As Canada’s 150th anniversary and my 70th birthday are coming up on July 1st and 3rd respectively, I can’t help but think of Canada’s history and my own story as part of it.

On one of those weekends when the immigration records were free to access on, I checked to see when my great grandfather Thomas Benjamin Lett came to Canada. He arrived in Canada from Enniscorthy, Ireland in 1871 at the age of 41. As my Great Aunt Cec (pronounced “cease”) wrote 1850 as his year of arrival in her notebook, there’s further sleuthing to be done.

Thomas Benjamin was a magistrate who settled near Eganville, Renfrew County, Ontario. He married my Great Grandmother Wilhelmina Marie (for whom my mother is named) in 1886. She had come to Canada from Germany at the age of 25. (There’s another discrepancy. Mum said her grandmother was 18 when she married.)

Wilhelmina, called Minnie, was Thomas’s third wife and together they had three children: Adam Ralph; Mary Ann Grace (Mayme, my grandmother); and Elizabeth Cecily (Cec). All born, I expect, at the family homestead upstairs in the birthing room. The two storey farmhouse, weathered to black, was just down the highway from where I grew up with my grandparents, Frank and Mayme. When I say highway, it was a paved road with farmhouses scattered along it with the small, asbestos-shingled house my grandparents had built to retire to, somewhere in between.

I learned about religions, other than protestant, and other cultures through derogatory terms: mick, dago, DP. I read about black people in a children’s book called Little Black Sambo. When white people say they’re not racist, how could they not be? This is how most of us were raised and we have much relearning to do.

We didn’t live in town so Grandpa and I would drive into Eganville to go to the post office or shop for groceries at Bimm’s Red & White. The Bonnechere River runs through Eganville and it was said the Catholics, on the other side of the river, and the Protestants (on the grocery store side of it), once threw stones at one another across it.

Writer Roy MacGregor wrote a newspaper column in recent years about the area, referring to the stone throwing. Someone told him, those people are “today contented neighbours.” That’s good to know as this a community that is now providing homes for Syrian refugees.

Although Grandpa drove Grandma and me to the Evangelical Lutheran church in Golden Lake on Sundays, I don’t recall any mention of the First Nations reserve there. Sarah and I visited the area before we left Ontario. Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation is described as a “proud and progressive Algonquin community on the shores of the Bonnechere River and Golden Lake in Renfrew County, Ontario.” The community is located off Highway 60, one and a half hours south of Algonquin Park.

Great Aunt Cec became a school teacher and although I don’t think she taught at the Golden Lake reserve, from 1926 to 1928, she taught at Little Elgin School on the Cape Croker Indian Reserve. The reserve is called Neyaashiniinigmiing Aboriginal Reserve No. 27 on the east shore of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula on Georgian Bay, Ontario. The people who occupy the reserve are the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.

Aunt Cec wrote in her notebook that her mother, my great grandmother, “had a very comfortable home for three and half years until her heart condition made it necessary to resign.” Great Grandmother Wilhelmina was wearing an apron in the photo I have and when I visited the former school at Cape Croker in approximately 1995, I realized Aunt Cec and Great Grandma would have lived in the schoolhouse, behind the classroom, with bedrooms upstairs. It had become the offices of the local police and one of them showed me around.

“It’s too bad you didn’t come last fall,” the officer told me. “The building was gutted and renovated in January.”

“Is there a ghost,” I asked.

“Yes, so they say but I’ve never seen her.”

“It’s a woman?”

“Yes, a school teacher.”

One of the photos in Aunt Cec’s albums I inherited is of St. George’s School, Lytton, B.C. in 1923. Aunt Cec paid a visit to her brother Adam Ralph Lett who was principal there. Although I never met him, he was referred to by my mother as Uncle Ad. He was an Anglican minister, educated at Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, Quebec. One of the photo captions reads: “Shall we ever weary be to whom is given this task? Not so long as to our hands, God has given this noble task.” Both Aunt Cec and Uncle Ad thought they were doing noble work in teaching the children English, and farming in Uncle Ad’s case, while suppressing (often with dire punishment), their own language and spiritual traditions.

My mother always hoped the school was one of the good ones. I knew there were no “good ones.”

In 1994, a year before Mum died, I flew from Toronto to Vancouver, rented a car and drove to Kamloops. The archivist at the Anglican Diocese of Cariboo, a woman with soft grey curls, showed me all the boxes she had related to Rev Adam Lett and St. George’s Residential School, Lytton. I looked through the articles and files wearing white cotton gloves. I learned that the school was founded by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England (the New England Company) in 1901.

Although every folder ought to have been titled “Student Oppression,” there was just one bearing that label and containing a clipping from a Globe and Mail article, an excerpt from Geoffrey York’s book The Dispossessed: Life and Death in Native Canada. It said the school was founded in 1867 by Rev. J. B. Good inspired by Missionary William Duncan who was determined to destroy traditional Indian culture. Ruby Dunstan, chief of the Lytton Band at the time of the writing of the book, attended the school from 1948 to 1953. Her parents were told they would be jailed if they didn’t send their children to the school.

When I drove to the Lytton reserve, to see where the school had been (it burned down in 1983), it was a Saturday in August and the band office was closed. The day was extremely hot, the grass crunched underfoot and although I saw cars, there were no people in sight. The empty lot where the school once stood is beside the chapel made of local granite from the mountain side. There were cement steps leading down from the raised ground, west towards the mountains and the banks of the Fraser River. Behind the old site is a seniors’ residence: N’tuxtsin Senior Citizens Lodge. To the north was an abandoned barn that may once have housed the prized Holsteins, the horse barn, the piggery, the slaughter house, the root cellar, the poultry house where the grade 10 girls took care of the pullets that were hatched from two sittings of eggs in 1938.

Adam Lett must have been there from about 1923 when the photo was taken until maybe,1940. His wife, Florence, taught the girls to knit and sew. They had a daughter, Marjorie.

I wrote a poem in recent years entitled “A Larger Concern.” Here is an excerpt:

Lillooet, Spuzzum, Nicola, Ohamil, Ruby Creek, Cook’s Ferry,
Bridge River, Skuppah, Spences Bridge, Bootroyd.
Lytton, the dust bowl, where the Thompson and Fraser meet,
the band office, closed. Nothing stirs in the August heat,
Great Uncle Reverend Adam Lett hunted cougars,
helped to move the chapel stone by stone.
The burning of the school. Only ashes. An insistence of beauty.
Do martyrs hate themselves?
We allowed such a thing, the poet said and I believe him.
Still, the first people know their songs by heart and blood and bone.

(published in Choices, poems from honeymoon bay, edited by Patrick Lane, Leaf Press, 2015)

The names of the communities are from a book that holds the handwritten name, band name, age, father and mothers’ names, height, weight, and date admitted of each resident of St. George’s, beginning in 1911.

The pictures I have from Aunt Cec’s albums are unsettling and disturbing. I haven’t copied them for inclusion here. Only in one case is a child named. Behind the smiles of the children told to pose for the pictures are the experiences of being forced to suppress their own culture and become part of one defined by Christians imposing their beliefs.

On July 1st there will be an Unsettling Canada Day of Action with events, round dances and discussions on social media. It’s one way to acknowledge and appreciate there were already people here with their own marvelous ways of life, culture and traditions when our ancestors arrived. The Indian Act of 1876 has enabled trauma, human rights violations and social and cultural disruption for generations of First Nations people. We can help to put an end to silence and the discrimination that continues today.

Reading about the experiences of First Nations people is a good way to educate ourselves. One of the first books I read about residential schools was Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School by Celia Haig-Brown. It’s based on the Kamloops Indian Residential School, published by Tillacum Library which was a division of Arsenal Pulp Press. Although published in 1988, it appears to be still available on the Chapters-Indigo website. Victoria writer Monique Gray Smith has a new book for children coming out in September from Orca Book Publishers called Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation. It will be a good one to introduce children to the subject that was never discussed when I was in school, or outside of it either.

And we can listen to First Nations people in various settings. I’ve been honoured to have worked with Lee Maracle and Richard Van Camp in the past. And we can learn about the First Nations right where we live.

I was amazed by the finds at the 8000 year old Anatolian village of Catal Hoyuk when I visited Turkey in 1998. But what about right here in my own province of British Columbia? For instance, the Heiltsuk village of Bella Bella on B.C.’s coast, where I visited some years ago, is 8000 years old. Quadra Island off the north east coast of Vancouver Island has evidence of a 13,000 year old community there. While watching a documentary on Knowledge called “Masters of the Pacific Coast”, I learned that archaeologists have found evidence of a child’s foot print in clay on Quadra Island, that is 13,200 years old.

We don’t see the evidence of the long houses at Departure Bay in Nanaimo where I live but they were there in the village the Snuneymuxw know as stlilup. Snuneymuxw territory stretched from Departure Bay to te-tuxwtun (Mount Benson), and from Cranberry Hill (the area we know as Cedar) to Neck Point Park including Gabriola Island. I look out my window each morning to see te’tuxwtun, Grandmother of All Surrounding Mountains. The land on which I live is Snuneymuxw territory and has been tended by their people for over 5,000 years.