You can take the child out of the residential school... But you can’t replace what the Qallunaat stole while she was there

*Qallunaat=Inuktitut for ‘white people’ (refers less to skin colour and more a state of mind)

I’m in the same old coffeeshop I come to five days of the week to get writing done while I sip on my soy milk latte. This cafe has the best soy milk lattes — perfect amount of foam, perfect temperature, the latte art makes me pause before I take my first sip — I rarely go anywhere else. It’s also four blocks away from my apartment so I just walk over here in the mornings and sit at my usual spot at the bar in front of the window. I’m here so often, the entire rotation of employees punches in my order as soon as I get to the counter.

I’m coming back from the bathroom and a young trio of white, blonde females are sitting at the table behind me. I’m in the middle of putting my noise cancelling airpods in when I hear one of them say,

“Yeah, but he looks native so…”

I cock my head to the side, furrow my brow and pause before putting my second airpod in. I wait. I don’t know if I’ve heard properly (oh, but I did). I wait for a long time; I’m ready to call some ignorant bitches out on their free-flowing racism.

They continue talking about their Tinder matches — “his dad owns a ranch and he said if I volunteered there I could get free horse-back riding lessons” — but there’s no further mention of the boy I’m sure they swiped left on due to him looking “too native.” I put my second airpod back in and continue working, slightly more irritated than when I first arrived.

Brian and I are lying in bed together. I’ve got my head perched on folded hands across his stomach and he’s got his arms up and tucked behind his head. The Trump/Biden debate is on in the background — we’re half watching it, half making out and deciding where we want to go for sushi. There’s a pause in our mindless conversation, then I ask,

“What do you think about white privilege?”

Brian is a very white, very blonde, very blue-eyed, handsome, heterosexual Irish male who is the epitome of what someone would picture if they were to imagine a person reaping the benefits of white privilege.

He looks at me confused and asks,

“What do you mean?”

I decide to reroute the question and come at it from a different angle. “Do you believe in white privilege?”

He purses his lips to one side of his mouth and looks up at the ceiling in thought. This isn’t a good sign. I wait patiently but am prepared to be disappointed by his answer.

Finally he answers. “I mean, I believe it exists. But — I don’t think I have white privilege.”

My eyebrows raise automatically, like they’ve got brains of their own. I’m surprised and yes — disappointed. “How do you believe in white privilege but not feel like it applies to you? The fact you’re white means you were born with benefits other people have to struggle to experience.”

He looks at me dumbfounded like a deer caught in headlights, and repeats himself: “what do you mean?”

I tell him a story about my non-white friend who has a difficult last name to pronounce. He sent out a bunch of resumes during a stint of unemployment with his real name but wasn’t getting any call backs. He decided to change his last name to ‘Smith’, and without changing anything else on his resume, submit them to the exact same places of employment. I’m sure you can guess where this is going. His phone finally started ringing — multiple times.

Brian is listening to my story, his eyes growing wider as he finally clues into the direction it’s taking.

“No way,” he says when I’m done.

I nod my head, still in disbelief that he hasn’t heard of anything like this before.

“I mean that’s an extreme case, don’t you think?” There’s nothing but innocence on his face. He is sincere in his ignorance.

“This is not an extreme case. People are blamed, ridiculed, and killed for the colour of their skin and practicing non-white culture. This is a tame example of how people aren’t offered the same opportunities you get.”

He mulls this over in his head. It’s new to him. I’m not trying to make him feel bad; I like him. He just doesn’t know. He’s never been exposed to anything beyond his small, white circle that reaffirmed everything it taught him in the first place. But he does try to challenge me — to keep those truths safe. As if he’s been on the in the entire time and I’m the one that’s clueless.

“Racism goes both ways — don’t you think?”

I frown at him. “Explain.”

“Like — if whites are racist to blacks, blacks are racist to whites too.”

I get where he’s coming from. But it’s becoming clear how deep the rivers of ignorance run. For a moment, I wonder if he thinks racism is confined only to black vs. white. I proceed to tell him it’s not an even playing field. No — of course there shouldn’t be racism geared towards anyone but at the end of the day, if you’re white, you’re still going to experience benefits that that racist black person will never be handed from the get-go as a result of the colour of their skin.

Brian is young. He sees this conversation as an opportunity for banter where we argue and see who comes out on top. But this is personal — I’m not white. I’m not saying I haven’t experienced privilege in my life but it’s this type of ignorance that’s rooted shame in being Indigenous in me before I even realized it existed.

I am curt in the cessation of my participation. We go out for sushi and tell myself damn right as he taps his debit card on the payment terminal.

My mom is driving my brother and I to school one day. We’re in junior high, grades 7 and 9 respectively. We live and go to school in a low socioeconomic neighbourhood — prostitution, drug deals, and assaults are the backbone of this community. The crime is sky-high. I’ve walked home from school many times followed by John’s who thought I was a hooker. Everyone I’ve talked to refers to this part of the city as “the ghetto.”

My mom stops at a stop sign and an intoxicated Aboriginal woman wearing pantyhose with runs and a dress her areolas clung onto for dear life, stumbles into the pedestrian crosswalk in front of us. She’s clutching onto her purse with one hand and holding a lit cigarette in the other. She takes her time crossing the street — nobody exists on this planet but her. My mom inches forward, eager to get us to school, maybe thinking this would prompt the woman to cross the street faster. But she’s not even walking in a straight line, for fuck sakes.

This woman takes notice — and she doesn’t like it. She turns to face us and spews angry jargon like, “fuck you, you stupid fuckin’ cunt!” while gesturing wildly with her hands, still holding onto her smoke. My mom sits on the horn and the woman gets startled; she releases another tirade in our direction. Eventually, she finishes crossing the street — taking a puff of her cigarette and flipping us the bird one last time — and my mom takes a left, continuing the route to school.

“Stupid pana’s — already drunk this early in the morning,” she mumbles under her breath.

In July of last year, I straddled a picnic table bench and leaned against the glass railing behind me as I sipped on an iced Americano and read “The Marrow Thieves” by Cherie Dimaline. This was one of the first (of many) Indigenous stories by an Indigenous author I would read. The heat from the sun was hot on my back; small families and couples with their leashed dogs were near me at other picnic tables. A tan bulldog stared at me while his owners enjoyed their Sunday brunch bowls.

Frenchie is the Métis protagonist and first-person narrator. He’s a 16-year-old boy who is scarred by the absence of his parents. But — he has an indiscernible pride for his long, black hair. It was referred to often in the story, the time and dedication he would take to ensure his hair was braided beautifully. It was a symbol of his Indigenous identity.

I bookmarked the page I was on and put the book down on the table. Something didn’t sit right with me after reading about Frenchie’s pride for his hair for the umpteenth time.

Why hadn’t I ever been proud of being Indigenous? Why hadn’t I ever been proud of being Inuit?

All I’ve ever known up until this point in my life is shame. Shame for being part of a culture I didn’t choose and would discard at a moment’s notice if I could; shame for my high cheekbones and wide set face, telltale features of Aboriginal descent; shame for feeling inadequate and less than without having any comprehension as to why. Frenchie’s pride was unbeknownst to me.

I sat outside District coffee shop on a beautiful day and envied a fictional character in a book I was only halfway through. I sucked up the last of my Americano and compiled my belongings back into my backpack. I went home feeling bitter and resentful. At what? I didn’t yet know.

Up until last year, I was convinced I hadn’t experienced the ugly hand of racism. Mostly because I’d lived my entire life without anyone calling me Indigenous slurs. It wasn’t something I advertised, albeit, almost always taking the route of “I’m Filipino” when asked what my ethnicity was. I hadn’t yet realized racism exists in subtler (yet still profound) degrees. You call an Indigenous woman a “squaw” or you culturally appropriate her headdress — both are forms of racism but it’s easier, if not “acceptable”, to get away with the latter.

My friend Janelle and I were walking downtown one summer’s day, on the prowl for sweet (me) and savoury (her) pastries. Our entire conversation had centred around BLM and the discussion the collective was having on racism at the time. She turned to me and asked, “what experience have you had with racism? You’re obviously a minority.” I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I haven’t really experienced that much racism. If I did it was on account of myself.”

She cocked her head at me. “What do you mean?”

I said, “nobody has ever made me feel bad about who I am or where I come from but I’ve always been ashamed of being half-Inuit. I didn’t want to be associated with the drunk natives and prostitutes I grew up around in my neighbourhood as a kid.”

Janelle faltered in her step and it made me slow my pace. We continued walking. 

Eventually she said, “that’s how effective systemic racism is.”

I didn’t understand the gravity of what she was talking about in the moment but it stuck with me. That comment rang in my head for months to follow.

I’m beginning to understand it now. And is the hand ever ugly.

Institutionalized racism has played a hand in every single aspect of my life. It was the undercurrent, the theme, the driving force. I was so enmeshed in its clutches it distorted my perspective of what ‘normal’ was. I wasn’t the sole victim in my family; it strangled my dad before me and his mom before him.

My Inuit grandmother went to a residential school on Moose Factory Island in Ontario called Bishop Horden Memorial school. She suffered from tuberculosis in her stay along with who knows what other tragedies she chose not to disclose. I read statements from some of the survivors of Bishop Horden; they make me sick. Children had their heads shoved in toilets for punishment, had school admin regularly take showers with them, and when an 11-year-old complained of having a stomach ache, a teacher rubbed his penis and told him, “this will help.”

My grandmother somehow managed to learn Cree, despite the school’s mostly successful attempts at suppressing the children’s native languages. The girls she went to school with taught it to her when the teachers and supervisors weren’t around. She is trilingual; she knows English, Inuktitut and Cree. I have never spoken a word of the latter two. But up until last year, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to learn anyway.

From what I’ve been told, my grandmother spent her time drinking and gambling her and my step grandfather’s money away the majority of her adult life. But everything I read about her says she’s a respected elder within the Inuit community. I’m sure she is — but just goes to show you the same person can live multiple, drastically different lives.

I’ve heard nothing but bad things about this woman, albeit from my parents — two people who have been incredibly hurt by her — but bad things nonetheless. My grandmother was an absent parent at her best, and a villainous, abusive, alcoholic woman who told her own daughter she might as well be a prostitute at her worst. She was a mother-in-law who told my mom, “you’ll never be good enough for my son” all the while, berating and belittling the son she referred to.

My direct experiences with her were few and far between. So much resentment and contempt had developed and caused irreparable damage before I was born. By the time I was old enough to make the choice for myself if I wanted to see my grandparents or not, they’d already been long absent. You can’t miss what you didn’t have. I resumed life not realizing I’d missed out on an opportunity to learn so much about where I’d come from.

What my grandmother hadn’t realized she’d bestowed upon my father — other than her prominent cheekbones and ability to survive in the wilderness — was her parenting style. My dad had nothing to draw from; the hurt he experienced in his childhood replicated itself in mine. When I was old enough and had heard many stories about my extended family, I could put two and two together — my dad was sincerely doing the best that he could with the cards he was dealt. But that doesn’t negate the fact he was a terrible father. He was also an alcoholic — an abusive one at that — who openly cheated on my mom while she was pregnant with my younger brother. He’s controlling and manipulative and stubborn, all qualities I’m still trying to separate myself from. My dad is a narcissist because he was raised by one. He didn’t have an empathetic guardian in his life the way I have my mom in mine.

I don’t speak to my dad anymore. It’s too painful and one-sided; my voice is never heard regardless of my approach. I am inferior — the child to the parent who “knows better” — and for that, as much as it breaks my heart, it’s safer for me to keep a distance.

I’ve spent the greater part of my life hurting the people around me and getting mad at them when they chose to leave. I refused to take responsibility for my actions and played the victim card in an effort to manipulate the situation to my benefit. I was physically and verbally abusive. I may not have been touched by alcoholism but I was addicted to food — it was how I celebrated and coped — and when it spiralled out of control, I wanted to kill myself. I’ve fallen for men much older than me, searching for the father figure I didn’t have; I’ve fallen for those younger, unwilling to be controlled by a male the same way my dad had controlled me. I suffer from crippling depression and have wondered how it was possible for me to have everything I thought would make me happy and still feel empty inside. I’d wake in the mornings and before I even opened my eyes, I’d fill with dread. I drifted through life trying to find purpose in people, places and challenges. They all fell short. They always fell short.

I’m hard-pressed to think a single, specific event was the catalyst that made me take the magnifying glass off myself and pick up the telescope to inspect the generations before me. No — it was a slow progression into awareness. It was losing family I loved. It was driving away partners that made me feel. It was hating the skin I was in but never understanding why. It was wanting to control everything around me knowing full well I couldn’t even control myself. It was comments from friends that would change the way I thought about racism forever.

Hurt people hurt people. My family is a perfect example. What I ask myself these days is how we’re supposed to hold anyone accountable for their actions if that’s all they know? My grandmother isn’t a bad person but she was a terrible mother. My dad isn’t a bad person but he was a terrible father. And I’m not a bad person but I’ve been a terrible daughter, sister, friend, and partner. None of us knew any better.

What would my life — my dad’s life — my grandmother’s life have looked like if her community wasn’t forced out of Cape Hope by the RCMP and told to abandon their means of life as they knew it? What would our lives look like if she wasn’t a victim in the most horrific era of cultural genocide Canada has witnessed and let happen? Would we have suffered the way we do? Would we have passed down decades of trauma from one child to the next? Would I be in a perpetual state of existentialism? I’ll never know for certain but probably not.

I’m starting to understand where my shame comes from. I’m starting to understand why I have dysfunctional relationships. I’m starting to understand my seasons of apathy. It’s taken me 28 years to equip myself with the tools to endure this kind of devastation because let me tell you — I feel it. Not just my suffering but everyone before me and the Indigenous around me. I hear about a Tinder match looking “too native” and I feel that. I see an Aboriginal prostitute crossing the street who’s treated like vermin and I feel that. I read about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and how there are still dozens of unsolved cases, still dozens of family members looking for their daughters, sisters, and wives and I feel that.

For the first time in my life, I’m angry. I’m angry and I know why. I’m angry and I want to do something about it. I’m driven to stop this specific loop of intergenerational trauma that’s been running rampant in my family; it ends with me. I am a single voice in a crowd of millions who don’t understand. But I can’t blame them — because even as an Indigenous woman, I didn’t understand either.

To the girls who don’t like boys who look native, to Brian who doesn’t see his inherited privilege, to my own mother who has Indigenous children of her own — I have compassion. I have empathy. Because they don’t know. Institutionalized racism can go undetected — that’s what makes it so dangerous. It’s embedded in our society and considered normal. We’ve adopted it as part of our culture. We don’t bat an eye at the behaviour that seems inconsequential. We increase our tolerance to it over time, like administering non-lethal amounts of poison into our system — until it corrodes our humanity from the inside out. 

But it’s these seemingly small acts and comments that happen behind closed doors that — when left untreated — trickle into families and pollute the hearts of children-to-be. These hurts and pains are handed down from generation to generation like an heirloom that nobody wants but everyone gets.

I would know. Before I was born —  I was made of shame.

And I’m finally starting to understand why.

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