Not just victims

Volume 27, Issue 5
May 2017

John Steckley, Professor (retired), School of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Recently, I took two rides on something called a scoot across two kilometres of ice and some water on Lake Simcoe. A scoot is a boat with a very large propeller on the back. The words most appropriate for my trip are ‘loud’ (the driver wore headphones, and not to listen to music), ‘bumpy’ (particularly over patches where ice and water mixed) and ‘scary’ (I don’t think I have ever held my breath so long). And yet, school kids of the Chippewas of Georgina Island who have graduated from the island school take this mode of transportation every weekday. They have earned my respect. To my way of thinking, this makes ‘snow days’ on the mainland seem kind of wussy.

The story I want to tell here is of knowledge about First Nations in Canada. It has taken many years before even minimal school lesson recognition of the decades of oppression that First Nations have endured over the 150 years in which Canada has been a country (and a lot more before). Teachers and school boards are just recently getting around to developing meaningful curricula about this oppression.

The problem with even this small recognition is that it is too easy to present Indigenous people as mostly helpless victims, not as people who fight back and sometimes win.

In my doctoral dissertation, I wrote about how Anastasia Shkilnyk’s well-received book, A Poison Stronger than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community (1985), did the people of Grassy Narrows an injustice in portraying them as merely victims of the massive dumping of mercury into the water by Reed Pulp and Paper in the 1960s and early 1970s. They were fighting hard then, and still are now, to overcome this situation. They are not just victims.

Mainstream Canadians are just now learning about residential schools, and how children were abused in all possible ways and many died. But the people sometimes successfully resisted, and that is an important part of the story as well.

When I was between scoot trips to and from Georgina Island (I am working with the people on a book about their incredible history), I learned how one parent rescued two of his children from this fate. Those children now are elders in the community, two people who have taught me a lot. Indian Affairs had talked their parents into enrolling them into the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, the infamous place known by its student survivors as Mush Hole, after the watery nutrition-free porridge that they were forced to eat.

The parents went with the two boys to the school. They were shown a nice room, and told that each of their boys would be staying in places like that. They were also informed that the boys would be receiving nutritious and hearty meals with plenty of meat. As soon as the parents left, the boys learned that they would be crammed into crowded dorms and fed ‘mush’. One of the boys escaped after a few weeks of this treatment. When their parents found out, their father – who was chief, had taught school in another reserve and then on the island, and was very politically active – let Indian Affairs know what he felt of the treatment of his boys. The boys were taken home, and did not have to return. This family was oppressed, but they successfully fought against being just victims. That is a part of the history that needs to be known and taught. Resistance was not always futile. They could ride the scoot and not be afraid.