Before I left, a teacher introduced me to Florence, a local elder that works with the students. Florence is a 66-year-old woman, born and raised in the Whitehorse area. She is a calm, stoic, poised woman whose presence commanded respect. She is physically tiny, but it’s almost as if she has a giant, heavy rock with a gravitational pull around her. Her facial expression barely changed throughout our conversation. She rarely spoke until asked.
Florence was in the residential school system for 9 years. To begin our conversation, I asked her about the effect of residential schools on Indigenous students today.
Her answer is best captured in two words: generational trauma. “When you get into the residential school system, you’re not allowed to speak your language, practice your culture, or remember your heritage. You’re told that it’s wrong to speak your language. You’re told that you should feel ashamed for who you are. I spent 9 years in the residential school system, but I spent three-quarters of my life rediscovering and reclaiming who I am. And that’s a lifelong process because it’s ingrained in you – the sense of shame for who I am. I’m not supposed to feel. I’m not supposed to think. I’m not supposed to speak. So I spent most of my life not talking. I didn’t know how to speak my language either. I learned it in my late adulthood.”
She continued, “It takes time to heal. But during that time, life goes on. You have kids, you have relationships, you have people in your life, and you pass on your hurt and brokenness. It’s generational. I’ve tried very hard to let it finish with me, at my generation, but it passes on to my kids and my grandkids. I try to do the best I can, but it’s a long-haul thing for it to work.”
“I don’t like the title, ‘residential school survivor’ because you don’t want life to be just about surviving. You want to live your life!” as she raised her arms in a victory pose. “You want to live your life and fulfill everything that life has to offer, you don’t want to just be a survivor.”
“The word reconciliation gets thrown around a lot, but it’s not just reconciliation with others. It first has to begin with yourself. You first have to rediscover yourself: your identity, your culture, your history, your language. It’s not just about what’s happened to you, and all the wrongs that happened to you. You want to discover all the joys and happy things about your culture and history. All the great things your story has to offer. And it’s that self-discover, self-reconciliation, self-healing that needs to happen before reconciliation with the world begins. And that’s a long-haul game.” Florence told me that this is why she works with young people. Indigenous trauma counselling is absolutely crucial.
Florence is right. But it can’t only be Indigenous communities who rediscover who they are. Canadians must also reconcile with who we are. Centuries of our historic injustice against Indigenous peoples have stripped off their dignity and humanity, and have been perpetuated through legal, social, and financial systemic injustices. This is being expressed as generational trauma in Indigenous students today: the tenth grader who can’t write his last name; the ninth grader whose literacy and numeracy skills are at fourth grade level; the short attention spans; or the violence at home. If we’re serious about leaving no one behind, we can’t start without reconciling with our past and the legacy it left behind.
We finished our conversation talking about the Heartbeat Prophecy. She told me, “I don’t know so much about the Prophecy or climate change, but let me tell you my story. My father was a trapper and my mother worked in the fields as a gatherer. You have great respect for the land, you have a great relationship with the land, and you work out of the land. Whatever you catch, you pay respect to it, and you use every part of it. You don’t throw anything out. You use everything. You owned two, three sets of clothes and that’s all you needed. Nowadays, greed is the root source of all these problems. We need to respect the land and what it has to offer and maintain that relationship.”
Let me end with the legend of Windigo.
Windigo is a monster whose bite turns humans into cannibals. Dr Robin Kimmerer, an Anishinaabe botanist professor, writes, “the very word, Winidigo … can be derived from roots meaning ‘fat excess’ or ‘thinking only of oneself.’ Indeed, Steve Pitt describes Windigo as a “human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point that satisfaction is no longer possible.” In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims – in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.”
We find the footsteps of Windigo everywhere in our world. It turns out: The mighty quest of solving climate change starts by defeating the Windigo in our own hearts first.