For Michael Cachagee, President of Residential Schools Ontario and Residential School Survival Support Services, reconciliation cannot happen until the children who never returned home are finally found.
The canadian government described National Aboriginal Peoples Day is “a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and exceptional contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis”.
The date, June 21, was chosen because it was already a special day for many indigenous communities (and countless other cultures as well) as it is the summer solstice, the longest day in the world. year.
For non-Aboriginals, perhaps more emphasis could be placed on the “recognize” part of the federal description, said Michael Cachagee, a member of the Cree First Nation of Chapleau, president of Indian Residential Schools Support Services. Ontario and residential school survivor. himself.
While many begin with the idea of reconciliation, “reconciliation” is a word Cachagee said he can’t even understand.
“The word reconciliation does not exist in my language,” he said. “In my language, the cry, even in the Anishinaabe language, the word does not exist, the concept does not exist.
It may also be because Cachagee cannot quite reconcile the treatment he and his generation endured from those who ran the residential schools in Canada, all 139 of them.
Cachagee attended residential schools from age three to age 16, attending St. John’s Indian Residential School in Chapleau, Bishop Horden Indian Residential School in Moose Factory, and Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Married. He has an older brother who was with him and a younger brother who was torn from his mother at such a young age that he was given the school girls to raise.
They were forcibly taken from a mother who had also been to St. John’s Indian Residential School and knew exactly what her beloved children would face. And yet, she was powerless to stop him. Her children came home, but many more did not.
Cachagee quietly confesses that he thinks those who did not return home might have been better off in some ways.
He was physically and sexually assaulted by a priest he describes as a “monster”.
“He had club foot, and I can still hear him sometimes in my dreams, dragging on the ground,” he said.
Cachagee said he watched helplessly as four children died. He was forced to carry them, dig their graves and then lay their tiny, lifeless bodies in the cold earth. He doesn’t remember how they died; he was too small. But he remembers the feeling.
He also remembers the lack of sensitivity of the adults around him.
“Why was there no one crying, in mourning,” he said. “Here you have a little girl of seven or eight, lying in a box. No mourning, no tears, no nothing.
The feelings he remembers the most are being cold and hungry all the time. The food had to be kept cool with ice, and when that ran out, the children ate rotten food because there was nothing else.
They were fed an average of 1,000 calories per day and examined by doctors for the effects of malnutrition, “for research,” Cachagee recalls.
A Cachagee child remembers he ran away and was beaten so badly when he was caught that he was immediately transferred to the infirmary. Then the other boys were brought in to see him – not for comfort, but to be told that was what would happen to them.
But the children already knew. Cachagee said they even knew to always sleep with blankets, even when it was hot, because if the light landed on your skin when the door opened at night, you would be a victim.
This is what troubles him about reconciliation.
In English, there is reconciliation (noun): The restoration of friendly relations, or the act of making one view or belief compatible with another. There is conciliation (noun): the act of preventing someone from being angry; location; or the action of mediation between two persons or groups in conflict.
It is the aspects of making beliefs “compatible”, “restoring friendly relations”, “establishing” and “mediating between two groups” that confuse and irritate Cachagee.
“What do we, as Aboriginal people, reconcile with Canada, when the relationship we have had with Canada has never been one of conciliatory exchange,” said Cachagee. “What are we reconciling? Are we going to reconcile our own disappearance? Reconcile our own people subjected to colonial domination? “
As a residential school survivor and chair of a support service that sought to do justice to fellow survivors of what politicians often refer to as “Canada’s darkest chapter,” Cachagee wonders when this chapter will end.
He wonders this given that there have been calls for years to search school grounds for remains like those of foundlings in Kamloops.
These remains were in the news in 2021 despite the fact that as part of the testimonies included in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement class action lawsuit, which was settled in 2006, they were supposed to be found.
It started in the “late ’80s, early’ 90s,” Cachagee said. “There was recognition and then compensation for physical and sexual abuse, but we were also adamant that one of the things that would be recognized and addressed was the anonymous graves issue. A form of recognition for these children who have never returned home.
They did not receive the part concerning the children. And instead of further investigating the schools, Cachagee said the Canadian government has instead proposed what is called a truth commission – in this case, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
But there isn’t as much of the truth as you might think, and Cachagee said it starts with the federal government not only running the commission itself, but granting immunity or “amnesty.” for all crimes committed.
The TRC was based on models of truth commissions created in post-apartheid South Africa and in Australia after attempts to eradicate the indigenous population ceased. But these models both grant amnesty to anyone who testifies, leaving justice behind in the pursuit of knowledge.
In many ways, this might be the only way to get much-needed information for investigations, but as University of Victoria Matt James notes in his article Uncomfortable Comparisons: The Canadian Truth Commission and Recompilation in an International Context, a truth commission’s ability to dispense justice and accountability is affected by the injustices it investigates, the socio-political context, and the nature of the mandate.
His research-based article concludes that “these factors, compounded by considerations unique to the Canadian context, all hamper success.”
When examining the intent, nature and context of the TRC, according to James, it fails to meet its stated goals of truth and reconciliation.
Cachagee said the TRC and even the settlement hearings would investigate several aspects of the crimes against him, his siblings, his friends and his community poorly. It would also give the perpetrators immunity.
Aggressors like a nun whom Cachagee remembers vividly.
Each morning, waking up with wet sheets, one child in particular was beaten by this nun each morning for wetting the bed. Cachagee said that she too was a monster and that after opening the door each morning she happily walked to this child’s bed, hoping to catch a yellow stain.
At seven and nine, Cachagee and her brother would wake up in the middle of the night, check the child’s sheets for humidity, then wash them as thoroughly as they could in a bucket of cold water and lay them on the bed. the old, barely running radiator to dry. Just before morning they make the bed again.
But she would be disappointed and often cast that anger on everyone, including the little boy.
These are the acts, wrongdoing, abuse, neglect and sheer torture that were amnestied during the TRC and were never fully investigated under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement , Cachagee said.
No justice, no accountability, but now calls for reconciliation. For Cachagee, this is impossible while the remains of so many children are still lost. He is hopeful about new calls to investigate all residential schools and said he will continue to fight to get the other children back to their families, home again.
He hopes for justice and accountability, but you will have to excuse him if reconciliation is not on his mind.