Editor’s Note: This article was originally presented as a personal testimony in October of 2011 at the TRC’s 3rd National Gathering in Halifax.
My name is Mark DeWolf, but my Kainai name is Eenukatakoiskinee. This translates as “little yellow hair” (at least, I hope it does) and it suggests that, as a small child, I might have been rather cute – and I must have had lighter (and more plentiful) hair. This name Eenukatakoiskinee was given to me by the women of the Kainai First Nation on the Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta, and that is where, from about the age of 6, I was a child growing up. My father, the Rev. Ted DeWolf, who had previously served parishes as an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Nova Scotia, was during that time the Principal of St. Paul’s Indian Residential School on the Kainai First Nations Reserve. My family – my mother, father, my two sisters and me – moved to Alberta from Nova Scotia in 1952, about 100 years after the establishment of the first residential schools, and about 45 years before the very last of those schools closed, and to the best of my remembering, we were warmly welcomed by the Kainai whom my father had chosen to go among and serve. We were all given Blackfoot names – my mother was Fisher Flag Woman, my father Red Man Coming Up the Hill – and my sisters and I attended school with the children whose parents annually entrusted them to St. Paul’s. With all the time in the world, I could tell you about everyday life at St. Paul’s, and what it was like for a little white boy to take classes, share recesses and lunchtimes, play sports, and watch movies with children whose ancestors had once owned that particular part of what is now western Canada. I would very much like to tell you all that, as a grown man, I have learned about the way that land and their way of life was taken from them. But I am limited in time today, so let me instead tell you a story.
Storytelling has long been a way in many cultures to describe happenings or situations that were so complicated and so shrouded in mystery that only a story could answer the question, “What’s it all about?” So it seems appropriate, when discussing something as complicated as the legacy of the residential schools to craft a story that, from these eyes at least, might explain to even the youngest Canadian or the most recent immigrant what the residential school system was all about.
Once there was a man who lived a reasonably happy life on a property that had been in his family for many generations. One day, while he was out in his front yard, tending to his small vegetable garden, a large taxicab (let’s imagine one of those big old Chryslers) came roaring down the street, bearing two passengers (let’s say a man and a woman) who were strangers to that neighbourhood and therefore knew nothing about the man who owned the garden. Indeed, they had never met him. The taxi driver behind the wheel was in a hurry, and he had had a few drinks, which is why, as it barreled down the street, the taxi jumped the curb and struck the man who had simply been minding his own business on his own property. When the taxi came to a halt, the man was pinned beneath one of its wheels, and he was bleeding in several places.
Out of the taxi jumped the two passengers. They both rushed to the side of the injured man, and (as you might expect) their impulse was to help him in some way. However, the thoughts and feelings of the man were quite different from those of the woman. The man who came to the side of the injured property owner was a lawyer, and (as you might expect) his thoughts were mostly about what legal consequences might befall him if he failed to provide help to an injured individual. He was also worried that if he did nothing, his name and picture would appear in the media, an example of heartless, uncaring behaviour. In the back of his mind was also the hope that, if the injured man recovered due to some quick medical intervention, he might even thank and reward those who had given him that help. In other words, he had his own reasons for “helping” the man his taxi had run down, and most of them were selfish.
The woman too wanted to do something that would keep the injured man alive until medical help came, but her desire to do so sprang from her kind heart and a belief in justice. After all, it had been the taxi she was riding in that was responsible for this terrible injury. No self-serving thoughts entered her mind, only the awareness that she might be able to do some good.
But neither the man nor the woman was a doctor. They didn’t know for sure what would be best for the man lying beneath the car, but the man had once taken a CPR course years before, and the woman had practised basic first aid back when she was a girl scout, so between the two of them, they did a number of things that they thought were helpful. Of course, since neither the man nor the woman knew anything about the man on the ground, they didn’t realize that some of their actions were in fact not helping the man at all. As they loosened the injured man’s clothing, puffed air into his lungs, covered him with a blanket that the taxi driver grudgingly provided, a number of people who had been walking by gathered to see what was going on. They were too far away to see that the injured man was not unconscious, and indeed he was attempting to pull himself from under the car. He didn’t need the puffs of air that the man was trying to give him. The blanket was stained with anti-freeze and was making it hard for him to breathe. Because these bystanders didn’t want to get too close to the accident scene, they couldn’t see the injured man struggling to get up, while the lawyer pinned his arms to the ground, thinking the man might do himself an injury. Neither the man nor the woman thought to ask the injured man what he thought they should be doing.
When a medical team finally arrived in an ambulance and assessed the situation, they concluded that some of the things the taxicab passengers had done were indeed helpful, but many of them had just made things worse. They were unable to say whether or not the injured man would have been better off without the intervention of the two taxi passengers, but they expressed the wish that things had been done differently. Hearing this, the injured man, instead of thanking the man and the woman as the lawyer had hoped, blamed them for the fact that he was still in a very bad way.
As you might expect, the two people who had offered assistance were surprised, even shocked, to find themselves blamed for the property owner’s physical condition. But in her heart, the woman knew that, if what had been said was true, she should apologize for not having done better, and she did. Eventually, even the lawyer made an apology, in a very loud voice so the watching bystanders could plainly hear it and think he was a wonderful fellow.
The strange thing though was the fact that hardly anyone was pointing a finger at the taxi driver, whose car still pinned the property owner to the ground. In fact, only a few people suggested moving the car to release the man and allow him to stand once again on his own two feet. Gradually the watching bystanders drifted away, and even now, for all they know, that taxicab is still there. But a medical team is on the spot, they tell themselves, so everything should be okay. They give little thought to the existence of other taxicabs, speeding here and there throughout the city, occasionally knocking people down and pinning them beneath their wheels. After all, taxicabs are just part of modern life, are they not?
I suppose you’ve already figured out who in my story is who. I come today to speak not on behalf of the injured property owner (there are others who are best suited to do that) and certainly not the man in the taxi whose only thoughts were for himself, but for the woman who came to his aid from the purest of motives, and who indeed do some helpful things as she bent over the struggling man. At St. Paul’s Indian Residential School, I met, knew, and was taught by many such people. And when, at the end of each school day, I returned to the Principal’s residence and the life of my family, I was fortunate to have a father who was that kind of person, whose entire life was devoted to helping others. In my whole life, I have never met a man whom I admire more. Was everything that my father and his staff did prove beneficial to the children in their charge? Almost certainly not. They must have made many mistakes, as many had received no training. But would those children have been better off if the residential schools (represented in my story by both the man and the woman passenger) had never been established? My own suspicion – and I believe it was my father’s belief as well, is that, as long as that huge Chrysler taxicab remained where it was, the injured man would have been worse off without any intervention. So I speak today on behalf of the woman in my story, whose actions would certainly have been more beneficial if she’d known more about what she doing – and if she’d known more about the person she was trying to help. If she were to meet that property owner today, and if the property owner knew the whole story, understood what she had been trying to do and why she hadn’t done a better job, would he still blame her, shake his fist at her, and demand an apology? Understanding is everything. I come before you today in the hope that mutual understanding and a generosity of spirit can prevail, and proper thanks can be given to those who truly deserve thanks.
Every story that has ever been told has been crafted from the perspective of the storyteller. When the stories of Glooscap were first told, those first tellers looked about them, saw the tides in the Bay of Fundy, saw the islands dotting the shoreline, saw the seasonal return of the salmon in the rivers, and they created their particular explanation of what they saw. My perspective is obviously not that of many of you here today, but the story of the woman passenger in the speeding taxicab which, as you may have guessed, represents the political and economic forces that continue to knock people down today… that story must be told, along with the other stories. I sincerely thank you for the opportunity you have given me to tell it, and it is my hope that all Canadians will see the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, learn from it, and then look beyond it, perhaps even to ask themselves, “When are we finally going to do something about these speeding taxicabs?”