal town in northern Labrador. Like many places in Canada, Hopedale has more than one name; an old one, Agvituk, means “place of the whales.” Today, it is the legislative capital of Nunatsiavut, the self-governing homeland of the Labrador Inuit. When Obed thinks of his birthplace, he remembers a red uniform with evenly placed gold buttons. Its wearer, an RCMP officer, had just pounded on the door, then barged in, accompanied by some women. The strangers had come to take four-year-old Toby and his older brother and sister away. He doesn’t remember if his family resisted, but he knows everyone cried. There, on the threshold of his childhood home, Toby died for the first time. He and his siblings were put on a float plane that took them to the Yale School, in North West River, some two hundred kilometres south. The year was 1975.
Toby’s story is his own, but its broad outlines resemble those of countless others. The young boy was separated from his brother and sister. Staff meted out violent punishments for infractions like speaking Inuktitut. One teacher, nicknamed Miss Devil, made children watch as she beat their peers.
Toby died once again when he was eight, after he learned that he and his siblings wouldn’t return to Hopedale. Instead, they were scattered among foster homes. Toby would die twenty more deaths before he aged out of the system — one for every time he was moved to a different family.
Decades later, survivors of over 130 schools like Toby Obed’s reached a deal with the federal government. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2006 mandated the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and meant financial compensation for many. Yet Obed and other survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador were left out: the Yale School and four others, Ottawa argued, had been founded before the province joined Confederation, so Canada bore no responsibility for what had happened there.
That is when Obed died for the twenty-seventh and final time. And then he did what he had always done: he survived. As Stephen Harper delivered an apology on behalf of all Canadians in the House of Commons in 2008, survivors from Newfoundland and Labrador were bringing class-action lawsuits against the federal government. Obed was among them, and he played a leading role in seeking justice for those left behind.
In 2016, the Polish journalist Joanna Gierak-Onoszko arrived in Canada, where she would spend two years reporting for the centre-left weekly magazine Polityka. She first learned of Toby Obed in November 2017, through media coverage of the long-awaited federal apology for residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. Photos of Obed walking across a stage in Happy Valley–Goose Bay, toward the prime minister and his open arms, were splashed under national headlines: “Tearful Justin Trudeau Apologizes to N. L. Residential School Survivors” (the CBC), “Trudeau Hopes Residential School Apology Brings ‘Closure’ ” (the Canadian Press), “A Long Wait Ends: Trudeau Apologizes to N. L. Residential School Students” (Canada’s National Observer). Gierak-Onoszko was struck by the juxtaposition — of two men, born around the same time, whose circumstances were entirely unlike. She tracked down Obed and asked him to share more about his past. The two never met in person, but they spent hours speaking together online. These conversations wound up being one of many strands in Gierak-Onoszko’s deep dive into settler-Indigenous relations.
In 2019, Gierak-Onoszko published 27 s´mierci Toby’ego Obeda (The 27 deaths of Toby Obed) to popular and critical acclaim in Poland. The book blends interviews and research with personal experience; it’s a cross between reportage and creative non-fiction. Obed’s story provides the opening and through line, but Gierak-Onoszko speaks to several residential school survivors, as well as to academics and other interlocutors, and she intersperses her own observations about Indigenous issues and life in Canada. For example, she meets Sue Lynn Manone Cornfoot outside the Toronto office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, as it was known in 2017, during a weeks-long vigil over delayed funding for mental health services in remote First Nations communities. “Conversations with her,” Gierak-Onoszko writes, “have made me look differently at the diploma in my drawer, which states that I’m a highly educated person. Here, I start with the basics, borrowing children’s books from the library.”
In addition to reading those children’s books, Gierak-Onoszko takes a course in Indigenous studies and participates in a group discussion, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. Her process and her missteps along the way parallel the vast cultural and experiential voids that her book tries to bridge: the history and present circumstances of Indigenous peoples in Canada are largely unknown in her part of Europe. Of course, one might say the same about large segments of Canada itself — from recent immigrants to those whose ancestors arrived generations ago.
Each of Gierak-Onoszko’s sixteen chapters reads as a stand-alone essay, and most of them revolve around a key protagonist. There is, of course, Obed, but also Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who was among the first to reveal publicly that he suffered abuse at a residential school, in a 1990 interview with Barbara Frum. And Chanie Wenjack, who escaped from the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in 1966, at the age of twelve. His subsequent death resulted in the first inquest into the treatment of residential school children.
As a journalist, Gierak-Onoszko is attuned to people and events that have already been amplified by the media, but she looks at them more deeply and takes stock of their significance in the larger landscape of Canadian cultural politics. Her prose is crisp and engaging , with fully developed scenes and memorable images: the jar of matches Wenjack had with him as he tried to find his way home, the sights and smells of a bus headed for a protest in Ottawa, a black and white photograph of a young Cree girl who grew up to become a nun.
Gierak-Onoszko also meets Robyn Bourgeois, a sociologist with Brock University’s Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies. “On the door of Professor Bourgeois’s office,” she observes, “hangs a poster with a photo of fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine. Her subtle smile has haunted successive Canadian federal governments.” (Here, “przes´ladował,” for “haunted,” might also be translated as “accused.”) As they visit, Bourgeois reveals her own harrowing experiences as a survivor of sex trafficking and her brush with the convicted serial killer Robert Pickton. The violent details that Gierak-Onoszko includes, often verbatim, make for sometimes difficult reading. Yet these descriptions help emphasize the importance of witnessing.
In Bourgeois’s personal and cultural recovery, the book finds parallels with broader societal attempts to address violence against Indigenous women. The chapter ends as Bourgeois testifies, not without hesitation, at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in October 2018. The inquiry’s final report came out in June 2019, just after the release of 27 s´mierci Toby’ego Obeda. If Gierak-Onoszko had had the chance to describe its findings of genocide, she might have reflected on Bourgeois’s ambivalence toward commissions and investigations — the proliferation of paper. “Words multiply,” yes, but what is being done?
Two Catholic orders ran the notorious St. Anne’s Indian Residential School at Fort Albany, in northeastern Ontario, which is another strand that winds through the book. Although included in the 2006 settlement, St. Anne’s had already been the subject of an investigation by Ontario Provincial Police in the 1990s. Spurred by the advocacy of Edmund Metatawabin, survivors submitted hundreds of statements detailing physical and sexual abuse, as well as extreme cruelty — including the use of a homemade electric chair. Out of a total of seventy-four suspects, only five were prosecuted.
Angela Shisheesh and Evelyn Korkmaz are survivors of St. Anne’s who have been fighting battles over access to documents and the church’s refusal to take responsibility. (Korkmaz originally spoke to Gierak-Onoszko on the condition of anonymity, but she decided to go public in early 2019, when she travelled to Rome to attend the Catholic Church’s first summit on sexual abuse.) Both Korkmaz and Shisheesh are literally struggling to reclaim their own words, in the form of records from that early police investigation, which are now in the possession of the federal government. In many cases, the testimonies have been permanently suppressed, even when the speakers want those experiences known. “Survivors may certainly continue telling their stories,” Gierak-Onoszko writes, with or without the documents held by the state. “That is, as long as — decades after leaving the schools — their memories permit it, and their hearts can stand it.”
Issues of translation inevitably creep up in the book, and Gierak-Onoszko explores the nuances of one particular linguistic disparity. “Survivor,” in English, refers to someone who endured, who made it through. The Polish “ocaleniec,” however, more accurately denotes someone “who was rescued, so to speak, by an external force. They’re like the victim of a disaster whom rescuers have helped.” In this sense, it resonates as a term for survivors of the Holocaust. And that’s why it’s an imperfect translation: “If children from Canadian residential schools survived, it’s because they withstood. They weren’t saved by anybody; no help came for any of them.” Nonetheless, it’s the best word available.
Will 27 s´mierci Toby’ego Obeda eventually be translated into English? There are moments that might seem awkward to Canadian readers, like an explanation of the wind chill factor or a lengthy description of Tim Hortons. Yet, as it exists, the book is already something between an original and a translation. Gierak-Onoszko conducts her research in English, including interviews from which she quotes extensively, and translates all of this material into Polish. Even if it’s a few years away from an English or French version, the book’s deep focus on the personal accounts of survivors, the way they are vividly brought to life on the page, suggests a staying power. Another reason a translation might be worthwhile: last year Obed told the CBC, “I would really like to read it.”
A bestseller in Poland, 27 s´mierci Toby’ego Obeda landed on this year’s shortlist for the Ryszard Kapus´cin´ski Award for Literary Reportage (named for the well-known journalist and most-translated Polish author next to Stanisław Lem). It was also one of seven finalists for the Nike Literary Award, among the most prestigious awards in Polish literature, and it won in the readers’ choice category. Why such intense interest in a book about residential schools and their fallout, half a world away? For one thing , it presents a compelling counterpoint to the rosy image Canada often enjoys in the international media — a more challenging companion to recent Polish books like Katarzyna We˛z˙yk’s Kanada: Ulubiony kraj s´wiata (Canada: The world’s favourite country). Another reason is its critical take on the Catholic Church, which ran two-thirds of the schools yet is the only denomination that has not offered an apology from the top.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for an apology similar to the one that Pope Benedict XVI delivered to Irish victims of abuse in 2010. And despite Trudeau’s personal plea during a visit to the Vatican and an invitation by Parliament for the pope to deliver an apology in Canada, one has yet to take place. In Poland, whose history is intimately bound up with the church, about 93 percent of people identify as Roman Catholic. The abuse that was rampant in many residential schools echoes the barely acknowledged histories of clergy abuse there. An independent documentary on the subject, Tylko nie mów nikomu (Tell no one), by the brothers Tomasz and Marek Sekielski, has had almost twenty-four million views on YouTube since May 2019. But it’s a past that is only beginning to be unravelled.
27 s´mierci Toby’ego Obeda has also been so successful in Poland because it speaks to how we can recognize and attempt to deal with shameful national histories. Despite its imperfections, Gierak-Onoszko argues, the reconciliation process that Canada has embarked on, thanks to the efforts of survivors, is an instructive one. In Poland, by contrast, the ruling populist Law and Justice party, whose presidential candidate Andrzej Duda was recently re-elected by a 2 percent margin, has gone the opposite way. In 2018, for example, it passed a bill that restricts statements about Poland’s responsibility for or collaboration in Nazi war crimes. The legislation was meant, in part, to deter usage of the offensive phrase “Polish death camps,” but it became widely perceived as a form of censorship — an attempt to bury unpalatable parts of the country’s history.
That same year, the president apologized for the 1968 purges of Jewish Poles, many of whom were stripped of citizenship and forced to emigrate to Israel. Along with his words, however, came an explicit denial of responsibility, since the purges had been carried out under the Communist regime. Poland’s difficult history precludes simple divisions between perpetrators and victims, yet selective interpretations add fuel to the fire of nationalist superiority and obscure a fuller, more complex picture of human relations — good and bad.
Each year, the Sopot by the Book literary festival, in Poland, selects a country that serves as a theme. This year, organizers focused on Canada, and they put Gierak-Onoszko on a panel with the award-winning journalist Tanya Talaga and Steven Cooper, a lawyer who worked on the original residential schools agreement, as well as the Newfoundland and Labrador one. (In July, Cooper joined Obed in berating the province’s outgoing premier, Dwight Ball, for not delivering on a long-promised apology from St. John’s.)
“What Canada has done, not only at the institutional level, but the conversations Canadians have had in schools, in the media, and at home around the kitchen table — this is something that gives me hope,” Gierak-Onoszko said on stage, as Talaga and Cooper joined remotely. “And I hope you all as well, in these increasingly dark times.” Gierak-Onoszko knows that colonization in Canada is ongoing. But she also knows that Obed, Talaga, Cooper, and countless others will continue chipping away at the problem — even if it takes many generations to fully solve.