Reconciling With First Nations People
by John Hayashi
I was born in Prince Rupert and grew up in the nearby small fishing village of Port Edward. My mother and her family moved to Port Edward shortly after Japanese were able to return to the coast after their internment. Port Edward in those politically incorrect days, consisted of what we referred to as the white village, Indian village and the Japanese village. These areas of our village were somewhat segregated, but yet still all part of the same village. Villagers worked side by side on the docks, in the net loft and in the fish cannery. We also gathered together at some larger social events. Port Edward elementary school was integrated and some of my friends were First Nation and as children we played together. As I grew older we worked together in the cannery and boatyard. On weekends we would sometimes party together.
Throughout my growing-up years I always had a sense that First Nation’s people were looked down upon and I would hear derogatory comments being made about them. I struggled with my views of First Nations people, tried to not be racist and thought of the discrimination that had been demonstrated towards the Japanese. At other times I would find myself having racist thoughts when I would encounter First Nations who hadn’t completed their schooling and had serious drinking problems. While having these conflicting views I tried to keep in mind what I’ve felt like when judged by skin colour and race alone.
As an adult in the 1980s I first heard about the Indian Residential School system. I was shocked at what I thought were the few children who had experienced terrible physical and sexual abuse while students in those schools. In 1989 when I began my private counselling and therapy practice, I heard many stories of abuse and loss that non-indigenous people have experienced during their childhood. As the years went past I thought I had heard just about everything bad that could happen to children as they were growing up, but I was to learn otherwise.
When I began working in First Nations communities and providing groups for residential school survivors, I heard stories that were far worse than anything I had ever heard before. I learned that due to the policies of the day, the Canadian government forced parents, under threat of imprisonment, to send their children to church-run residential schools. In the earlier years of residential schools, children often began attending when they were 4 or 5 years old and were released from school 10 to 12 years later. While in residential school they had little or no contact with their families back home, or even their siblings in the same school. Male and female students were kept apart and older siblings were housed in a different area of the school. Some children were sent to school hundreds of miles from home and sometimes into another province. The view of the government at the time was by limiting contact with parents, churches could help integrate the children into Canadian non-indigenous culture. Children were beaten for speaking their language. When they cried for their parents they were beaten. This was all done in an attempt to completely sever children’s ties to their communities and culture.
For many the sexual abuse and physical abuse began the first day they entered school. I’ve listened to stories of boys and girls being raped, sodomized and subjected to many other forms of sexual abuse. Not all children experienced sexual or extreme physical abuse, but all were taken from their families and given the clear message that it was no longer ok for them to speak their traditional language and were given shaming messages about being an Indian. Often the children were very poorly fed, given no comfort and little or no medical attention.
It is hard to fathom how young children could be wrenched away from their parents and subjected to all forms of abuse. I’ve held waste baskets in front of retching survivors as they’ve struggled to tell me about the horrific abuse they suffered. I’ve heard of teeth being kicked out of children’s mouths, of children being hit and permanently losing their hearing. I’ve listened to those who were systematically raped by many adults in the same school. I’ve heard from survivors who witnessed the bodies of other children who hung themselves or leapt from school roofs to escape the abuse they could no longer endure. I heard about one child witnessing another child being killed in front of them. These were young terrified children, helpless and already grieving being separated from their families. How could they live through such horrors? How could they not be shattered as a person and live in fear and shame the remainder of their life?
We have seen the long-term impact of residential schools. There are devastated communities where there is incest, suicides, violence and severe alcohol and drug addiction. Some First Nations people spend their lives in prisons, or on the streets of our towns and cities. The inter-generational impact stemming from residential schools is immense.
I can no longer see a First Nations person without seeing the impact of residential school and the long-term impact of attempts to colonize and assimilate them. I feel a sense of shame when I remember the thoughts that have gone through my mind when I’ve seen intoxicated First Nations on the street. I can’t imagine living through such loss and abuse that many of them have suffered and know if I had attended a residential school, I would want to numb myself from the pain and memories. I don’t know whether I would have the strength to continue on in life.
The inter-generational impact of such trauma is significant. The teenagers who came out of residential school had learned little skills to parent their own children, or to enter into adult relationships. They had lost contact with their communities, their culture and identity. In spite of what residential school and inter-generational survivors have lived through, many have found a way to transform the trauma and tragedy they’ve endured. I have sat in awe at the wisdom, compassion, love and respect demonstrated by those who by all reasoning should be filled with hate or have been destroyed by the systems that dealt with them. I am humbled as I reflect on my own struggles in life and how that which I’ve worked to overcome, pales in comparison with what First Nations people have experienced.
Although my mother and father lost their freedom, personal possessions and were separated from their family; I am thankful they did not have to endure the level of trauma and hate that First Nation’s people lived through. While at times being made to feel ashamed at being a visible minority, we Japanese Canadians have been able to rebound from our past and to move forward. We are not faced with damaged generations of our ancestors and generations of healing and recovery to come.
I will continue to work on learning about First Nation’s culture and tradition. As a therapist I will continue to provide what assistance I can to First Nations who are working on healing and moving forward in their goals to be a healthy spouse, parent and community member. I will remember that while there is some overlap in our shared experience of racism and abuse, I have much to learn from those who’ve endured so much more. This is my personal committment in my attempts to reconcile myself with the First Nations of Canada, or Turtle Island as some First Nations say when referring to this country.
John Hayashi is a registered clinical counsellor, who for 23 years has operated a private counselling/therapy practice in Victoria, B.C. He has helped facilitate First Nations residential school survivor therapy groups, been a health support at Truth & Reconciliation events and is an approved Indian Residential School therapist. In addition to working with First Nations, John sees individuals, couples, and provides a variety of group services relating to substance use and driving, critical incident debriefings and relationship violence . He lives with his wife Pat in Victoria and they have two adult children who now live on their own.