For my first blog post, I think it is important to pay respect to my grandma, Emily. I've never met her as she died long before I was born, but she continues to be an important and symbolic matriarch of our family. I grew up hearing stories about this woman to the point that I feel like I actually did get to know her. Over the years, I eavesdropped on my mother's conversations with her sisters and brother and maybe as a young child I wouldn't have been so intrigued by them if their stories hadn't always ended in tears and sobs of longing for a mother who they had been stolen from.
For many people, "stolen" may sound absolutely absurd, and for me, it didn't really make sense for a long time either. It has been the unrelenting desire to uncover the truth of what happened to my mother and her siblings that has led me to learn about the history of my people, of colonization, and now of methods of decolonization in an attempt to right the wrongs of the past.
You see, when my mom was only six years old she was taken not only from her mother, but her father, siblings, extended family, and her culture to be put into a foster home. None of them ever returned to the care of their parents and none of them knew, until they were adults, what had happened that fateful day. I knew it hurt my mom immensely as her cries were filled with wails wretched directly from her heart. Loving my mom as I do, I cannot even comprehend being taken away from her as a child. Now, being a parent, it is even more heart-wrenching to imagine my child being taken from me!
Nowadays, I often begin my workshops on colonization with this story and that it wasn't until I attended university and took a First Nations Studies course that I began to realize the systemic, racist, colonial history that tore our family apart. But before I go there, let me tell you a bit about Grandma.
Emily was born to Patrick (Paddy) and Julie Isaac (nee Tom) who at that time were living around the area of Broman Lake. She had many brothers and sisters as was the trend in those days. I've always heard that my grandma was a strong lady, with a friendly and precise presence. In her pictures, she looks a lot like me, my cousins, and aunties with our high and full cheeks, cute noses, and a perma-scowl that's etched into our foreheads from days of squinting in the sun--not from being angry--although I'm sure the wrinkles have also become deep trenches from all of the sorrow and pain. She married young to a man named Freddy Augusta and they had a daughter named Agnes and two babies who passed early on. As I understand it, Freddy, and Emily split up and she later met my grandfather, the love of her life, Jimmy Johnny Skin. They had 12 more children, 7 of whom have since passed on. All, have a story that would make your heart shudder, but I like to think that they were survivors and warriors--smiling, crying, emotion-filled people on the front-lines of the war of extermination.
My grandma, with her husband raised all of their children around the Burns Lake area. They had a house on the Burns Lake reserve which was burned down with speculation of arson and they rebuilt a home for themselves on the mountain side near Eagle Creek. Sadly, in the 1960s for "unknown" reasons all of the children were apprehended by the Ministry of Children and Family Services and were put into separate foster homes, the older ones were sent off to residential school. Mom says she remembers being bathed in a tub behind an old wood cook stove when the "big cars came". Without knowing or being told what was going on, my six year old mom was later drug down the courtroom steps crying and screaming towards her new life. The siblings didn't see each other again until they were in their teens or adulthood despite living in close proximity to one another. The younger ones even went to the same school, but didn't know one another and didn't taunt each other playfully like I did with my younger brothers during recess. The ones who survived struggle to rebuild the bonds, connections, and culture that were taken from them.
In studying our history, the apprehension of an entire generation of the Skin/Augusta family became not just our story, but that of Indigenous children and families across Turtle Island (North America). As the residential schools began to be shut down, the governmental policy mandated to "Take the Indian out of the child", shifted towards the theft of children from their homes and communities to put them into non-Native foster homes. Children were taken en masse into homes in an attempt to assimilate them, to take the savage out of them, to teach them to be good little white kids. A quote by Homi Bhaba that has stuck out in my mind over the years, was that colonial assimilation forced us to be "white, but not quite" (1994). Our skin colour and our damned persistence to want our families, communities, and cultures intact, kept us from fitting neatly into Western society.
With dates, facts, acts, quotes, and above all stories that included our history came to unfold I came to realize what our grandparents must have went through in their struggle to survive. What a strategy though, what ingenuity, to take children from their parents, parents from their children. Being a mother, I know, as you probably do too, that you might as well take the will to stand up, to breath, to eat, to live. At this point in my journey, I could not fully comprehend "why?". Why on earth would the government want to take away the children? It doesn't make rational sense. They wanted to civilize them they say, well, why is that so damned important? Live and let live seems like a fairly reasonable adage. If we wanted to eat moose and beaver and berries for dinner so freaking what? The reason, I have come to understand is bigger, more obtuse, and for my friends in the struggle you know where I'm going with this, but for those who this topic is new, the problem at hand can be summed up in one simple word. Land. The land filled with resources and space for settlement, places to wrap new borders around, and landscapes to rename. Sure there were other things involved like religion that people and nations often fight about, but come on now, this was a war for the land and it was waged upon our children, upon love, upon family, community and culture. What is most frightening, is the war is not over. Our children are still stolen from our homes, our families punished for the traumas that were engrained in their existences, and all of those things that were stolen have not been returned.
For my mom, grandma, grandpa, aunties and uncles, for my cousins and our children, for all of our relations who are struggling to rebuild the relationships and the connections that were lost to one another, to our families, communities, and lands I dedicate this blog and welcome you into my thoughts that are begging to be told. Stay strong my family, my brothers and sisters around the globe, especially to those who are still estranged....WE ARE STILL HERE!
Awet'za! (That's all for now)
Bhaba, Homi (1994) The Location of Culture. Routledge, New York.
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