When I was first asked to produce a video documentary on the role of Elders in federal correctional facilities in Canada, I thought it would be fairly routine. I would interview a bunch of Elders, gather their best quotes and edit together a stream of clips telling their stories.
I did not think that this assignment, as interesting as it was, would change me in any way, or that I would hear things that I had never heard before. Things that should have been common knowledge to me such as the dog slaughter among the Inuit and the “Sixties Scoop” that saw First Nations children taken from their families and placed in foster homes.
So, one day in March I found myself sitting in an empty boardroom in Edmonton Institution for Women across from a Coast Salish Elder, a man named George Harris. I asked him to make the connection for me between the residential schools and the high incarceration rates of Indigenous people. He looked at me askance and let out a deep sigh.
“When I was taken away from my village, my mom tried to protect me for as long as she could,” he said. “But the authorities came down and said, ‘If you do not let your children go, there will be legal consequences. You must let your children go. You must allow them to be taken away on that missionary boat to go to the residential school. My mom cried.”
George Harris paused in his narrative and I could see him struggling. His eyes shifted from side to side, and his breathing became shallow, short bursts of air as if he were gasping to breathe. Gradually tears began trickling down the soft contours of his face and he didn’t try to hide them. I kept the camera rolling, not knowing if that was right or wrong, and whispered to him, “It’s alright.”
After about ten minutes he continued his story, but I already had the answer to my question. Through the raw pain that he graciously exhibited, I saw for the first time that the experience of residential schools is much more than a historical fact. Sitting in front of me was a man not much older than me, who was still carrying within him the deep wounds of what had been done to him and his people, by my people, within my lifetime.
According to a number of other Elders that I interviewed for the documentary, the residential school experience was overall cataclysmic. “The governments of the day ripped out the soul of our people,” said Fred Campiou, a Cree Elder. “We were not allowed to practise our ceremonies. It was outlawed in legislation in Canada. They demonized our Elders. They went after our spiritual leaders. Here we are today and we're probably the only ones who can help repair that.”
Over the ensuing generations, many of the children and grandchildren have lost touch with their Indigenous roots. “One of the things that really astounds me,” said George Harris, “is how disconnected our inmates are to their family, to the community, to the nation, to the culture, to language, sacred ceremonies, and traditional way of life.”
Many of the Elders were child survivors of the residential school system. Today they are both literally and figuratively the grandparents of the Indigenous offenders they now attend to. Their grandchildren carry the wounds that have been passed on to them through generations of pain.
When I visited Joliette Institution for Women in the thick of a spring blizzard in early March, I met a 23-year-old Inuk offender named Sarah. At first she was reluctant to speak with me, but when she did, she said this: “I think the violence is passing from generation to generation. I think my parents and my grandparents felt the anger for the things that happened to them - the residential schools, the slaughter of the sled dogs - and they passed that anger on to their children and their grandchildren. I don’t think they knew how to deal with their emotions and so they passed it on. But at some point they have to stop. For me I want to stop it in my generation before I have children. I want to stop the violence in my family.”
Her words were echoed by another 23-year old Indigenous offender, a young Anishinaabe man named Dakota who is currently incarcerated at Beaver Creek Institution in Gravenhurst, Ontario. Once considered a dangerous offender with no hope of release, he is now in a medium security Pathways unit. His transformation has baffled the correctional staff that surround him, and he attributes it to one thing.
“If I had no Elder to guide me and help me,” he says, “I think I would still be in maximum security, still using drugs, still doing all the things I shouldn’t be doing. They play such a significant role in putting us back on our feet and allowing us to pick ourselves up at the same time.”
As Fred Campiou said, the Elders are probably the only ones who can help First Nations, Métis and Inuit offenders reconnect with their Indigenous roots. And how do they do that? “By going in the sweat lodge or being involved in ceremony in here, it gives them a glimpse of something that talks about their history, talks about who they are and their connection to this life,” said Mike Couchie, an Anishinaabe Elder currently working at Beaver Creek Institution.
At Pacific Institution in Abbotsford I was taken out to the sweat lodge by Tom McCallum, a Métis Elder. He pointed to the rocks that are used to heat the ceremony, and said, “These are the grandfathers.” There was deep reverence in his voice. By this time I had come to see the profound and important role that Elders play in the lives of Indigenous offenders, and I felt reverence for them. They too are the grandparents. Many of them, like George Harris, have undertaken an excruciating journey through their own pain and suffering, and are now passing the wisdom they have gained on to the children and grandchildren who are now incarcerated and serving time for the violence they inherited.
In a very real way, they are helping bring those children home again.