By James Osborne
Editor’s Note: Yesterday, we published Part I of this two-part excerpt. If you haven’t read it, you can scroll back on the home page slider to read it.
When they arrived at the school, the three national elders were waiting. With them were Namusat’s current chief and the local council, and another local elder.
When everyone was introduced and seated, Chief John Boisvert turned to Paul and said brusquely, “Why have you come?”
Paul heard a sharp edge in Chief Boisvert’s voice, but he could see his eyes were not angry or aggressive. They bore a look of elegance and kindness… and much sadness.
“I have not come with handouts nor have I come with any promises,” Paul replied. “I came to listen, perhaps to learn from you, and with your help perhaps even to understand a little.”
Chief Boisvert looked intently at Paul and then at Dan and at Emily. At last, he asked, “Will your coming here make any difference?”
“I really don’t know,” Paul said. “I cannot pretend to have answers when I do not even know the questions. What I do know is that I must begin by listening. I promise you that.”
Chief Boisvert considered Paul at length, holding him in a solid gaze.
“You are a wise man,” he said quietly. “It is good that you are here. There is much for you to hear and learn. We will proceed.”
Chief Boisvert turned to the others and nodded slightly.
“Mr. Winston is my friend,” Dan told the group after the opening ceremonies. “He’s from America. On the way over here, Emily and I explained to him what governments have done to our traditional way of life… to our ancestral hunting and trapping and fishing rights. The same things have happened to Native Americans in his country, as we know this also has been done to indigenous peoples in Mexico, Australia, South America and in many other countries.”
“Did you tell him about what we got when they stole our land?” asked Joseph Totoosis, one of the national elders.
“You mean these little bits of land they call reserves?” Emily interjected. “And those awful houses?”
“Yeah,” Joseph said. “They think that pittance made it okay for them to colonize our people.”
“Everything got worse!” added another elder. Dan whispered his name to Paul as he spoke: Thomas Martin.
“The missionaries came,” Thomas said. “They wore the clothes of holy men and women. They were not holy.”
“They said they came to pray,” Emily added, standing and pacing around. “They lied. Many came to prey on us.”
The dark humor brought no smiles.
“When we were little,” she continued. “They took us away from our parents. We were put in schools… what are known now as residential schools. The Queen’s police helped them do it. I was one of them… I was stolen from my family.” Emily paused to compose herself. “If we spoke the language we learned in our homes, we were starved and beaten. They tried to destroy our language, our culture, our way of life… they tried to take the ‘Indian’ out of us… to make us into white men. It did not work.”
The aging Emily swayed with emotion. Dan stood and reached over and took hold of Emily’s arm to steady her, guiding her back to her chair.
“My brother and sister were taken away too,” Chief Boisvert said. “I heard the government put them with white families. My sister was not two years old… my brother four. I don’t know where they are… I cannot find them. Are they still alive? I don’t know. I was sent to one of those residential schools, too,” he added. “I was six. Many kids ran away. Some died trying to get back to their homes… some starved or froze to death in winter. Maybe they were the lucky ones. Some of us were caught and brought back. I was one. They beat me and starved me and humiliated me… and worse… others too.”
Thomas turned to Paul, “We now know that tens of thousands were taken… kidnapped really… and put up for adoption into white families all across Canada, and in the US, and even sent to Europe.”
“They’re still doing it,” Joseph Totoosis said. “Now they’re taking our little children away and putting them in foster homes. Do you know that more than seventy percent of children in foster homes in Canada are First Nation children?”
Paul watched and listened in disbelief as numerous similar personal stories emerged from the others… stories of barbaric treatment imposed by governments and churches and police, upon First Nation children and adults.
“It got worse!” Emily said. Her face was strained and her eyes were red. “The missionaries came and wanted to make our ancestors believe this new religion. They wanted to destroy our ancestral link with nature… with the Creator. We were taught to be the guardians of the land on behalf of the Creator, but these newcomers in black dresses told us we were wrong. They almost succeeded in making my people believe that, but they failed there, too. They did succeed in convincing our great-grandparents and grandparents that those people dressed in black were holy. They had faith… faith that the church was divine and was the spiritual guide of humanity. They were wrong… very, very wrong.”
“Our people were betrayed,” a woman who’d just arrived added quietly but firmly. She sat near the back row of the chairs, arranged in a semi-circle facing a table in front of Chief Boisvert and Dan. Paul was seated in the front row on the aisle.
He watched with growing sadness as some of the elders wiped at their eyes and cheeks self-consciously with their hands or shirtsleeves… evidently remembering their own experiences and anticipating intuitively what was about to be shared. Many looked down at the worn bare wood floor.
“Some white men who came dressed as holy men were predators,” Joseph said, adding to Emily’s introduction of the subject. “Criminals. We know that, now. They were horrible men who sexually exploited innocent little girls and little boys. They did terrible things to us. We were little children,” he added, his voice barely audible. “We had every right to be protected from harm… from them! But we were not protected… and soon we had good reason to not feel safe anymore. We became their victims… victims of child molesters.
“Our parents did not want to believe the truth. They would not listen when a few of us defied threats from the priests and told them about the horrible things being done to us. Now we are adults, but I still see the emotional scars in the eyes of other survivors. I have those scars on my own heart… I will have them forever. We will never know how many generations before us were abused like this… or how many suicides it caused.”
Chief Boisvert cleared his throat.
“Mr. Winston,” he said, looking squarely at Paul. “I was one of those little boys who were molested. I’m going to tell everyone here for the very first time what happened to me.” The chief paused, took a deep breath and began, “I was six years old… an altar boy. One day the parish priest told me to stay after church. He took me to the place behind the altar, the sacristy… a sacred place. The priest said that I had been bad and that he was going to punish me. I did not know what I had done wrong. He ordered me to drop my pants and underwear and to bend over a stool.”
Chief Boisvert paused. Paul could see that heavy emotion was preventing him from continuing. The proud chief shuddered as wet spots appeared on the scarred wood surface of the table beneath his bowed head.
Paul was deeply moved watching Emily leave her seat and walk up behind Chief Boisvert. She put her hand on his shoulder in a gesture of comfort and shared misery.
“The Church denied these terrible things for many years,” the chief said after a few minutes. His voice was low and choked with emotion. “The government did nothing to stop it. Now, many years later, there is action. But it is too late for most… for us and for the generations before us. There is no undoing those terrible things that were done to us. And there is no escape from the pain that will rip at our souls until the moment we die.”
The room was eerily silent.
Dan spoke, his voice unsteady yet with the authority that came as the national grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, “Our people for many generations have been living a horrible nightmare, Paul… a vicious circle that’s spiraled into a Catch-22… nurtured by bureaucratic incompetence… compounded by indifference. That indifference is fueled by an unspoken but clearly deliberate program of assimilation and annihilation… some call it cultural genocide, now. They deny it but we are the living evidence… history speaks for itself. Is it any wonder why after generations of enduring this… this triple helix of hell—jobless dependency, cultural genocide, and sexual abuse—is it any wonder that alcohol and drugs, and now suicides, are such huge problems… epidemics here? It is the same in all First Nation communities across this country. It’s a national disaster… a national disgrace!
“Many in the Metis Nations have also suffered just as much as our people,” Dan added.
“You know,” Joseph said, clearing his throat. He sat up straight, commanding everyone’s attention. “Some of this is our fault, too, you know! Many of us do not see it that way yet, but maybe one day they will.”
“Why would you say that?” Dan challenged.
A growing chorus of grumbled disagreement challenged Joseph’s comments.
“Hear me out,” Joseph said. “We all know our people have suffered terribly for centuries under the oppression of the white man’s colonization. That is irrefutable. At the same time, many of us have let our vision become preoccupied with… become blurred, by feeling sorry for ourselves… and that terrible flaw has been working, and continues to work, in the white man’s favor. He is using it to further his ends. If we want things to get better, we must stop looking back… we must stop wallowing in self-pity. We must look forward, and start doing positive things for ourselves. No one is going to do it for us! Surely we have learned that much, if nothing else, after centuries of oppression… of colonization.”
Chief Boisvert raised his hands to calm the chorus of objections from those gathered.
He nodded for Joseph to continue.
“One of the ways that allowed the white man to denigrate and to oppress us is that we let them take away our traditional ways of supporting ourselves… even our successful, centuries-old medicines. We must demand those be replaced… replaced with the skills we need to feed and clothe and house ourselves, by ourselves as we did before European colonization… and to regain our self-reliance and yes, above all, our hope and self-respect. All of the terrible things that have been done to our people have impaired our ability to see what is really important above all else: our children, and what is happening to them.
“Our children are the future of our people, of our culture… a culture that goes back twenty thousand years, probably even more. Our children must become our first priority again, the way it was with our ancestors. The concerns of our children and their hopes must become our primary concerns and our hopes for their futures.”
Joseph paused to let his words sink in. The room fell silent. He continued:
“We have not been listening to our children,” he said. “That is what is killing them. We are allowing our own troubled minds to help kill our children. This must change, starting right now, before it’s too late.”
“What on Earth are you talking about, love?” Anne asked. “You mean those people came up with huge elaborate plans overnight?”
Paul chuckled at the softly accented voice of his British-born wife over his satellite phone.
“Not quite, my love,” he replied. “The tribal elders have been working on some thoughts … dreams really … for many years. Their plans originate from a centuries-old commitment imbedded in the culture of indigenous people: to be faithful stewards of the land where they live. All that Dan and I have agreed to do is to help them convert their thoughts into workable plans. I must admit, the ideas are impressive, far more so than I expected. And that’s really encouraging. We’ll see what develops out of our meetings. I’m quite sure that some help from the Secret Shepherd Foundation, in the form of venture philanthropy, is in order.”
Paul had chosen not to tell Dan or anyone else in the community about the foundation he and Anne had set up recently with a huge inheritance from his late uncle. The purpose of their Foundation was to help deserving people help themselves.
“We miss you, Paul,” Anne said.
“How are you and the kids making out in Ottawa?” Paul asked trying to ease their shared longing for each other.
“My love, I’m afraid my exploits here are going to extend your visit to Ottawa a bit longer than we planned.”
“Good!” Anne said, surprising him. “This is a marvelous city. We’ve been to the Parliament Buildings and visited two fabulous museums, and we’re taking a guided tour of the city tomorrow morning. Afterward, we’re going skating on a frozen canal in the city. It’s called the Rideau Canal and the city claims it’s the longest skating rink in the world.”
“But you and the kids don’t skate,” Paul said.
“We’re going to learn!” she replied. “We’ve booked lessons.”
Paul chuckled. “I knew you’d keep busy. Unfortunately, I’ll be here for a few more days before I can join you and the kids.”
“All right, my love,” Anne said with a deep sigh.
“The elders here have some wonderful ideas,” Paul said. “I want to explore them further with them. Their ideas sound plausible, but wisely, they have counseled patience… to take just a few baby steps at a time, for now. The elders understand far better than me that first their people must regain confidence in themselves before things will get better… they need to start believing in themselves again. That’s the key.”
“How can that happen, my love?” Anne asked.
“For starters, the people here must call the shots,” Paul replied. “Here’s an example… The elders are adamant that whatever happens must be based upon ancestral skills, both technical and social, and on types of work that build upon those aptitudes. Hey, for twenty thousand years or more they have turned resources provided by nature into food, clothing, shelter, medicines, the means for commerce like trade items with other First Nations people, and to meet many other needs. This is their great strength.
“The elders have encouraged Chief Boisvert and the council here to put their historic skills to work on two projects that the band elders and council have been talking about for years… have dreamed about: first, a fly-in lodge for hunting and fishing. Second, they want to run courses on how to hunt and fish successfully and safely, as well as offer winter sports like cross country skiing and snow shoeing, and wilderness survival skills. The courses and winter sports would be used to generate revenues for the lodge during the slack periods between hunting and fishing seasons. They intend to market all of this to clients from Canada and other countries. I’ve agreed to help.
“Chief Boisvert asked where the money would come from to do all of this. I told him I know of an investor who’s interested in outdoor activities like these; with their permission, I’d make an approach on their behalf. The council agreed. I told them if the investor were interested, a representative would be in touch. Our solicitor Malcolm Witherspoon is that representative, of course, and Dan’s going to be their contact with him.”
“I assume you’ve given Malcolm a head’s up,” Anne said.
“Oh yes,” he replied. “I’ve not told Dan about Secret Shepherd and I won’t, of course. As you know he’s very clever… if he guesses, he’ll keep it to himself. Do you mind, Anne, calling Malcolm and asking him to set up an account at a Canadian bank with an initial five million dollars for Dan to draw on? They’ll need a lot more if all goes according to their vision.”
“Of course,” Anne said. “I’ll go see a bank manager here in Ottawa this afternoon and then call Malcolm. I’ll have him call Dan.”
“Yes, please,” Paul replied. “Having Dan work with Chief Boisvert will maintain distance between Secret Shepherd and us, and it will give Dan the credit he deserves. This is just a tiny beginning. Even if the projects work out it could take years for these fine people to regain the self-esteem they had before our ancestors invaded their lands. But maybe, just maybe, we can play a small part in helping a few rediscover that most precious gift of all… hope.”
“You know,” Anne said. “I once heard ‘hope’ being described as oxygen for the human spirit. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Perhaps what happens there will provide truth to that saying.”
“I like that,” he said.
“Is there something else, love?” Anne asked.
“Perceptive as usual, aren’t you?” Paul said, chuckling. “Dan told Chief Boisvert that clients who sign up for the camps, the sports, and for the outdoors training, will expect a community that looks inviting. Frankly, Anne, Namusat is a dump. I shudder to think what this place will look like after the snow melts this spring.
“Please ask Malcolm to tell Dan that the investor will hire and train men and women in Namusat for the construction on one condition—that they fix up their homes and clean up the community. That and the lodge are going to require water and sewer systems. Secret Shepherd will pay for all of the professional services, materials and equipment as long as they provide the labor, also paid for by the foundation, of course.
“Would you believe it, Dan has already lined up a First Nation architect to design the lodge and found some journeymen to teach construction, plumbing and electrical skills? How’s that for getting a start on things?” Paul asked.
“It seems to me, Paul.” Anne said. “This has the sound of three projects, wouldn’t you say? The lodge and its programs, the utility system, and the village renovations?”
“I suppose you’re right, love,” Paul laughed.
“Do I sense there’s something more?” she asked.
Paul laughed again.
“Well yes,” he said. “The national elders have done something quite remarkable. And this may become the best part! They’ve taken the initiative on this terrible suicide emergency. A team of them is going to travel across the country, working to persuade elders in all First Nation communities to set an example by listening to their children and youth, individually and in groups. They’ve already made plans to talk directly with teenagers in some of the communities. Now isn’t that something?”
Paul heard a smile in Anne’s voice when she said. “Should we make that four programs, my love?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Paul said. “Hey, I couldn’t resist.”
James Osborne is the author of the novel The Ultimate Threat. His latest novel, Secret Shepherd, is the second volume in the Maidstone series. This two-part excerpt is taken from Chapters Six and Seven. Used by permission of the publisher, Solstice Publishing Co. All his books are available on Amazon.
Osborne is also the author of more than 120 short stories and essays. Many have appeared in dozens of anthologies, and literary and professional journals. Samples of his work can be found on his Amazon author’s page: www.amazon.com/author/jamesosborne. Osborne’s varied career includes investigative journalist, college teacher, corporate executive, business owner and army officer.