Residential school lad, native veteran, federal public servant, family man, survivor. Born on Aug. 8, 1932, on the Six Nations of the Grand River Indian Reserve, Ont., died on May 22, 2013, in Ottawa of throat cancer, aged 80.
By the time he was 20, Russ Moses had lived a life that would have killed most people. He was an Indian residential school survivor, a native veteran of the Korean War (Royal Canadian Navy) and the Cold War (Royal Canadian Air Force), and an expert on native issues within the federal public service during some of the most challenging times for the recognition of aboriginal and treaty rights in Canada. Most important, Russ was an excellent husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather, and an outstanding companion to share a beer with.
A member of the Delaware band of the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve in southern Ontario, Russ was born in 1932 into deprived circumstances. When he was 8, a series of unfortunate events resulted in Russ’s arrival at the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School (a.k.a. the Mush Hole) along with older brother Elliott and younger sister Thelma. In 1965, shortly after leaving the RCAF and joining the Indian Affairs Branch, Russ was asked to commit his residential school views to paper in advance of an upcoming meeting of residential school principals.
His memoir documented conditions that are hard to reconcile with the Canada that we imagine ourselves to be. Like a First Nations Charles Dickens, Russ wrote about being forced to engage in physical combat with a series of other boys when he arrived at the school so that the newcomer’s place in the institutional pecking order might be settled. He also wrote of the gauntlet run by newly returned runaways, whereby the staff forced the children to beat the offenders. Russ’s original testimony is retained within federal archives while copies have been distributed among surviving family members, with the intention that in due course it be read into the official record of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Having wed in 1955 the love of his life Helen Monture (Six Nations, Upper Mohawk band), between his military stints, Russ went on to a varied career in public service. He was a pioneer aboriginal journalist on CBC Radio’s Indian Magazine and the Departmental journal The Indian News, followed by appointment as deputy commissioner-general of the Indians of Canada pavilion at Expo 67, an innovative venture in the public presentation of contemporary native cultures and art to an international audience.
In the late sixties and early seventies, as special assistant to Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien, Russ was involved in the controversial 1969 White Paper proposal to dismantle Indian Affairs and repeal the Indian Act. Although subsequently withdrawn, Russ wryly observed that opposition to the White Paper led directly to the modern era of aboriginal activism that endures to this day.
Perhaps like many men of his generation, Russ could be stubborn: To the end he refused to make any major changes to his lifestyle that might have, in fact, prolonged his life by a few years. But his refusal to be defined by his residential school experiences and instead to treat them, like his combat experiences, as a source of inspiration, helped him provide a stable, safe and loving home for Helen and his sons, James and John. In other words, he succeeded in life despite the adversity he faced, and notwithstanding the hardships he endured, he always presented a native perspective in everything he did with dignity and pride.
Safe passage, Russ, and we’ll see you back in port.
John Moses is Russ’s son.