Indigenous Lives Matter is a four-part article series featuring Métis, First Nations and Inuit writers talking about the Indigenous experience in Canada.
My name is Steven and I am of mixed cultural heritage. My mother comes from Nunavut and my father from southern Ontario and is of Scottish decent. I live in Ottawa and was raised here. I am a father of five daughters ranging in age from five years old to twin newborns. My wife and I have been married for almost eight years and both work from home, overseeing a Christian ministry whose northern branch is called the Arctic Hope Project. It is a Suicide Prevention and Inuit Youth Leadership Development program that we started in 2014.
I was 18 years old when I first learned that the RCMP, under mandate from the Canadian federal government, shot and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Eskimo huskies in an attempt to relocate Inuit people across the Northwest Territories. My mother was five years old when this happened to her in the mid-1960’s, and she remembers being forcibly relocated from the Arctic tundra to the Inuit community called Pangnirtung. My mother was born on the land and was raised in the traditional nomadic Inuit culture before her family was relocated to this community. This was the beginning of many Inuit experiencing residential schooling which they later learned was designed to “remove the Indian from the child”. My mother was too young to be taken into residential school but her older brother and other children were taken from their families and placed in boarding homes run by the United and Catholic Churches. I did not learn this from my mother, but much later from a cousin while he attended an Inuit college in Ottawa called Nunavut Sivuniksavut. My cousin comes from the same community as my mother and it was not until his college years that he first learned these historical facts.
It is disconcerting to learn that this traumatic experience was a part of my family’s history. It is also disconcerting to learn that the government of the country that I love had attempted at one point to remove what made us uniquely and intrinsically Inuk. It is hard to appreciate what the motive was for the legislation that created the Indian Residential School System. Perhaps that is the point – that racism does not make sense and it is a terrible part of the human experience.
The scars left from the Indian Residential School system are still visible today. Nunavut currently has the highest suicide rates in the country, the highest drug and alcohol abuse rates, and also the highest child and youth abuse rates. What that means is that there are many, many hurting people who live in extremely remote and isolated communities. My mother who is now in her sixties, and many Inuit like her, lived in our traditional way just 60 years ago. A tremendous amount of change and trauma has occurred in such a short period of time.
Although I did not personally go through residential school, nor have I experienced direct racism from Canadians, it is a part of my cultural history. I was sexually abused as a teenager but not at the hands of anyone from the Indian Residential School System. The question that I ask myself is, “What does this mean for my life and also what is the hope for our future?” The questions I think so many Canadian Indigenous people are asking themselves are, “How do we recover from the past?”, “How do we create the best future for us as individuals and also as a culture?”, “What impact does the past have on our future and also what power do we possess to make it better?”
A deep emotional healing needs to be one of the starters of that better future. The trauma that my people have experienced has left deep wounds.
How does one overcome trauma? How does one find healing from what someone else did to them? How do we find our legs again? In my experience, I have found that forgiveness is one of the foundational pillars of a better future. A by-product of the abuse I suffered at 16 years old was turning to alcohol as a numbing agent for the pain I felt. At 19, I was terrified about what my life might become if the pain, hatred and trauma I suffered was left unchecked. I asked the Creator to help me get better and I felt in my heart that the way forward started by forgiving the man who had hurt me. He never asked for forgiveness and he never said “Sorry”, but I knew in my heart that God required me to forgive him and He also helped me do it.
It started by my seeing a counsellor. The healing done in my heart allowed me to forgive this man. I have not seen the man in over twelve years, yet I know that my life would not be what it is now if I had not forgiven this man in my heart. Love had to be the steering wheel of my heart – love replaced the hatred and pain that had filled my heart because of the abuse.
Now does the micro also work for the macro? In other words, is forgiveness in the heart of an individual the same key to healing for all Canadian Indigenous people? Is it the starter that enables us to reclaim our power and find our identity again? I don’t know. Can we make a broad-stroke statement and say that forgiveness needs to be where we start to make a better future for ourselves? Does forgiveness change systemic roots of racism? Does forgiveness change the pain caused by the Indian Act? Does forgiveness ease the strained relationship between the Canadian federal government and Indigenous people?
I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to unequivocally make that statement. What I do know is that I would not be where I am today if I had not done what I did then. The way forward to a better future from our scar-riddled past is obviously a much more complicated issue that needs to be carefully explored, but maybe it starts with love and forgiveness.
I know that my suggestions may sound extremely lofty and even Utopian, but I think we can all agree that hatred and animosity are not capable of unifying us. They are divisive and are the mortar that racism is built on. Compassion and forgiveness are tools that that have the power to break down barriers and cause people of different ethnicities to be fused together in love.