I went to high school on the West Coast in a small town called Ladner. Today, Ladner is pretty much a suburban bedroom community from which people commute to their jobs in the city of Vancouver. But back in the early 1970’s, Ladner was a small fishing village. It was a terrific place to go to high school; that is if you were white, middle-class and male. I don’t really know how it was for the handful of folks who weren’t part of the white majority. I remember when I was in grade ten; a new girl showed up in our classes. I’ll call her Shirley for the purposes of this sermon. Shirley, we were told, came from somewhere way up north in British Columbia. Shirley wasn’t part of the majority, back then we called Shirley’s people “Indians.” I remember our homeroom teacher introduced Shirley as an Indian who had travelled south for her education. We were told that there weren’t any high schools where Shirley came from, so she had to leave her family behind and come down to Ladner all by herself. She was boarding with a family in Ladner.
About all I can remember about Shirley’s first days with us is the unusual way that Shirley dressed. Back then there was a sort of dress code. We all wore the same stuff, blue jeans, not just any blue-jeans, mind you, we wore a brand called Seafarers which had bell-bottoms, that dragged on the ground. Both boys and girls wore white tee-shirts and you just had to have the latest thing in foot wear: leather adidas running shoes. We thought we were so cool, with our anti style, which in our rebellious naiveté we didn’t realize was actually a style in itself. Shirley didn’t fit in, because she wore what we openly mocked as stylish clothes. I remember that all her cloths looked new and expensive as if someone had taken her out and bought her an entire wardrobe of old people’s cloths; and by old people I mean 30 somethings. She just didn’t look like one of us. But that didn’t really matter because Shirley wasn’t one of us and so we never included her in anything we did.
After Shirley had been in our school for a few months, I remember a social studies class in which the teacher asked Shirley to tell us about her life in Northern British Columbia. The tale that Shirley told us about the reservation on which she lived was unbelievable to our young ignorant ears. Shirley claimed that she had been forced against her will to leave her family behind and travel all by herself to live with a family that was only interested in the money that the Indian Affairs department paid them for her room and board. She said that her parents would be thrown into jail if she wasn’t in school even though there was no school anywhere near the reservation. She said she’d run away several times, but that she’d always been caught, and her family was punished because she’d missed so much school. She claimed that her family hated living on the reservation. Shirley told us that it wasn’t safe on the reservation because most of the men drank.
My classmates asked all sorts of questions, but there was something in the way they asked the questions that made it clear that none of us believed a word Shirley was saying. After all, how could any of this be true? Nobody would ever take kids away from their families by force. Back then we cut class all the time. It was a different world and as long as you kept your grades up nobody cared whether or not you went to every class. Cutting classes was part of our culture, so the idea that parent could be thrown into jail because you skipped school was crazy talk.
Why we wondered out loud, would the government send you to a school so far away; why not just send you to a school nearer the reservation so that you could go see your folks on weekends? Well, according to Shirley, the government picked schools that were far away so that the Indian kids wouldn’t just run away from school and head back home. The only way home for Shirley was on an airplane and the government only gave her two tickets a year. When the teacher asked Shirley about conditions on the reservation, Shirley spoke really softly about there not being enough water and food to go around. One of us said, that was because they spent all their money on booze and cigarettes. Shirley got really quiet then and the teacher ended the conversation.
Later in the cafeteria there was a lot of conversation about the lies we were convinced Shirley had told us. We simply didn’t believe a word she said. I mean really, this is Canada after all. Canada is a great country, a good place. My parents brought us to Canada because it’s the land of opportunity. If Shirley’s people were having a tough time it wasn’t the government’s fault. Like my classmates, I believed Shirley’s people had only themselves to blame for their troubles. From our position of privilege, we insisted that all “they” had to do was work hard and to get ahead. We believed that we Canadians are good people, we are not prejudice at all.
I remember an actual conversation about the many ways in which Canadians take care of “our” Indians, because we are not like the Americans. Canadians didn’t declare war on Indians, Canadians took care of Indians. Our ignorance was matched only by our arrogance. I, like my privileged classmates, had a naïve understanding of this country. We had been taught to look at Canadian history through rose-coloured glasses. I believed what I was taught about the honour and gallantry of the early settlers of this land, hard workers one and all;
good honest people who’d left the hardships imposed on them in their homelands to build lives for themselves here in Canada. I knew nothing of the world that Shirley was describing. We weren’t taught anything about broken treaties, or the abuses perpetrated by the Indian Affairs Department and we’d certainly never heard about the travesty of residential schools. The conditions Shirley tried to tell us about and the circumstances in which she found herself sounded ridiculous to us, so we assumed that Shirley must be lying. Ignorance and denial were not just our collective responses to Shirley’s story, in my own heart of hearts I was convinced that it that Shirley’s stories could not be true, and I was comfortable passing judgement upon her.
So, the good people of Ladner marginalized Shirley. We weren’t bad, no not us. We weren’t prejudiced, no not us. We simply could not, nor would we believe that the Canadian system could or would inflict such hardships on Shirley’s people. “They, those Indians” must be doing something to bring down the wrath of the Indian Affairs Department. We convinced ourselves that if “they” would just get themselves together and live more like us, things would go a whole lot better for “them.” Just look at Shirley and you’ll see what I mean. Shirley never finished grade ten, she started taking drugs and hanging out with men; older men. I heard that she tried to kill herself not once but several times. Shirley was messed up. From where I was standing, it sure looked like Shirley brought a whole lot of trouble upon herself.
Looking back on the young girl that I once was, I am ashamed of the self-righteousness that blinded me to Shirley’s pain. Sure, I can tell myself that it was a different time and we just didn’t know any better. I can let myself off the hook with all sorts of rationalizations, but the truth is that not a whole lot has changed, even though we all know better. The truth is that to this very day, I continue to find it difficult to accept the reality of my white privilege. I grew up with all the privileges of a world where everything was interpreted from the perspective of a paradigm of Empire and make no mistake about it, that Empire was ruled by white people who were mostly male. Every aspect of our culture was controlled by an Empire that bestowed privilege upon the tribe that I just happened to be born into. Continue reading