Day 3: More learning with Marcel, May 27

A Lesson in History by Beth McLean Wiest

Part two of the day, after coffee break, began with music.

Marcel shared with us that his song was to honor the ancestors. It was called an “honour song”. He sang with his drum. It was sacred to hear him, watch him and imagine what the words were about. I love how music communicates messages at so many levels. We then sang one of our songs for him. And again, it was a sacred moment. When we rehearse, we always sing in a circle. The room was set up with desks like a square so it was really neat to become a circle with Marcel and Steve as we sang. They stood with us as we sang and it felt very respectful and honoring.


And then the next part of our education began. This time it was a history lesson.

The Anishinabe have been in the Winnipeg area for 15,000 years, in the Great Lakes area for 50,000 years. According to history books, the “visitors”, aka settlers and Europeans, arrived in 1492 and therefore have lived here only the last 500 years. “Our people knew ahead of time that Visitors were coming. Our people had seen it through ceremony, ways of communicating through Creator and Ancestors, through Smudging, birth of child (something we do with the placenta).”

Even though the Anishinabe knew the Visitors were coming, there has been struggle with the changes the Visitors brought. “Why if Creator loved us did he allow people to come over to our part of the world to destroy?”

Excellent question. With Visitors, came the European systems. Religion, education, justice and eventually systems like child family services. Throughout the 500 years, government policy has generally been Assimilation or Extermination.

Did you know that it was illegal to teach the teachings of the Anishinabe until 20 years ago? WHAT?!

Government systems work because they are based on authority. Consider this as one example: would hydro in Manitoba exist if government policy didn’t allow it? How does hydro transform a community? What environmental changes occur? What does “before hydro” and “after hydro” look like?

Eventually, hydro came into the Anishinabe territory and now there were freezers. Before hydro, if you had a moose, you had to share or it was wasted. Now with hydro, you can keep your extra moose in a freezer, you don’t need to share.

At this point, Steve Bell jumped in and shared some reflections on the idea of sharing. Sharing is lost in our culture. It changes your worldview and how we see God. It shifts community, theology. And when you don’t have to share anymore, it destroys much that is sacred. It destroys the heart of a community.


Marcel drew another circle. And then, once again, he divided it into four quadrants. This time the circle represented a person. We are Physical – Emotional – Spiritual – Mental beings.


Residential schools were meant to weaken the Emotional and Spiritual side. Do you know anything about residential schools? Most Canadians don’t. It is a part of our history that doesn’t seem to be taught much. It is part of our history that is having huge impact on Canada today.

Marcel was deeply respectful of the fact he was teaching a room full of non-aboriginals. I found his gentleness to us deeply moving. In sharing the ugliness of our history and the impact that our ancestors have had on his people and him, he could have been accusing and no one would have faulted him for it. But he wasn’t. He was gentle, tactful, humble.

There were 132 residential schools across the country. For more than a century, Indian Residential Schools separated 150,000 Aboriginal children from their families and communities.  Do you know when the last residential school was closed? Was it in the 1800s?

Nope. 1996. Yes, you read that right. 1996. Not even 20 years ago.

I don’t know about you, but most of us were pretty clueless about the Indian Act. I encourage you to Google it and do some reading. It is eye opening. And disturbing.

The Indian Act is a Canadian Federal law that governs in matters pertaining to Indian status, bands, and Indian reserves. It is aimed at assimilation. It was enacted in 1876. It is an oppressive piece of legislation that allows government to manipulate and have control over people.

Here are some examples of what the Indian Act resulted in:

  • Destroy canoes, paddles, dogsleds, harnesses, burn snowshoes.
  • Destroy means of transportation.
  • Take the Indian out of the child. ( aka force them to go to a residential school)
  • Isolate the child from everyone they know and love.
  • Do not allow them to learn the Philosophy before age 25.

What if every nation in Canada had an Act similar to the Indian Act?

What if your children were taken from you from age 5 – 16 or 20?

What if you no longer had any means of connecting with others in your community?

That is what the Indian Act allowed the government to do. Essentially, the Indian Act controls what goes on in community.

On June 11, 2008 The Prime Minister of Canada (Mr. Harper) apologized to all Aboriginal children for the damage that had been done in residential schools. You can read the apology at

“Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country…”

“The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian Residential Schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language…”

“The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation.  Therefore, on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this Chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to Aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the Indian Residential Schools system…”

The Minister of Indian Affairs answers to Mr. Harper. Who tells the Minister of Indian Affairs what to do? Who does the Minister of Indian Affairs represent? The 5th anniversary of this apology was earlier this month. Has much changed?

Marcel works in addictions. He had some really interesting insights into how addictions destroy community. When the emotional and spiritual side are weakened, then you are prone to addictions: alcohol / drugs / gambling / pills / negative thinking / internet / gossip.

I have never heard someone refer to gossip as an addiction before. He called social media “Gossip Without Borders”… and as he shared how technology is destroying community… it was hard to argue his points.

Addictions in First Nations communities are a direct result of the residential schools because their objective was to weaken the emotional and spiritual side of the child.

Do you know anything about the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission? It also began in 2008 and is ongoing.  To learn about the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” is the “next step” learning Marcel has given us.  I encourage you to look it up too.

And it was time for lunch.

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