One of the early things I did after ending my daily journalism career of 119 years, besides endless Googling of past Montreal Expo games, was take in the Vancouver public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in September, 2013. The experience was overwhelming.
It’s one thing to read about the unspeakable tragedy of what happened in Canada’s residential schools. It’s another matter to hear former students testify first-hand, and in depth, about what happened to them and the ongoing, debilitating impact it has had on their lives and those of their families. No wonder organizers placed so many boxes of Kleenex among the seats at the PNE Agrodome.
At the same time, you know these stories represent only a handful of the thousands and thousands of grim experiences suffered by children who attended those terrible institutions. Everyone was scarred, even those who seemed to come through unscathed. I remember one dignified woman breaking down in tears, as she recounted how, with her parents far away, she was unable to celebrate something as simple and basic as her birthday. “I didn’t celebrate my first birthday until I was 28,” she wept. There was no love in those schools.
Now, at last, we have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s comprehensive report and its 94 heartfelt recommendations. Sadly, they are almost certain to be ignored by a federal government that seems to care little for matters outside the orbit of its own base of support. Amid all the media hullabaloo last week, however, my own thoughts drifted back to someone I hadn’t thought of for a long time. She also attended a residential school. Here is her story (with thanks to Maria Tippett’s book, Bill Reid, The Making of an Indian, for some of what follows).
Canada being essentially a small town, it happened that my parents were acquainted with the family of renowned Haida artist, Bill Reid. My dad and Bill were lifelong friends, the two first bonding in their teens, strutting the wild streets of Victoria.
Bill’s lovely sister Peggy Kennedy, who lived for many years in London, was always on our Christmas card list. The Reid I knew best was their mother. My parents usually referred to her as “Mater,” but us kids knew her only as “Mrs. Reid.” Only after she died did I learn her first name was Sophie.
She was a striking, stylishly dressed woman, with prominent cheekbones, beautifully-coiffed silver hair, and a deliberate, dignified way of speaking. She seemed every inch the full-blooded Haida princess we were told she was. When Mrs. Reid came to visit, it was always an occasion.
Sophie Gladstone was one of the 150,000 native children who attended one of this country’s soul-destroying residential schools, with their stated goal of taking “the Indian” out of the child. The result, as we now know, was purposeful, cultural genocide. Innocent children were ripped from their families, forced into a hostile, alien environment. No effort was spared to eradicate every vestige of their native identify. The message drummed into those poor youngsters over and over again was an echo of the refrain from that Linda Ronstadt song: “You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good …” When they emerged from those dreadful schools, many were incapable of normal affection and a nurturing relationship with their kids. The ensuing dysfunction of First Nation families remains with us still, long after the schools were finally shut. It is truly the blackest chapter in Canadian history.
Mrs. Reid went to Coqualeetza Industrial Institute on the banks of the Fraser near Chilliwack. By the time she left the three-story brick building at the age of 16, the “Indian” in her was gone. She no longer identified with her aboriginal status. She married a rambling rum-runner and sometime hotel owner named Billy Reid, and for the rest of her life, she scorned the native traditions of her childhood. Mrs. Reid believed the only way forward for her people was assimilation. Nor did she think much of her celebrated son’s embrace of his Haida roots to become one of Canada’s great artists. (Mind you, Bill Reid did tell me once, in that wry way he had: I notice she hasn’t returned any of the jewellery I made her over the years …)
This was another legacy of residential schools. With such a rich cultural background, the daughter of esteemed carver Charles Gladstone and the great niece of the finest Haida carver of them all, Charles Edenshaw, Mrs. Reid turned her back on all of that to make her way in “the white man’s world.” One of Bill Reid’s school chums reflected that, despite many visits to their house in Victoria, he had no idea idea Mrs. Reid was Haida.
At the same time, Mrs. Reid was also touched by the same problem that has affected so many other residential school students. She had trouble being a warm, loving parent, although it’s important to add that she had to cope, as well, with the added stress of being a single mother, abandoned by her husband. Peggy Kennedy told author Maria Tippett their mother would often scream at her kids all weekend, non-school days they came to dread. It was an unhappy household, Tippett wrote, with the children seeking what comfort they could from their nanny/housekeeper, Leah Brown.
None of this was known to me in the days when Mrs. Reid used to visit. She was very kind to us young ‘uns. Only later did my mother, who was particularly close to her, tell me how Mrs. Reid praised the education she received at her residential school and disparaged natives unwilling to adapt to modern, white society.
A strong, distinguished woman, she found her own way to persevere in a world that considered aboriginals second-rate – first as a young teacher, and then as one of the most fashionable dressmakers in Victoria. Bill Reid attributed much of his artistic success to his mother. “Whatever I learned about design, I learned from her,” he told a magazine writer in 1986.
Yet, it could be said that Mrs. Reid, a successful woman on many levels, who raised three accomplished children, was a victim of residential schools, too.
(Meanwhile, here is some of what I wrote after attending the TRC hearings in Vancouver.)
First published on Mickleblog.