‘They didn’t have what we had’

I ask a lot of questions. 

It’s part of my job as a strategist and producer and as a journalist.

There’s power in a question well-asked because it can flip the energy of a conversation or interview on a dime. 

One question I like to ask is ‘tell me about a time when you changed your mind.”

It’s powerful because it almost always represents a massive life shift. A time when you went from being and believing one thing to being and believing another. 

Well, my friends, I’m at a point in my life where I have, in no uncertain terms, changed my mind. 

You see, I grew up in Toronto but spent much of my childhood in the wilds of the Great White North. My paternal grandparents lived in the actual middle of nowhere compared to the concrete jungle of Bay and Bloor. My father and his brother were born in the tiny Northern town of Chapleau, Ontario. They frequently picniced in the bush, with bears, foxes, and with the children who lived on the Reserve. 

In the mid 1960s, when my dad was school-aged, they moved a little further south to the shores of Lake Superior to the bustling city of Sault Ste. Marie. My grandfather worked in Natural Resources and needed to be closer to the head office. 

Dad shared a classroom with ‘Indian’ kids who lived just down the lane in conditions that can only be described as impoverished. 

We were talking yesterday about all that’s come into the light. Our sorrow. Our feelings like the rug has been pulled out from under us. (We are also practicing Roman Catholics, which, well, is not another story, but isn’t something I can process right now). 

Because this is not about us. 

He said “Erin, I was just a kid in school. But there was one thing I knew about those kids from the Reserve. They didn’t have what I had.” 

My Nana, still to this day, is like a mother hen. If there is a kid who needs a snack, she’ll be fixing a full course meal in thirty seconds flat for the entire neighborhood. In the late 60s, she and my grandfather would frequently visit the Chief of the neighbouring Ojibway Nation to ask his permission to give the children gifts – gifts of proper winter boots, socks and coats. These kids were living in the North and would show up to school in February with no coat. 

They didn’t have what we had. 

And that’s what we thought was true. That is the belief that has permeated white colonial Canada. That was the truth we were comfortable believing and permitting. 

And now we know how untrue that was. 

My sense is not that we have shifted our belief or changed our minds. 

My sense is that the discovery of human atrocities against First Nations children and families for decades, has forced us to recognize how deeply flawed and MORE TRUE that belief was. 

No. They didn’t have what we had.

Canada ripped away land, security of person, faith, family – and LIFE.

The children who made it to school with no coats could easily have been seen as lucky – and how are we in a world, in a country as purportedly wonderful as this, where a child with no coat in February is the lucky one because he wasn’t scooped up and sent to a prison for the ‘unclean and unworthy’? 

Now we know that as white kids were playing kick ball with their friends at school, as other unwitting colonizers were doing their best to honour culture and ask permission – the government and the Church to which we paid taxes and tithes were literally scooping up tiny children and sending them to what can only be called torture. 

They didn’t have what we had – in fact, they carried more. They carried an unimaginable, generational burden. 

More fear. More trauma. More pain. 

For decades, First Nations had less of what was right and good. 

And so much more of what is wrong and horrific. 

And our white comfort in the belief, subconscious or active, that as white people, we were simply different is what allowed that pain to fester and deepen through decades. 

I weep as I write this because I don’t want to be the woman who asks to be enlightened. The burden on First Nations people is already too heavy. My soul wishes nothing more than to lighten it for them – not request more of their energy or heart space to help me heal. 

My soul weeps for my own stupidity because this is something I should have known sooner. 

My soul weeps because I fear that as a privileged white journalist who worked in the North, I deepened the lie by never questioning the belief… 

But this isn’t about me.

Because they still don’t have what I have. 

Not four years ago, my Dad was sending me pictures of a giant Christmas tree, lit in the centre of a tiny (and I mean tiny) Arctic town in the Northwest Territories. 

The town lit the tree in celebration of finally being put on an electrical power grid. There was no electricity in that town until 2017. Let that sink in. 

I remember vividly the reporting I did on the water crisis and forced evacuations of people from Northern Ontario Reserves near Kashechewan in 2005; asking the then Minister why there wasn’t the same outcry as there was over the Walkerton, Ontario tainted water scandal. 

To which there was some sort of political response tantamount to ‘It’s just not the same thing”.

To which I can likely now infer an implied ellipsis of ‘because the people in Walkerton are white.’ 

I remember when I was part of an interview panel looking for a news intern at a sister station and one of the applicants was a young woman from the Anishinabe Nation who wouldn’t or couldn’t look me in the eye. I think I judged her for that, believing she didn’t have what it takes to be a reporter if she couldn’t make eye contact. 

Now I’m swirling. Because I should have given her a job and a damn megaphone. 

So I’m telling you about a time in my life when I’ve changed my mind. 

I thought Canada was one thing. And it is not. 

I thought to be Catholic was something – it most definitely is not. 

I thought my role as a Canadian, a mother and person of faith was to raise children to believe in the good. 

And now I see, it is my job to also tell them about the bad, so that they never stand for any of this ‘othering’ bullshit that we see.

I thought my role as a journalist was to report on the Canada I know. 

And now, in no uncertain terms, I see that it is my job to hand out megaphones wherever I can…because they still don’t have what I have. 

Every Child Matters. 

Today and every day. 

The Rest of the Story is a project of love and commitment to showing up on this site every day for 90 days; sharing honest opinions, thoughts and observations. Comments are welcome.

Erin Trafford Incorporated is located on sacred land that has been the site of human activity for over 12,000 years. We are in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People, and we acknowledge them as the past, present, and future caretakers of this  land.

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