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Keeping the circle strong

Me and my dad c. 1980

Me and my dad c. 1980

It’s by and large a Hallmark holiday, but I do like to proclaim my love and thanks for my dad on Father’s Day, even though I’m grateful for him every day of the year. He’s always fulfilled the criteria of a good dad according to the sentimental cards and pop culture. He taught me how to shoot a puck, always kept the fire going, and took all the driving shifts on those long family trips. But he went above and beyond those stereotypical traits to try to raise his children the best he could even though he had no template to follow.

He came to the drum when I was a little boy, so I was very fortunate to grow up drumming and singing our Anishinaabe songs. It was a crucial part of a long and medicinal journey that brought him to ceremony and a deeper understanding of his culture and background. My mother, brothers and I benefited greatly from his reconnection with the Anishinaabe way of life. He sought the drum and our old ways for healing, and it helped us all thrive.

His own father died when he was just 29 years old. He fell off a boat on a cold fall morning just off the shore of our reserve and never came back up. He left behind a wife and five children all under the age of seven. My dad was just five years old. He has little memory of my grandfather, and wasn’t able to share much about him throughout my upbringing. But it was always clear to me that he grew up without a dad, and from a young age I imagined it must have been tough for him to learn how to be a father without having his own.

There were challenges, of course, but he still did a wonderful job raising us. And that’s become much more evident now that I have a son of my own. Parenthood is the ultimate test of a person, and although my journey is really just beginning, I have a much greater appreciation of my parents and the sacrifices they made for us to ensure we grew up in a good way. My dad really did have to figure out fatherhood on his own, and my mom supported him and us along that path.

It was pretty neat to see him reflect on that experience in this video with other Indigenous men that came out a few years ago:

PERFORMANCE – First Nation Dad Roles from Brian Russell on Vimeo.

Although ultimately heartfelt and hopeful, these candid reflections illustrate the widespread, tragic challenges of Indigenous fatherhood on Turtle Island. Colonialism, forced assimilation, and ongoing oppression have severely damaged traditional parenting practices and ideals. Violence like residential schools and the enforcement of the Indian Act infected Anishinaabe masculinity with a brutal toxicity that lingers and continues to manifest itself in horrible ways.

As a result, Indigenous fathers are expected to neglect or destroy. And that happens. But it’s important to remember what’s at the root of that behaviour and why many of these men are struggling. Otherwise stereotypes of the violent or absent Native dad will persist and even become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many young men who become fathers. It’s ultimately up to them to break those cycles, but they need a supportive and understanding community to empower and enable them.

Being a father is the greatest joy I have ever known. My son is the greatest gift I have ever received. I love every moment with him; from teaching him to talk to tempering his tantrums. I walk proudly with him, whether it’s pushing his stroller or taking his hand in mine. Making it just a year and a half into this journey feels like my greatest accomplishment. He teaches me something new every day, and I can’t wait to keep walking on the rest of this path with him.

My responsibility as a father is to raise him to be kind and respectful. It’s on me to ensure that he grows up as a loving and humble person who treats everyone around him as he’d want to be treated. I want him to be patient and polite, and to try to be positive whenever he can. I hope he follows his dreams and never denies his feelings. These are some of the basic values that guide parents in all cultures and nations in raising decent human beings.

These are ideals that were embedded deeply in me thanks to my parents, my family, and my community, despite the intergenerational trauma of displacement and assimilation. Violent cycles were broken, but more importantly, a strong circle was maintained. Strong Indigenous parenthood is about creating and sustaining viable communities, and at the core, survival.

Me and my son Jiikwis, 2018

Me and my son Jiikwis, 2018

Weweni sago

DSC_0564

Weweni sago. It’s a phrase in Anishinaabemowin that can mean “take care.”

A few weeks before his first birthday, I bounced my son in my arms, trying hard to savour the moment while chasing harsh memories from my mind. A family celebration was looming and that should have been my focus, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how he and his mother almost died the day he was born.

They both fully recovered and now thrive in the most beautiful ways. But for some reason, I kept replaying that traumatic moment and those precarious first days. I didn’t know why I thought that way and it really troubled me. I cradled him close with determined care in my arms and immense love in my heart, while fear and anxiety lingered in my head.

There was no reason to be afraid or anxious. We were blessed with happiness and health as a new family. And while his birth was physically devastating for both him and his mother, I felt like it was “only” emotionally traumatic for me, and that I should have gotten over it by then. Their strength and resilience inspired me every day. Why couldn’t I embrace the wonder, beauty and power of this life and stop the trembling in my fingers?

This internal tension peaked when I couldn’t really bring myself to speak during those bizarre new episodes. I found myself unable to express exactly what I was feeling, which was something I had never experienced. My wife Sarah – ever kind, supportive and loving – noticed, and we tried to talk some of it out.

Together we identified a persistent grief from those moments in the hospital that I had never really addressed. I kept thinking about what my life would be like without them, even though they were tangible, real, beacons of love and might right in front of me. All this time later with no real reason to worry, I knew those were irrational thoughts.

Then she reminded me about what else happened in the last year. My grandmother – one of my life’s pillars – had died in the spring. So did my uncle, the man who made me a rock n’ roll fan. There was great loss in her family too. Her great-grandmother and family matriarch also died in the spring. It was a heavy year of loss. And another person very close to me also experienced serious trauma, but I won’t explain out of respect for their privacy.

While those tragedies had compounded in a short time, I realized there were even more in my past that I still hadn’t emotionally resolved. A few years ago, two cousins of mine died in the same week – one of an overdose, and the other of suicide.

My aunt, who was a storytelling and traditional mentor to me, died suddenly a year before that. There were many more deaths and victims of violence close to me. A lot of my serious grief goes back to the loss of one of my best friends in a car accident when I was 16.

I hadn’t even considered how that grief could accumulate, like stubborn black soot in a stovepipe. Up until then, I thought I had grieved enough at each funeral. The ceremonies around death in our culture make time and space for this very important process.

A fire burns for four days of mourning to make way for a relieving celebration at the end when the spirit leaves this realm to find their way to the spirit world. It’s a beautiful practice that helps the family and community heal from the loss. But when so many of them happen in a relatively short time, maybe it’s harder to fully expunge that sadness.

It’s no secret now that tragedies strike First Nations much more frequently than other communities. A long list of human calamities plague reserves: disease, suicide, violence, abuse, and so on. These are well documented, and the immense weight of these ongoing losses is devastating. A friend recently wrote that being Indigenous in Canada is to be in a perpetual state of grief.

And with all kinds of media constantly feeding reminders of these disproportionate tragedies to First Nations, it’s almost like they become a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. It’s easy to convince yourself that grief and suffering are ingrained in Indigenous identity, and that sadness is permanently fused to our DNA.

All these troublesome thoughts and feelings swamped my mind as soon as it idled. It felt like gravity quadrupled as soon as my focus shifted from my family, my job, or other activities that kept me occupied. Grief was dragging me down, and although it hadn’t taken a major toll on my professional life or my home life yet, it was only a matter of time before it became truly burdensome and I wouldn’t be able to function or focus on work or the happiness that flourished in my home.

Thankfully, my wife saw this become more serious as I became a little withdrawn. My silent sorrow hinted at inner emotional turmoil she’d never seen in me up to that point. She suggested I seek out and speak with a grief counsellor. She helped me find one here in Sudbury who was Anishinaabe and could help me look at my situation through a cultural lens and get me back on a positive path.

I was open and willing to receive this help. Throughout my life, I’ve always considered myself the one others go to when they’re grieving or down. I’ve always believed that I’m emotionally and spiritually strong. I grew up going to ceremonies, which built a strong cultural foundation that created a powerful link to my family, community, and Anishinaabe identity.

But I wasn’t strong enough to handle this on my own, and I was too apprehensive to discuss it with family and friends. I didn’t believe my personal issues were as serious as what other people were living through. I needed an outside perspective to ground me once again.

So I went to the Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre for help. Without going into the details of the discussion, the person I sat with was able to bring me back to centre. She helped lift a massive weight off me. I understood what had happened to me. And I realized that unresolved grief can have serious consequences. I’m very thankful for this person’s guidance, and to my life partner for leading me to her.

I’ve never suffered seriously from anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness, although I do my best to advocate for people who do. Through this all, I’ve learned that grief isn’t fleeting. It doesn’t disappear when the fire goes out at the end of a funeral ceremony. Sometimes it tucks itself away, hiding behind those fulfilling moments of relief and celebration when family and friends come together in death. It’s an infectious mould that propagates as the years go on and the death toll rises. It has to be acknowledged and confronted, or it never goes away.

I share this for the sake of transparency and to encourage discussion. As a journalist, I write regularly about the grief and loss of others. As an author, I often adorn my own emotional hardships with the mask of fiction. But I believe it’s important for someone like me to be candid about these very real difficulties. It’s helping me, and hopefully writing this will support others in getting help as well.

Weweni sago.

Sharing Truth, Understanding Reconciliation: Covering the TRC as an Indigenous Journalist

Justice Murray Sinclair reads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations in Ottawa on June 2

Justice Murray Sinclair reads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations in Ottawa on June 2

Seven years ago, I was in a packed ballroom at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Winnipeg, waiting to hear a short, straightforward apology from the Prime Minister of Canada. I stood at the back of the room with my CBC colleague and the big Beta SX camera he had set up on a tripod. All around us were hundreds of residential school survivors, their families, community leaders, and other supporters. They all had their fervent eyes transfixed on the big screen in front of them.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs arranged this public viewing of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for the tragedy of the residential school system on behalf of the federal government of Canada. So many people showed up, organizers had to rent additional overflow rooms and hastily set up more screens. There were at least a thousand people there to hear the government say sorry for what they endured.

There was a thick fog of tension in the room in the hour leading up to the live broadcast from the House of Commons in Ottawa. We asked survivors if they wanted to be interviewed ahead of time to talk about what they wanted to hear. Everyone declined. Instead, they sat silently and strongly, waiting for those few words.

The apology itself came and went in what seemed like a fleeting moment. But almost immediately, that thick, invisible synthesis of heavy emotions seemed to dissipate. Soon, survivors were literally lining up to talk to us on camera about what they had just experienced, and to begin opening up about the pain they had carried with them throughout their lives. Ultimately, so set the groundwork for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

I covered the apology in Winnipeg for CBC TV News. I also wrote about it a few days later for the Globe and Mail. It was a very profound experience; I knew then that I had the honour and privilege of documenting an important moment in the history of this land. Little did I realize then that the TRC would become a regular part of my career, and in essence, my life as an Indigenous person in Canada.

Despite some initial challenges, the TRC began travelling Canada to document the stories of survivors a year after the apology. As its crucial work commenced, I reported on these early efforts for CBC while still in Winnipeg. The commissioners set the framework for what was about to unfold in the coming years, and it was personally very interesting and a little exciting to cover the beginning.

I don’t have a direct family connection to residential schools. None of my immediate relatives, and few people from my home community of Wasauksing (relative to other communities), were forced to attend the government-mandated, church-run institutions. Still, some in my extended family had to go. I was well aware of the shameful saga while growing up in the 1980s. We all were. I suppose when children had been stolen away from other nearby Ontario communities for generations, it was a potentially devastating threat that all Anishinaabe people knew about, even if they didn’t live it first-hand.

The residential school experience affects most Indigenous people of this land in some way, whether they’re related to survivors or not. It brutally stripped culture from communities, and the harrowing shame that attached itself to Indigenous identity became resolutely contagious. For example, outside of basic words and sentences, I don’t speak my native language of Anishinaabemowin because even my predecessors who didn’t go to residential school were led to believe it was useless.

Covering some of the initial TRC public events, I heard first-hand just how brutal the abuse was that created the awful shame that lingered for generations. It was impossible not to become sorrowful. The people who bravely got up in front of strangers to share their gruelling testimony could have easily been my aunts and uncles. I admired them all. In most cases, as they started to talk, they were cautious, yet candid; reserved, yet resilient. Over the course of sharing their stories, they bared their souls to encourage others to join them on a path to healing. At each of these events, the initial tension that weighed down each room always disappeared by the end.

In the following years, my job took me from Winnipeg to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. Every few months, I found myself at a TRC event to cover for CBC. Each time, it was an immense experience. Most of the TV stories I did were about the public hearings, where survivors were invited to share their dreadful experiences for the commissioners to document. Other stories focused on community initiatives inspired by the TRC.

But the constant in each story were the survivors. After powerfully emotional testimony about the trauma of being taken from their families and then suffering physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, many would then allow me to ask them additional questions about being part of the whole process in front of a camera. Their courage and will to keep the conversation going always amazed me.

In those moments, survivors entrusted me with properly putting their experiences out into the mainstream media. Personally, there has been no greater position of privilege or honour in my line of work. I was a stranger to them, as were many of the people in those hearing rooms, but their dedication to the truth and to exposing the darkest chapter of Canada’s history transcended everything. I will always have the utmost respect for that.

Earlier this month, that part of the healing process came to an end, as the TRC released a summary of its key findings and recommendations at its closing event here in Ottawa. It was a historic event years in the making, and again, I had the privilege to be there as a journalist. Overall, I thought CBC’s coverage of the entire occasion was extensive, thorough, and respectful, and I was proud to be a part of it. I reported on the Walk for Reconciliation and the Education Day, and on the third day I was assigned to the release of the findings at the Delta Hotel.

The short three-block walk from the CBC building to the hotel was enough time for me to reflect on all the people I’d met covering the TRC and all the opportunities I had to learn. Soon, I found myself once again in a large ballroom packed with survivors, their family members, advocates, politicians, community leaders, and media. It was emotionally charged, like that ballroom in Winnipeg seven years earlier, but in a different way. There was understandably a strong undertone of sadness, but eager anticipation and even relief seemed to soar above it. The crowd had been waiting years – and even lifetimes – to hear what the commissioners had to say.

As TRC chair Murray Sinclair read aloud the recommendations, survivors and their supporters cheered. Sometimes they stood and applauded. Many wept in between, as memories of their experiences and loved ones no doubt remained strong in their hearts and minds. It all ended with drum songs, while the crowd rejoiced and embraced. While the apology felt like it opened a floodgate of emotion, the closing event felt like those torrential waters were finally easing thanks to the leadership and direction of the survivors themselves.

This is the end of that chapter. The TRC’s full report will be out later this year. It’s up to the federal government to implement its 94 recommendations. Since last week’s event, there’s been a lot of debate over some of those key findings, particularly the commissioners’ use of the term “cultural genocide” when referring to the deadly and violent tragedy of residential schools. There’s also contention around the term and concept of “reconciliation” itself, and whether it really is viable as it relates to Indigenous and non-Indigenous coexistence on this land.

These arguments lose sight of the original focus of this entire process, which was to hear from survivors themselves to teach other Canadians the truth about their country’s history. Most importantly, allowing them to speak their truth would lead them on that path to healing. Everything else should be secondary to this.

And in recent years, it’s been the survivors themselves who have provided their own leadership in guiding others to reconciliation. They led the march to kick off the TRC’s closing. In the days after, they were front and centre at all the public events in Ottawa. While there are still many survivors who weren’t present and others who rightfully disagree with the process because their pain is just too great, if the ones who took part believe in reconciliation, we need to respect that.

Although the TRC has come to a close, the story isn’t over. It’s important for those of us in the media to keep survivors’ stories in the headlines. There will be many new opportunities to do that in the coming years, as the younger generation gets a clearer picture of this country’s history and the importance of good relationships with each other. I vow to continue to champion those stories. It’s been an incredible honour so far.

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