What I held in my hand yesterday caused me to flee from the University of British Columbia library, and seek solace in the deep forest that surrounds the campus where I grew up, and where I have discovered the unimaginable.
It was an unusual reaction, for I had encountered much worse over the years. But after seeing the document, something snapped in me and made nothing else possible than to rush to the woods, fall to the bountiful soil behind a hidden tree tangled in moss, and dig my hands desperately into mother earth and sob like I had not done since I was a child.
I lay there for some time, after the tears were spent, and gradually the quiet bird song and sunlight merged with a perfect aroma I had not breathed for so long: the forest loam itself, and its rich, musky decomposition so alive and sweet.
I hugged the ground and buried my face in our good earth, and felt suddenly that my own corrosion from the long and hard years could be the source of something more than personal agony. For I turned over just then and scribbled on a piece of paper,
My pain and suffering is the nursing log out of which so many and so much will grow.
I lay on my back, wonderfully calm and spent, and looked again at the photocopied document I had unearthed that morning from the government archives in Koerner Library’s microfilm section.
“Department of Indian Affairs, Dental Report: St. Paul’s Catholic Indian School, Squamish Mission Reservation, May 1924”.
And beneath that title was listed the names of fifty-six children who had had their teeth extracted without painkiller by Dr. E. Fraser Allen of Vancouver.
Matilda Miranda was seven years old, and six of her teeth were yanked from her jaw without anesthesia. Theresa George was eight, and five of her teeth were similarly pulled. Leonard Rodrigues, age 10, Ralph Atkins, age nine, Doreen Thomas, age nine: all denied painkiller. Over 80% of the group of fifty-six “students” at St. Paul’s Indian school were tortured thus.
Dr. Allen was paid $20.54 for his efforts, including the cost of $1.50 for his tools and amalgam dressing. It took him about a half hour to yank out all those little teeth, according to the good doctor’s report of May 7, sent to C. C. Perry, the local Indian Agent.
That meant he yanked out a tooth, on average, every ten seconds: non stop.
Harry Wilson never opened his mouth much when he first spoke to me, in the fall of 1997, because his teeth were such a mess.
“Naw, I never go to a dentist” he explained sadly. “They never gave us painkiller at residential school, when they pulled our teeth”.
Harry’s teeth were yanked over forty years after the same torture was performed by Dr. Allen on the St. Paul’s children: a different school, and a Catholic one, but identical to the practice inflicted on Harry at a United Church Indian residential school in Port Alberni in 1967.
Harriett Nahanee had the same story, at the same school in 1946. So did Vera Little, at the Anglican school in Alert Bay in 1953. And the husband of Alia MacKenzie-Point at the Chehalis reservation in 1969.
I can’t hate Dr. Allen, or any of the other specialists who have ripped the teeth and the innocence from children with the full sanction of church and state for so many years. For like you and I, these torturers learned quickly how to numb themselves to the screams and the blood in order to get on with their job.
That struck me with a sudden clarity, alone in the forest, after my own tears had washed away my numbness, and I began, as always, to grapple with how to share this new evidence with the world in a way that would make others do something more than believe that the crimes did happen, and still happen. And yet I knew that, as with all the other evidence of these grisly acts done to aboriginal children, very few people would want to know the horrible truth, let alone dare to do anything about it.
Tempted by the old despair, I stared just then at what I had scribbled moments before: My pain and suffering is the nursing log out of which so many and so much will grow. And then an answer echoed in me, from something Alice Miller had written once:
We can never find empathy for the suffering of others until we have faced and embraced the pain done to ourselves.
I’ve often noticed how the church goers who trudge past our offered leaflets on a Sunday morning bear the same look, when confronted by what their church did, and what their collection money helps to cover up: people who are resigned. Batter someone enough, and they become that way.
We are all so weary of the battering we have each endured since infancy, and yet are so incapable of feeling we can do anything to stop it. Even the very life-giving sky above seems to mock life itself these days, stained by vile chemical trails spewed by corporate and military madmen far beyond our reach. What can even our best integrity and courage do in the face of the enormity of the violence we face?
Harry Wilson, and his counterparts Matilda and Theresa and all the other helpless little victims, knew the same despair, and some of them found a way to endure. And like Harry, who was able to tell what happened to him, when my own tears freely flowed the other day I found it easier to face the truth and find a light where there shouldn’t have been one. So Alice Miller must be on to something.
When we see our lives and our worlds for what they are, and can say so, we gain a power over what seemed like fate or irresistible injustice: sort of like naming a demon and calling it to leave a possessed soul. That’s the power of knowing our true history, individually and as a whole, and not denying the darkest moments, but describing them out loud, for what they are.
Rising up from the forested earth, I felt like a demon had indeed left me, and a warm surge of love filled me for those long dead and violated Indian children who still wait for justice. That kind of love doesn’t allow apathy or timid excuses: it does not rest until right is done. It was blessing beyond expression that day to feel the old flame arise in me again, born from my own grief, and theirs.
I ran joyfully from the woods on the sunlit path towards the bus stop, armed again with my being and the documented truth in my bag, and I knew that the time to act is always present in us. And from somewhere, the words of Rabbi Hillel sounded then:
If I am not for myself, then who will be?
If I am only for myself, then what am I?
If not now, when?