Indigenous Curriculum

Conversations with Milly: Apologies and reparations

Jaimie Kechego holding a picture of her grandmother

This blog contains accounts of physical violence.

As this week winds down, I find myself feeling exhausted. I don’t know why. I haven’t done anything super tiring, or out of the ordinary from my day-to-day living.

Well, that’s not entirely true. You see, it was just a short while ago that the deadline passed for the Federal Indian Day School claim. This was an exhaustive process for me because my father passed away 3 years ago and did not leave a will. I now must prove in a Western court that he died with very little. If doing the work to get his application submitted was difficult for me, then I can only imagine what this process was like for those folks who had to revisit painful memories that had otherwise been long buried so they could provide as much “evidence” as possible. My aunt remembers when she and her siblings saw another child die on school grounds and their brother sustain severe injuries. This was a memory that had long been buried, due to the traumatic events of that incident. Another memory was that of being physically abused by another student. She was just a young child; an older boy came up to her and sucker punched her so hard she was knocked off her feet. She recalls that the kid had an issue with one of her older siblings, but other than that, she couldn’t understand why the kid had struck her.

The evidence that the applicant shares, will determine what amount that person will receive, should their claim be successful. A fair number of applicants will receive the base amount of $10,000. Others will file for the higher amounts ranging from $50,000 to $150,000. For some this money is a drop in a bucket. For others, it will be the beginning of a different type of wealth they have never seen.

Coincidentally, after that deadline closed, the Pope had made the effort to travel to Canada to apologize for the Catholic church’s role in the horrific abuses that happened at Residential Schools. These institutions that desperately tried to erase the Indigenous identity by taking away the heart of the communities: their children.

I didn’t think much of this visit for a few reasons. First, I didn’t even know if I was allowed to feel any type of way about it because I didn’t attend any sort of residential school. Second, my grandma has been gone for at least 17 years now and my dad has been gone for 3 years. They had memories and stories that I will never get to hear because they were too painful to share. Finally, at the end of the day, the Pope and the Church have no jurisdiction in my relationship with Gchi Manitou (the Creator) and myself.

As I sought some guidance to help my mind and heart understand, once again my mind wandered back to Milly’s house. Pulling up in her laneway, noticing how the trees have grown so much in the past 20 years, the sun filtering through the leaves casting many shades of green. I park my car and go around to the back deck, tap on the door, and let myself in.

I can see her standing there, in her kitchen cooking something. What is it? I inhale deep and long, letting my other senses do the work. Gramma is preparing a roast with spices and flavorings that gave off a rich scent that simmers in the air. As she gathers the side dishes, like creamed peas, and sets the table for our meal together, she asks me, “Did you see that fella give the Pope that headdress?”

I can hear her so clearly in my head, her tone sounds curious and a bit playful.

Yes, Gramma. I saw that. I didn’t think too much of it. I don’t know how to feel about it all. On the one hand, I understand that the Pope’s visit will allow for closure for some residential school survivors (the ones still alive). On the other hand, I see how this gesture has caused anger and frustration. I’m angry too gramma!

Why are you so mad? She asks.

“Because the Pope comes for a visit and suddenly, he’s receiving gifts that take years for some to earn. Where’s my eagle feather? My headdress? I feel so confused at the same time because I know I should not be thinking like this.” I feel like I am a child again, explaining my booboos to her.

Gramma replies, “Why do you want an eagle feather? Or a headdress?” As soon as she asked me, I could feel my anger dissipate.

Why do I want those things? I tell her: to be honest, I don’t want them, unless I have earned them. I know for myself; I would never be able to accept those items because I am not ready for the responsibility to take care of them. The people who could possibly gift those things to me are also knowledgeable when it comes to gifting significant items. I feel a bit better after coming to this realization.  

She sits down and thoughtfully considers my answer. When Milly thinks, you can see her working to find a way to explain those thoughts so that they make sense (she was the one that taught me, don’t talk just to hear yourself, talk because you got something useful to say). I ask her, “Gramma, do you see it as closure? Do you see why folks are angry?”

Milly sighs.

“Closure for some, yes. I can see it, but for those kids that didn’t come home, I can see how it would anger others. Truth is, no matter what, people heal in their own ways, differently. For some, it’s this fella visiting from across the waters. For others, it’s not that simple. Respecting both will do you no harm though.”

“Gramma, what would you have said to him?”

Her answer doesn’t surprise me and instead offers me the comfort that I had been looking for since the Pope set foot on Turtle Island.

“I would have been honest with him. I could see the value in sharing how the education of the zaagnaash (white man) would provide opportunities for us to be able to live a good life. I am thankful for those skills. Learning those skills came with a big price though, I was always balancing that price with my family, and my life. While I tried to encourage my children to either go to school or work, they struggled still. While we never really lived a wealthy life, we had each other, and we had a familial inherent knowledge of how to survive off the land. The church had nothing to do with the successes we did have as a family, it was our love and care that bonded us.

As a matter of fact, I refused to make my children attend church because at Mt. Elgin, that’s all we did was pray, sometimes 3-4 times a day. I thought it was ridiculous and I never understood why we would pray so much in a day. Now, I realize it’s because the priests and teachers needed to feel forgiven for the way they treated another human being. Even in prayer, the zaagnaash (white man) was greedy as they tried to absolve themselvesof their sins through our prayers.

You go on back to your motherland, I would tell him, and get the Church to open those coffers. It’s time to pay up. It may be too late for me, but there is a chance to have a different type of relationship with today’s Nishnob (Indigenous) peoples. When you go back to your country, to the church that you are accountable too, it is my hope that you and others like you, give back what you stole. The Church may not be able to give back the lives that were lost because of the abuse and mistreatment, but they can start giving back the money that they took from free labour and resource extraction, that would be one step of the many that the churches must take.

What comes after is up to our people. We decide how we are going to heal and no longer will the government or Church have a say in how we as Nations conduct our daily lives. No matter what type of ‘Indian Act’ the government uses, this new generation coming up, won’t accept any more broken promises or words that lack action.”

“Time to eat! That’s enough talk of that fella,” she proclaims.

I don’t argue with her. The food smells too good to continue dwelling on a simple man and his gifts. At that moment, she takes out the gunjin (oven bread) and places it on the table. Like magic, as if they have built-in sensors, my dad, my uncles, and aunties arrive to sit down with us to break bread. I get up to grab more plates and begin setting the table. Gramma smiles and tells us to sit down and begin. I don’t know where to start, she had prepared my favourites: roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy. A fresh garden salad (made with our own vegetables from our garden), coleslaw, creamed peas, fresh corn, and to top it all off, homemade lemon meringue pie for dessert. I take a big breath, as I look around the table, my heart fills with love and pride. I come from a long line of warriors, who made it through horrific times with different battles to make sure that I could exist. For this, I am thankful and ready to make sure the next Seven Generations can happily and safely move through their lives as Indigenous peoples.

Jaimie Kechego

Jaimie Kechego is the Indigenous Curriculum and Pedagogy Project Coordinator for the Centre for Teaching and Learning. She is Anishnaabwekwe from Deshkaan Ziibing (the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation reserve) located near London, Ontario. Jaimie’s academic experience began at the University of Windsor as she pursued her Bachelor of Arts degree. Her professional experience with the University of Windsor began at Turtle Island as the Student Representative for the Aboriginal Education Committee. After graduating from the University of Windsor, she secured a position with the Greater Essex County District School Board as the First Nation, Metis and Inuit secondary school counsellor for eight years. Jaimie went back to the University of Windsor to pursue her Bachelor of Education in 2014 and graduated in 2015. Recently, Jaimie completed her requirements for a Master’s degree in the Field of Educational Leadership focused in Aboriginal Education at Western University.

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