Dispatches

Resistance and Relentlessness

Celia Haig-Brown

In 1971, with my late ex-husband, I became the fourth wheel of Grasslands Rodeo Ltd. producing rodeos around BC. In 1976, I began work with UBC’s Native Indian Teacher Education Program (NITEP) as coordinator of the Kamloops site. The program operated in various buildings of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS). At one point, it moved to what had been the senior girls’ dorm.

Driving the tack trailer back from rodeos late on Sunday nights, with my friend Julie Antoine riding shotgun (that’s the passenger seat in rodeo speak), we told stories. Hers delved deeper and deeper into her time as a student in KIRS. I kept thinking, “If I don’t know about these stories, how many others have never heard them?” Julie’s stories became the inspiration for research that led to Arsenal Pulp Press’s 1988 publication Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School. Thirteen former students from four different First Nations—my friends, the parents of my friends and even a relative—agreed to speak with me about what they had experienced and how they had resisted and survived the oppressive regime. We cried; we laughed: they conjured up images of their lives in the school, moving between their basic survival, the horrors and, most important, their creative acts of resistance. I listened and I wrote and when I was done, I visited each person to show them their words in the context of mine and ask them for any changes minor or major they wanted. Without exception, they approved what I had written.

First it was a master’s thesis written in a matter of months in Kamloops between working full time for NITEP and parenting three young children. Following her reading the night before the defence, my supervisor, Professor Jane Gaskell, said, “This reads like a book. You need to publish it.”

My first stop was a university press: after all, I was becoming a scholar. I returned in trepidation to hear what the acquisitions editor had to say after her reading. “No, we can’t publish this,” she said. “The work is too one-sided. My friend taught at one of the schools and she says it wasn’t like that at all.” Or words to that effect. As I found myself retreating from aspirations of being a published author, I remembered that same press had recently produced the diary of a colonizing explorer. One-sided, indeed?

Shortly thereafter, my sister and brother offered to drop the thesis off on their way downtown at one of our favourite popular presses, Pulp Press: good politics. And there was Randy Fred, a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation and a survivor of the Alberni Residential School, now an esteemed editor in charge of Indigenous publications. He said an immediate yes, and the rest is some kind of history. We had some struggles over how much of the theoretical stuff to include and those parts moved to the appendices. My thesis title “Invasion and Resistance” became Resistance and Renewal in recognition of the incredible resilience of the Secwépemc people exemplified in the initiatives active throughout the former school buildings. It is not an overstatement to say Randy’s acceptance has been a major contributor to my success as an academic.

Over the years, there have been so many responses to the work. One memorable one was a book tour with Randy, both of us in an interview with a local radio station. A seemingly hostile and slightly bored interviewer. “And what school did you attend?” he said to me. “Oh, I’m white,” said I. “I didn’t go to residential school.” I swear the man’s demeanour transformed in front of our eyes. He straightened in his chair and focused on me. Outside as Randy and I debriefed, Randy quietly acknowledged such racist incidents were regular fare for him. There has also been the persisting question of who am I, a white woman, to do this work. The only response I can muster is that residential schools are products of colonization in which I am fully implicated.

A telling moment when I did feel affirmed came on a lonely, snowy night in a bookstore in Kamloops. Mary Lawrence in her book My People, Myself writes in the dedication, “And, to Celia Haig-Brown, author of Resistance and Renewal, for her book which stirred my memories of happenings at the Kamloops Indian Residential School as depicted by interviews with the survivors.”

Fifteen thousand copies and counting. Thirty-three years in print. One of the first books written with the words of residential school survivors telling their stories. Many people must have read and come to know those stories. Of course, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reports have now shown Canadians that schools across the country contained similar stories and much more. And still, there are those who have refused to… what—read? listen? believe? The remains of 215 children buried in unmarked graves around the Kamloops Indian Residential School buildings have brought renewed interest in what the survivors have to say. How many more will it take?

The people in Resistance and Renewal and the people who brought their truths to the TRC are survivors; phenomenal and complex personal, familial, and intergenerational relationships have allowed that survival.

I have a cabin in the woods near Kamloops where I go on a yearly basis to restore my spirit. On a weekly trip to town for groceries and to do laundry, I met Kathy Michel and Rob Matthew whose parents I had interviewed. We caught up a bit on each others’ lives and then they introduced me to their daughters, now fluent in Secwepemctsin. From that meeting, I was inspired to return to the children and grandchildren of many of the original participants in Resistance and Renewal to consider their relationship to education within and beyond schools. The resulting films, co-directed with my niece Helen Haig-Brown, Pelq’ilc (Coming Home) and Cowboys, Indians and Education tell the new stories: how the survivors and their offspring are continuing to resist colonization and renew culture writ large. Never losing sight of the past, out of the present they are forging a future. This future requires that we all face the truths of how Canada has come to be and take up the work to be done on the long road to decency and justice.

This was published in the print edition as a side-by-side with "Resistance and Renewal" by Randy Fred.

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Celia Haig-Brown

Celia Haig-Brown is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University. She has held positions with the University of British Columbia in the Native Indian Teacher Education Program and with Simon Fraser University. She moved to Toronto in 1996 after living in various parts of British Columbia, including Campbell River and Kamloops. Her book Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School (Arsenal Pulp Press) won the 1989 Roderick Haig-Brown BC Book Prize.

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