- The Red Road
- Toronto Sun columnist Mark Bonokoski explores the powerful and human stories that lie beneath the troubles of our First Nations people in a 15-part series entitled the Red Road.
“The aboriginal people of Canada are still seen as a problem to fix rather than an asset to this county.”
— Rene Dussault, co-chair of 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples
It was an exhaustive report, five volumes of research, investigations and recommendations conceived in the wake of the anger and bloodstains of the Oka crisis of 1990.
It was 4,000 pages in length, its estimated cost to taxpayers pegged at $13,000 a page and, according to critics, it was the 15th such report since Confederation.
Co-chairs Rene Dussault, a jurist on the Quebec court of appeal, and George Erasmus, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, believed the commission’s plan, if implemented over its proposed 20-year period, would reduce the social and economic gap between aboriginals and non-aboriginals by 50%.
Instead, like its predecessors, it gathered dust on a shelf.
In Canadian aboriginal teachings, the First Nations preferred path of life would see them on a gentle journey down the Red Road, its tenets telling them to “go gently upon Mother Earth” and remember “we are part of the earth and it is a part of us ... for all things are connected.”
The Red Road today, however, increasingly leads First Nations people to Canada’s cities and towns. More than half — 56% in fact — of this country’s aboriginal people now live in urban communities, according to 2006 Census data, up from 50% a decade earlier.
But instead of a harmonious journey embracing traditional values, too many become lost and, caught between two worlds, fall prey to conflict, trauma, abuse and worse.
The path is strewn with family and domestic abuse, homelessness, murdered and missing women, poverty and prostitution, unacceptable high school drop-out rates, too frequent seizure of children by children’s aid societies, over-representation in a justice system where discrimination is systemic as well as health and social issues that range from chronic alcoholism and drug addictions to almost rampant diabetes and spikes in HIV infection.
Problems that have been generations in the making, intergenerational trauma that began long before the Indian Act, continues today beyond the residential school tragedy of forced assimilation.
In a series of articles, this newspaper will look at issues affecting one of the largest unofficial Native reserves in Canada — the Greater Toronto area.
It will not be a perfect portrait. In fact, this series, will likely fail miserably in the eyes of many — just as many government, public inquiries, commissions and social service agencies have failed miserably in the eyes of many over many years. Hopefully it will also open eyes that were previously shut.
And it is critically important that something be done, that the problems are at least broadly acknowledged, and that we begin to address them.
A dozen years ago, the royal commission co-chaired by Rene Dussault called for sweeping changes to the relationship between Canada and its aboriginal peoples. The key recommendations were as follows:
— The Queen and Parliament should issue a royal proclamation acknowledging mistakes of the past and committing governments to a new relationship;
— The creation of an aboriginal parliament, to be known as the House of First Peoples;
— The creation of an independent lands and treaties tribunal to decide on land claims, and to ensure that treaty negotiations are conducted and financed fairly;
— Government spending of $1.5 billion to $2 billion annually for 20 years to improve aboriginal housing, health, education and employment;
— Two new federal departments to replace the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. The new departments would be called the Aboriginal Relations Department and the Indian and Inuit Services Department;
— The Canadian Human Rights Commission be authorized to inquire into the relocation of aboriginal communities and to recommend remedies to address the negative effects of relocations;
— Federal, provincial and territorial governments commit themselves to training 10,000 aboriginal professionals in health and social services.
What followed, in truth, was inaction.
According to Rene Dussault, “none of the big ticket items that could have changed the future have ever been implemented ... not a one.”
Having retired from the bench in May, Dussault was reached last week at the Quebec City law offices of the Montreal-based firm, Heenan Blaikie.
“The large issues have never ever been addressed,” he says. “You cannot erase 125 years of history in three years of work but, looking back over the 12 years since the report was tabled, and you see a lack of political will still exists.
“Nothing has been done by various governments. The aboriginal people of Canada are still seen as a problem to fix rather than an asset to this country.
“And that is disappointing. The plan is still workable, but it needs the political will of all parties and all governments.
“A great deal of money is being spent today handing (individual) crises across the country, but little is being invested, and little emphasis is being placed, on the building of capacity — on education, on social problems, et cetera — that will enable young aboriginals to succeed.
“There is no balance there,” he says. “Twelve years have passed and we still don’t have an overall plan.”
As a visible minority in cities, urban aboriginals are nonetheless all but invisible.
Instead, they tend to scatter.
Estimates of the actual number of aboriginal people living in the Toronto area range from 40,000 to 80,000 and higher.
Across the country, the cities with the largest aboriginal populations, as reported by Statistics Canada (2006), are Winnipeg (68,380), Edmonton (52,100), Vancouver (40,310), Toronto (26,575), Calgary (26,575), Saskatoon (21,535), and Regina (17,105).
But these numbers aren’t considered accurate.
Over the course of researching and investigating this series, some incredible people have shared their stories and, to a one, have been brutally honest — many divulging truly personal and tragic aspects of their lives because those deep and often dark details are important to “their story” and their peoples’ story.
Each stands on its own but, as more of them unfold, they begin to entwine with the thread that runs through them all.
Only then do they become whole, the sum of their parts producing a map of the Red Road, and the forced detours that took its followers on an ugly journey that no government apology could ever truly amend.
PART 1: Culture clashLast Updated: 6th December 2008, 8:53
Quotes from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996):
“Our central conclusion can be summarized simply: The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong.
“Successive governments have tried — sometimes intentionally, sometimes in ignorance — to absorb aboriginal people into Canadian society, thus eliminating them as distinct peoples. Policies pursued over the decades have undermined — and almost erased — aboriginal cultures and identities.
“This is assimilation. It is a denial of the principles of peace, harmony and justice for which this country stands — and it has failed.
“Assimilation policies have done great damage, leaving a legacy of brokenness affecting aboriginal individuals, families and communities. The damage has been equally serious to the spirit of Canada — the spirit of generosity and mutual accommodation in which Canadians take pride.
“Yet the damage is not beyond repair. The key is to reverse the assumptions of assimilation that still shape and constrain aboriginal life chances — despite some worthy reforms in the administration of aboriginal affairs.”
PART 1: Murder, abuse and Native injustice
Last Updated: 6th December 2008, 8:51am
So little has changed over so many years, with the prevailing winds of out-of-sight, out-of-mind still filling the sails of apathy over Native issues.
Almost 20 years ago, calls for a public inquiry into Native justice in Ontario mingled on the steps of the Queen’s Park legislature with tearful remembrances of a 32-year-old Ojibway woman named Virginia May Nootchtai, a troubled soul from northern Ontario’s Whitefish Lake reserve whose death and post-mortem indignities dealt to her in Toronto were so brutal and so dehumanizing that they defy description.
Back then, provincial Tory Norm Sterling, along with the NDP’s Howard Hampton, today the party’s outgoing leader, told Native protesters gathering before them that the case of Virginia Nootchtai vividly illustrated the need for an inquiry into how the justice system serves Natives.
Liberal Attorney General Ian Scott, who died two years ago this October, heard the protest with apparently indifferent ears, and so the cries for solutions to an ages old complexity once again fell on fallow ground.
Today is little different.
Back in early September, in a quest to shed light on the appalling conditions on too many Native reserves, the families of two young Native men burned to death in a reserve jail cell in Northern Ontario, came to Toronto in an attempt to get the mandatory death-in-custody inquest moved to a big-city venue — Toronto or Ottawa — where it would get the media attention it would fail to garner up north.
Ricardo Wesley and James Goodwin, both 20, burned to death in a police lockup on Jan. 8, 2006 at the Kashechewan First Nation police station on the shores of James Bay.
“The Wesley family takes the position a grave injustice has occurred,” Julian Falconer, the lawyer representing the Wesley family maintains. “They were given the assurance that a broad-ranging inquiry into numerous complex and difficult systemic issues would occur.”
In the fire that took the lives of Wesley and Goodwin, an on-duty Native officer could not get the padlock on the jail cell open, leaving onlookers with the sounds of the men’s screams as they were engulfed in flames, and to watch as surrounding buildings were allowed to burn to the ground because the only fire truck failed to start.
The Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Alvin Fiddler, says he would welcome an opportunity to examine the problems facing the remote community.
“There are problems people need to see if they are ever going to be fixed,” Fiddler says. “They are long-term problems that are easier to ignore because they are so far away.”
In the end, the hearing into the change of venue was halted indefinitely — as well as the Oct. 20 inquest proposed in Cochrane. As a result, the inquest into the deaths of Ricardo Wesley and James Goodwin hangs in limbo.
Out of sight begets out of mind.
Looking back, the life and death of Virginia Nootchtai still seems incomprehensible but, even if the extreme were negated, her sad beginnings would not be novel, and nor would be the fact that she died so hideously in a Cabbagetown rooming house above a down-and-dirty bar.
Only the indignities raise the ante.
By the time she was 32, Virginia Nootchtai already had 11 children through various hit-and-run relationships with ne’er-do-well men, all gathered up by children’s aid, and a lifetime of drowning her despair in alcohol, having left her reserve near Sudbury for a second life in the big city five years before her death.
Her mother had left her alcoholic and abusive husband when she was a child of seven, leading to her and her four younger siblings to eventually be separated from each other and bounced like inconsequential dime-store gee gaws through a series of non-Native foster homes.
When Metro Toronto Const. Daryle Gerry walked into that room atop the old Winchester Hotel back in October 1988, where some of Virginia May Nootchtai’s butchered remains were to be found, he described it as “like entering the Twilight Zone.”
By the time police located her body, Nootchtai had been dead approximately two weeks. Only the torso and legs remained. The arms, legs, and internal organs had been removed, the blood drained away, and the parts either soaking or wrapped in chlorine bleach to mask the smell of decomposition.
Her boyfriend, Solomon Joseph Constantineau, then 44, said he had woken up from a drunk and had found her already dead body lying beside him, causing him to “panic.”
The dismemberment, and the steeping in chlorine for two weeks, however, had done its job. Two separate autopsies by two different teams of pathologists failed to find a cause of death.
Constantineau eventually pleaded guilty to the only charge he would face — causing indignities to a corpse — and was sentenced to two years less a day in a provincial reformatory, with Provincial Court Judge Derek Hogg claiming Constantineau “probably wouldn’t survive” if federal inmates already serving life ever got their hands on him.
“Protect him from prison? Who protected Virginia Nootchtai?” asked Barbara LaValley, then a family counsellor at the Native Women’s Resource Centre, that was located not far away under a day care centre near Gerrard and Parliament, a block south of the old Winchester Hotel.
“If it had been a Native man who had done that, we believe he would have got the maximum sentence,” says LaValley. “Or if Virginia had been a white woman, the public outcry against this crime would have been terrible.
“But, everyone thinks, who cares? She’s just a ‘squaw.’ ”
Deep in the library files of this newspaper, in a section called the morgue, is a faded manila folder bearing the name Virginia Nootchtai. Her story ends with the curled photos and washed out clippings.
But not the story of her family.
Nearly two decades ago, a 14-year-old Native girl, Virginia’s sister Alice Faith Nootchtai, arrived pregnant in Waterloo, Ont., at Saint Monica House, a home for unwed mothers founded as a Canadian centennial project 11 years earlier by the Anglican church.
Alice’s baby daughter was snatched by children’s aid. Liz Nootchtai, Virginia’s niece, now 32, was that snatch-away baby.
Her biological father, she has since learned, was actually her grandfather, an abusive alcoholic from the Whitefish Lake reserve near Sudbury who worked the bush as a logger.
“He raped his own child,” Liz Nootchtai says. “He tied her to a bed post and raped his own daughter.
“And the result of that rape was me.”
Liz Nootchtai, fathered by her grandfather, was born on April 26, 1976,
At the age of 10 months, through the Sudbury-Manitoulin children’s aid, she was adopted by a white family, the normal probationary period waived, and ended up living in Cornwall, Burlington and finally in Mississauga.
“My adoptive father ran a construction company, his wife was a registered nurse,” she says. “They had three sons, but wanted a girl, and that girl ended up being me.
“They said I was ‘special’ — which meant ‘different’ — but they totally removed me from my culture,” she says.
“They dressed me up in pretty dresses, and tried to make me picture perfect, but I knew something was very wrong with the picture they were forcing onto me.”
At age 14 — allegedly after her adoptive father used a squash racquet as a strap one time too many — Liz Nootchtai called the Peel Police, reported the abuse, packed her bags and left for good, ultimately ending up in group homes for juvenile delinquent youth, even though she had never been in trouble with the law.
Today she is one of the strongest, warmest, open, and most considerate women one could meet — a mother of nine between the age of 13 years and 15 months, six of them hers, two of them children from a previous relationship of her partner of six years, and one child a relative-through-relationship.
Yes, it is complicated.
Liz Nootchtai cares and provides for them all, however, except the oldest who lives with her paternal grandmother, teaches them their culture, and she does it well — all while working as community development coordinator, and outreach worker with Native Child and Family Services in downtown Toronto.
Native youth flock to her for guidance at her office at Yonge and College streets and, to a one, she finds the right words to say, and finds the right path for them to follow.
Considering where she came from, and what she has witnessed and endured, makes it even more remarkable.
Liz Nootchtai met her natural mother, for the first time in cognitive memory, only last November, finding her “living on the streets of Sudbury” where clocks can virtually be set with her arrival at a local soup kitchen.
Their meeting raised no spirits.
“Put it this way, my mother is not dead, just living, if you know what I mean,” says Liz. “But she is not dead.
“She looks sad, not like a Toronto crackhead looks sad, but sad nonetheless. Alcohol. Trauma, Abuse.
“Time doesn’t always heal.
“I don’t care about who she is or what she has become, but I care about what she is to me. But she is not ready to face that yet,” she says. “She’s not prepared.
“She has never even been back to the reserve, which is understandable considering what happened to her there, and what life has dished out since to her.
“There has been a lot of trauma in her life, but hopefully the connect will come ... in time ... before it is too late.”
Liz Nootchtai became pregnant for the first time when she was 18, and she did so for all the wrong reasons.
She admits to it, as well.
Confused, and not yet schooled in the Native culture that she now embraces, uncertain of what she was, who she was, and where she was going, she purposely chose a black man to father her first child.
Remember, this was Liz Nootchtai then, not the Liz Nootchtai now.
“My daughter understands, because I have talked about it at length to her,” she says.” I have told her about how I love her now more than I did back then, and how rebellion can twist your thoughts when you are so young.
“But I had her, truth be told, so I could take her to my ‘racist’ adoptive parents, put her in their arms, and say, ‘Here’s your first grandchild. And she’s black.
“Does that make her ‘special’ like me?”
TOMORROW: Historic apology
Note: The painting depicted for the video above is from a series called MUSH HOLE REMEMBERED by Six Nations artist (Robert) Gary Miller. Mush Hole Remembered is on display at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, the former Mohawk Institute (the 'Mush Hole'), an Anglican residential school for native children aged two to 16 - and the source of Miller's nightmares. The exhibit's last day is December 24.
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On the 11th of June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood up in the House of Commons and issued an historic and formal apology for the tragic legacy of the Indian residential school debacle and then sought forgiveness for the students’ suffering, and for the “damaging impact the schools had on aboriginal culture, heritage and language.”
He could have apologized for a great deal more.
He could have apologized for the Indian Act of 1876, the antiquated piece of legislation, still in existence, that made uninvited Europeans the legal “guardians” of this country’s indigenous people — luring them into reserves with treaties often rife with failed or false promises, rendering judgment on the validity of their Native status should they follow certain life paths, deciding who counted and who didn’t, and what was deemed good for them and what was not ... right up until the point that they existed no more.
But he didn’t.
The goal of the Indian Act, of course, was eventual assimilation of Canada’s Native population and, if it wasn’t clearly evident in its conception, it was certainly crystal clear by 1920 when Duncan Campbell Scott, then deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs, encapsulated an attitude that prevails to this day.
“Our objective,” said Scott, “is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department.”
If not the Indian Act, Harper could have apologized for Bill C-31, the amendment to the Indian Act in 1985 that, once the smoke and mirrors were set aside, received a nickname that was apropos to its intent.
It was soon called the Abocide Bill.
While initially embraced by Native communities for opening the door for 100,000 disenfranchised aboriginals to reclaim lost Native status, the fine print guaranteed that the status of following generations would incrementally be diluted to the point that Duncan Campbell Scott’s goal would come true, and no more Indians would officially exist.
But Harper did not apologize for that, either.
If not for the Indian Act, or the residential schools, or Bill C-31, Harper could have apologized for the child welfare system in which children’s aid societies routinely targeted Native homes and for many reasons — some right, some wrong — yanked generations of children from their cribs and placed them into non-Native and predominantly white foster homes and adoption agencies, all with the intent of “saving” them from the undetermined fate of being an Indian.
But Harper did not apologize for that, either.
Children’s aid was not in the federal government’s jurisdiction, and therefore no apology was necessary.
But, add them up — the Indian Act, the residential school experiment, Bill C-31, the child welfare system — and the creation from that collective was a force-fed toxic soup that has taken Native Canadians so far off the Red Road that was their way of life for tens of hundreds of years that dysfunction and community despair have become the norm.
Just as genes are passed down, so too is the hell they absorbed.
Peter Menzies calls it “intergenerational trauma.”
And he speaks with qualified gravitas.
A member of the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nations, the 55-year-old Menzies is clinical head of aboriginal services at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
He is Dr. Peter Menzies.
He wrote his PhD on intergenerational trauma — the result of the cumulative impact of the above mentioned collective of trial projects, legislation and tragedies — and today Menzies not only teaches at the University of Toronto, he also serves on so many boards, advisory groups and research projects that, coupled with his hands-on clinical work at CAMH, he is seemingly always enroute to one conference or another dealing with aboriginal issues.
And he earned his way.
Snatched from alcoholic Native parents when he was an infant, Menzies was never officially adopted but was instead “institutionalized” and then punted from foster home, to group home, to emergency home, until well into his teens — yet nonetheless managed to find the straight-and-narrow early enough after thumbing his way across Canada and the United States to understand that education, and grassroots learning, were keys to both progress and understanding.
“Talking about my life would take years,” he admits. “I’ve done the gamut.”
It was after getting his master’s degree in social work, and working years in such areas as Native child welfare, family services, income maintenance, homelessness, addictions and mental health, that Menzies began hearing — and then reading — about a concept called intergenerational trauma.
But it was generalized, and not specific.
Menzies’ doctoral thesis, however, gave it not just a body. It gave it arms and legs.
It gave it definition and credence.
“Intergenerational trauma, back then, was theory,” he says. “So I set out to find out what the indicators were, especially for so many homeless Native men — not being connected to their (Native) community, not being connected to themselves, dealing with racism and discrimination, not knowing who their families were ... being totally lost.”
And what Peter Menzies found on his way to his doctorate degree was that intergenerational trauma was not only real, it was pervasive.
There is no bottoming-out that is deeper than homelessness, and all that it can entail. And no “ethnic” group, or so-called visible minority, in Canada has a higher rate of homeless than its Native population.
In the Greater Toronto Area, where Native populations range from a conservative estimate of 40,000 to a scattered high of 80,000, street census in Toronto alone has pegged aboriginals as representing 16% to 25% of the homeless.
“There has to be a root reason for homelessness,” says Menzies. “When you are dealing the clinical model of intergenerational trauma, ‘getting over it’ and ‘moving on’ just doesn’t work. Things — terrible things — are passed down from family to family to family.
“To ‘get over it’ is difficult when you are struggling for self-identity, when you are experiencing racism and are being discriminated against, and society looks at them as being alcoholics or drug dealers — the drunken Indian stereotype.
“Simply ‘getting over it’ is too simple of itself,” says Menzies. “It is very difficult for a person to pull themselves out of it when there is all that intergenerational baggage.”
According to Menzies, while Prime Minister Harper’s apology regarding residential Native schools did much to acknowledge that the documented abuses and tragic social consequences from those residential schools were not fiction or understated, it did little to address history as a whole.
“He may have apologized for the residential schools, but he never got into what the Indian Act did,” says Menzies. “That legislation basically denied aboriginal ceremonies. It denied them from leaving the reserves.
“It was the Indian Act that started the process towards the troubles aboriginals are enduring today, and that includes generations who had to endure the residential schools.
“The residential schools created adults who were no longer healthy. They had been physically and sexually abused, they had been isolated from their homes and, if anything, they adopted the parenting skills of their abusers.
“If I was going to take you from your home at three years old, give you different foods, cut off your hair, challenge your spirituality and your culture, and I kept doing it generation after generation, you’re going to have a lot of damaged people trying to raise each other.”
While Menzies sees light at the end of the tunnel — more aboriginal people being employed, more aboriginal people attending university, and more universities are offering Native study curriculum — the end of that tunnel where the light begins is still a goodly distance away.
“There is a lot happening, but there is still a lot that needs to be done,” he says. “The aboriginal population is the fastest-growing population in Canada, but it still has the highest rate of social illnesses — like suicide, addiction, cancer rates and diabetes.
“You have to look at governments, and their responsibilities in all this. The federal government says it’s only responsible for First Nations people, but only if they live on the reserve,” he says. “The province says they’re not responsible at all, because Ottawa has control — except when it comes to claims on provincial Crown land.
“And then the city says, ‘Hey, this is not our issue at all,’ although Toronto is doing the best that it can through supporting certain initiatives.
“But, in the end, Ottawa calls most of the shots.”
If Peter Menzies is correct, there will be no more Indians soon — at least not according to “official” Ottawa — if the game plan first put into play back in 1867 with the Indian Act evolves through its already plotted stages, and with Bill C-31 envisioning the closure of the Good Red Road before the end of this century as Native “status” evaporates through generational dilution.
“We will no longer be a people,” says Menzies. “All aboriginal treaty rights and entitlements will be extinguished.
“Bill C-31 will eventually see to it.
“There are predictions, in fact, that it will all be over by 2075 and that there will be no more C-31 Indians left — meaning no one with will be left with status, and that the last status Indian will have died,” says Menzies.
“What’s left? Just people. People with no status. People with no land. People the feds will have no responsibly for.
“Now, if the federal government really cared about people, why would they create this beast called Bill C-31?” Menzies asks.
“If I really cared about you, and cared about your family, I would do all I could to preserve you and your family — for now, and for the future.
“But that is not how Ottawa looks at us,” says Menzies.
“It wants us gone.”
TOMORROW: Cold case