I have never been hungry. Growing up, my mother took great pride in coming home from a long day of teaching to prepare a nutritious meal for my family. This is a rather human experience, the visceral desire to feed those you love. So it was with great sorrow when I learned that the love of a mother’s meal was lost on a generation of Aboriginal children.
During the 1940s and 50s, stripped from the arms of their mothers and fathers and forcibly relocated to residential schools, so-called “starvation experiments” were conducted on Canada’s Aboriginal children. Doctors and researchers went to communities in Manitoba, and later across the country, and found deplorable health conditions, not in isolation, but stretching far and wide across Canada’s Aboriginal territories.
Decades of fur trade activities had drawn Aboriginal peoples away from their semi-nomadic, traditional hunting and gathering diet into a more “civilized,” agricultural diet consisting of all things the colour beige. But the economic conditions of the Great Depression and Second World War would severely ration access to even these innutritious foods. Residential school meal programs would limit food further, leaving children with merely bread, broth and lard upon which to subsist. This diet, deprived of virtually any vitamins or minerals, made the impacts of tuberculosis or even the common cold more severe. Worse, these sad meals spoke to how unloved, unwanted and uncared for these children must have grown up feeling.
But hunger was just the beginning. Over the coming months, Canadians will begin hearing shocking testimonies of tiny limbs flailing on rudimentary electric chairs, chemical castrations and sexual assaults on children. The darkness of these truths will shake our nation to the very foundations. Those who have survived tell stories of unfathomable abuses. Their physical and emotional scars have festered, poisoned by decades of denial and cover-up, and have spread like gangrene into attempts at trust- and relationship-building with government and industry alike. For as long as this period of Canadian history remains repressed and unaddressed, we will continue to be faced with impassioned opposition, defiance in negotiations, and protests in the street.
On July 25, thousands gathered across Canada to rally for the children who were forced to go hungry, who lost their lives in the name of science, and whose bodies survived but spirits continue to carry scars. They called upon the government to make public the remaining documents that detail the appalling treatment Aboriginal children received in residential schools, and honour the apology that we as a nation delivered but have never truly understood.
The Idle No More protests against the omnibus budget bill this past winter and the disruptions they caused to our commutes, economy and government were merely a taste of what is to come. While Idle No More was political and the associated hunger strike divisive, this time it’s personal and united. This next iteration of the movement will inevitably gain momentum faster and last longer. We will see the use of rallies, teach-ins, social media campaigns and protests to mount pressure against the government to release the remaining documents that record acts that have been described by Aboriginal leaders as crimes against humanity committed upon a generation of Aboriginal children. But these horrors are so unspeakable and foreign, they may remain beyond our realm of comprehension. Hunger, on the other hand, is singularly understood.
I have never been hungry, but I imagine a young classroom of Cree children, lying awake in the dark, their empty bellies contracting painfully at the absence of a meal. And I think of their mothers, hundreds of miles away, wondering if they are safe, if they have eaten. I think of the indignity of a mother stripped of the right to nourish her child. I think of a father whose pride in harvesting a bull moose for the winter has been shattered by the absence of his children.
Many of us may have never been hungry, but we are of a nation starved of honour. This necessity for the truth to finally be brought to bear cannot be underestimated. We are perhaps at the precipice of a major shift in our collective understanding and recognition of who we are as a nation, what we have done, and what we are willing to do to make it right. We may look back on these next weeks as the flashpoint for cultural change, the stories and images of starving school children as the spark.
The government finds itself in a very challenging situation with Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. This Second World War-era legacy was not of their making, but nonetheless, releasing such sensitive documents poses significant legal considerations. Sometimes it is very hard to do the right thing, and while I have every faith that the government will eventually release the documents, this will not happen overnight. Instead, we will all bear witness in the coming months as a government struggles to weigh both legal and moral obligations, while a new generation of Aboriginal people tries to somehow pay tribute to these broken memories.
What we don’t know yet is how Canadians will respond as more painful stories of abuse and neglect come to light. Will our collective consciousness find these stories so morally repugnant that we are inclined to reject them? Or will Canadians become hungry to, as the movement has already tagged it on Twitter, #HonourTheApology.
And so I think of my mother sharing that simple, human expression of her love for me through a meal that nourished my body and my spirit. And I think of the generation of Aboriginal children who grew up never knowing the warmth of that expression, never learning how to express love in that most natural manner with their own children. And I am hungry.
Melanie Paradis is the Manager of Natural Resources and Aboriginal Affairs with NATIONAL Public Relations.
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