Wachiya. I am Matthew Coon Come. I am the Grand Chief of the James Bay Cree Nation in Eeyou Istchee. I am here today to make a personal statement, not as a political leader but rather as an Indigenous human being.
Our parents tell us about the day when the plane arrived to take the children away to residential school. They tell us how quiet our settlement suddenly was, when the sound of children playing had been silenced. They tell us how the only sound that could be heard in the community was the sound of parents crying for their children.
Years later, my parents came to visit me in residential school in La Tuque. They had walked for two days from their trapline to our village of Mistissini, and then walked another day to get to Chibougamau, which was the nearest non-Native town. From there, they paid what was a fortune for them to take a taxi to drive them some 350 km to La Tuque. They were able to visit me for just a few hours and then they started the return journey, by taxi back to Chibougamau and then three days walking back to their trapline.
Six days of walking on snowshoes and probably all the money they had – all of this for the sake of a few hours visit to try to maintain the fundamental bond between Eenou parents and their child.
I am holding a sheesheegun – a traditional Cree child’s toy – the type which was made by parents or grandparents for their beloved children and grandchildren. This sheesheegun is a symbol of the children who were lost – those many children (some historians say as many as 50%) who were taken away and never returned. It is a symbol of the childhood innocence stolen from us by the abuse we suffered at residential school. It is a symbol of the parental and cultural bonds between children and parents – bonds which were, in too many cases, stretched until they twisted or broke – destroying our families. And by destroying our families, the foundations of our communities and our Nations were altered, sometimes almost beyond recognition.
“Residential schools” is a terrible euphemism. This term conveniently obscures and cleanses the truth about these terrible places and the shocking programme of political and cultural destruction of which they were a central pillar. The places to which we were taken were places of involuntary internal childhood exile and, frequently, maltreatment. Their over-arching purpose was not to house or educate us, but rather to separate successive whole generations of indigenous children from their parents and communities and traditional lands and resources. The chilling over-arching policy idea was to ultimately eliminate and destroy our peoples, by assimilating the Indigenous children of Canada while allowing time for Indigenous parents, grandparents and nations to die off alone in their traditional lands.
There is great controversy in Australia about the use by the Australian Commission into the Stolen Generations of the term “genocide” in its final report. Some feel its use was fully justified. For others, the use of the term “genocide” was inaccurate given that some of the Australian policy and practice was felt to be well-intentioned. For others, and I quote, “there seems to be a strong view among Australians that we’re too good for that, we’re all good blokes and we don’t do those things here.”
I feel it is absolutely essential during this process for us to debate and discuss these issues. There may well not in the end be unanimity, or even agreement. But if we sidestep these important discussions about genocide, and if we avoid these important debates about what actually happened and what it all means, then we will be suppressing the strong sense of many “residential school” inmates in Canada that the Australian Commission was correct about stolen generations genocide.
Yes, there were undoubtedly some government officials, and some so-called residential school workers in Australia and in Canada alike, who were well-intentioned and non-abusive, and even engaged beneficially with “Indian” children in their “care”. But this cannot cleanse the wrongful, and some feel the evil, reality of the over-arching federal and church assimiliation and Indigenous cultural destruction policy in Canada.
Let me now return to this sheesheegun. It is also a symbol of hope for the future. It is a symbol of our children and grandchildren and of the bonds, which we, and we alone, can and must re-establish with them.
By re-establishing those bonds we will rebuild our families. By re-building our families, we will re-build our communities. By re-building our communities, we will re-build our Nations. The healing of our families, our communities and our Nations is an enormous task – and it is a task, which only we can do for ourselves. No one can do it for us.