Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Truth and Reconciliation

This is Agnes, my maternal great-great-grandmother, feeding the geese on her farm. Her mother-in-law, Eliza, was the midwife in Fort Langley for many years, and the go-to medical person before a doctor moved to the town. Agnes' daughter, Ada (my great-grandmother), married the boy next door, Harry (my great-grandfather). Ada's brother, Adam, married Harry's sister, Ruberta, so their families were doubly bound together.

Left to right: Hazel Smith, Adam Towle, Harry Smith, Ada Towle, Ruberta Smith, George Towle

Aren't they cute, gazing at each other? Harry reminds me of Felix from the television series, Road to Avonlea. O says he looks like Bert (Dick Van Dyck) from Mary Poppins, which he insists on pronouncing Mary PopSins,  because it sounds better.

Here is a closer view of the barn that you can see in the rear of the previous photo.

Harry's family's farm is now the site of Trinity Western University. When my husband and I first got married, his job required us to live on campus at TWU for three years. Living in dorms as newlyweds had its peculiar challenges, like students knocking on my door at midnight to ask me survey questions about relationships, weekly fire alarms from students burning toast, and maintenance workers thinking it was okay to enter our apartment without warning, but it was neat to think that I was living on the same land where my great-great grandparents lived, where they birthed their babies and grew their food. I printed a copy of this barn photograph and hung it on my wall in that campus apartment. 

As a child and teen, I loved poring over my grandma's photo albums and hearing her recollections of her grandparents, real "pioneers", as she called them, of our local area. On trips to the Fort Langley museum, you can see my great-grandmother's name in the school attendance list, and there are stories of their lives in local history books. In The Langley Story Illustrated by Donald E. Waite, there are two  particularly interesting and amusing accounts of my family members. The first is about  my great great grandmother, Agnes, who is referred to as "Mrs. Stanley Towle" in the account. As a side note, as much as I adore my husband, I hope to never be referred to as "Mrs. David Heinrichs." It seems to me the strangest and most sexist styling of name possible. I give the author the benefit of the doubt that he was being consistent with the naming practices of the time in which his subjects lived. In any case, Waite writes of the great flood of 1894:

The flood waters also gave Fred McLellan's pregnant wife troubles.  The living level of their home was completely engulfed forcing Mrs. McLellan to flee upstairs with her one year old son Neil.  All the excitement brought on the termination of the woman's pregnancy and she went into labour.  Fortunately Mrs. Stanley Towle was on hand and able to act as midwife. She (155) tied Mrs. McLellan's youngster to his bed to make sure he would not fall into the swirling waters and then proceeded to deliver his brother.  The baby came into the world amid all the confusion on May 20, 1894.

Of my great-great-great grandmother, the actual midwife and hotel proprietor, Eliza Towle:

    Swanson's daughter Clara went to work in the Towle's Commercial Hotel at Fort Langley. The hotel was sectioned off into two compartments. In one of the rooms only men gathered to drink. No women were allowed. Story has it that one pioneer got a little liquored up and stripped naked in order to do a little jig on a table top. For a joke one of the other patrons ordered a meal for the performer. Miss Swanson got a shock when she kicked the swinging door from the kitchen open and made an entrance with a tray of food. She let out a scream which attracted the attention of Mrs. Towle [Eilza]. Grabbing a buggy whip the hotel proprietor went out after the drunken dancer who ran bare foot from the premises with Mrs. Towle in hot pursuit. She gave him a good flailing with the whip before returning to the hotel. Miss Swanson later married Mrs. Towle's one-armed son George.

Left: Eliza and two of her sons. Note the dresses on the boys, common to that time period.
Centre: Eliza's house in Fort Langley
Right: Eliza in later years. She doesn't strike me as the whipping type.
Evidently, my pacifist leanings are not attributable to my heritage! Amongst the branches of my family tree, this line has the longest and most easily accessible history in the local area, although pretty much all of my family tree has been growing in Canada since the 1700s or 1800s, some even in the 1600s. On surveys that ask what my ethnic heritage is, I only feel legitimate in answering "Canadian." While being able to trace my family's history in my own country is interesting and stirs up some kind of nationalistic pride in me, much like watching the heritage moments commercials did in the pre-Harper era, my feelings about my family history are now tangled with uncomfortable questions.  

It wasn't until recent years that I started considering my family history in light of what I have learned about the treatment of the First Nations people of our country. The land farmed by my great-great-grandfather's family, that now boasts a university and downplays a set of train tracks and really foul-tasting drinking water, was lush and fertile, nestled alongside the Salmon River. If memory serves me correctly, my great-great-grandfather bought the land from the Hudson's Bay Company, or, at least, not very far removed from that point. Does the fact that he bought the land from a legitimate company make my family any less complicit in taking land away from the First Nations tribe who lived there before HBC arrived? I can only conclude that my ancestors were benefactors of a racist and unjust government, even though they did not do anything illegal or unusual for that time. 

When I look at my great-grandmother's Fort Langley school photo from 1912, I scan the faces for any break in the vastly racially homogenous crowd. 

Fort Langley School, 1912

Close-up of my great grandmother, Ada, in the centre of the middle row.

We now know that most First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families and homes, and sent to "Indian Residential Schools."

Did my ancestors who lived on this land knew about the schools? Did they see the brokenness that must have spread when entire communities were robbed of their children, denied the right to parent their own children? Did they recognize the abuse all children in residential schools suffered in the loss of their language, culture, and relationships with family and friends, their very identity? Did they hear whisperings of rampant physical, sexual, and psychological abuse? These were children.

How do I retain pride in my heritage and my family when we were the collective benefactors of a system that has so mistreated and damaged a now-marginalized people group? I have more questions than answers, and more misgivings about those questions than hope. The biggest question is: what can I do? It strikes me that perhaps this isn't even the right question, and that this question puts me in the centre of the equation, as did the paternalistic attitudes and policies of our predecessors. Perhaps the starting point is not to do anything other than listen and learn. Instead of learning about First Nations people and culture, perhaps I should learn from them. Instead of listening to information about First Nations issues, perhaps I should listen to them. Sometimes I wonder how we did not learn about the atrocity of the Indian Residential Schools when I was in grade school or high school, but the last residential school only closed in 1996, just two years before I would graduate high school.

From September 18th to 21st, 2013, just under one month from now, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is holding its national event in Vancouver. My husband had the opportunity to attend the national TRC event in Montreal this past April, and it was truly a profound experience for him. You can watch a short video of him and others speaking about their experiences here.

To quote from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's webiste, 

    The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools. The Commission will document the truth of what happened by relying on records held by those who operated and funded the schools, testimony from officials of the institutions that operated the schools, and experiences reported by survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience and its subsequent impacts.

To learn more about Residential Schools, here are some places online to start:
If you can track down a copy of the documentary We Were Children, I implore you to watch it. 

If you want to do some more in-depth reading, there are many books written by residential school survivors, and others who are knowledgable on this issue. I am currently reading Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada by Paulette Regan. 

I plan to attend at least some of the conference in Vancouver in September, and I encourage you to consider doing the same. We can listen.

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