I spent about two hours sitting in Evelyn Voyageur’s light-filled warm kitchen, listening to stories of her childhood, her time at residential school, her family and her determination to educate herself in order to learn more about her people and culture.
After exchanging formalities, I felt so privileged as I scribbled notes listening to her speak; there was a level of comfort and trust as she recalled events nothing short of horrific she and her family faced while attending St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay.
I was honoured she was so willing to share with me, and I left her home with a feeling I had never quite experienced so strongly before: a disdain for my white culture.
From high school history classes, television documentaries and magazine articles, I thought I had an understanding of what happened to the 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children who were removed from their homes and forced to attend the abusive, immoral institutions across the country.
I had no idea.
I knew of white privilege — a word tossed around by late-night, American all-news-channel pundits or in stories following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
We look at our neighbours to the south and call them out on their lack of diversification, the constant struggles of class clashes between Caucasians and African-Americans.
I knew of white privilege and racism as it related to the U.S. I never knew exactly how prominent it remains in Canada.
I now know we have our own version of white privilege and racism in our country, and it relates directly to the treatment of First Nations.
We like to think of Canada as all-inclusive, equal, a place where we encourage diversification and multiculturalism — the very fabric of what makes us Canadians.
As I sat surrounded by Highland Secondary School’s Aboriginal Student Council, I felt the same honour and privilege as I did listening to Evelyn. The students and instructors opened their doors to me and shared stories of racism they face every single day at school.
The only way I could relate to them besides sharing stories of my awkward teenage years was how much I enjoy pizza for lunch, too.
I hung my head leaving the school, and felt the same disdain as I did after talking to Evelyn.
As a writer, I was at a loss for words. As a Caucasian reporter, I felt I was somehow capitalizing on inequalities of others.
I attended the healing ceremony for St. Michael’s students in Alert Bay last week. As a journalist, it was one of the most difficult events I’ve had to cover. As an observer, my heart was breaking.
Words are never enough for what happened, and what continues to happen every single day, but it’s one of the tools I have.
Nothing I write and nothing I photograph could take the pain suffered at the hands of my culture away.
There is only one thing to say:
Erin Haluschak is a reporter for the Comox Valley Record. Her three-part series on the struggles of Canadian First Nations concludes in Tuesday’s Record.
Here is the 3-part series: