I have been following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process for some time now. Needless to say I was glued to Newsworld this morning when they released the final report. I was very surprised to hear the final residential school didn’t close down until 1996. That is not ancient history. Being raised in an institution can have far reaching consequences but an “abusive” institutional upbringing can devastate the rest of your life.
I was lucky and grew up in an institution much more supportive, the Alberta Children’s Hospital. That was the polio ward in Calgary at the time. However with the large number of polio survivors a ward was not just a “ward”, they were whole hospitals. It is safe to say that 80% of the kids in the hospital with me were polio. And we were kept busy.
We had twenty mothers (also called nurses) and the only male influence in our day to day activities (except for the doctors) were the male cleaning staff. We attended school everyday, we had activities every evening and on weekends. And we weren’t there just for school. Every kid in the hospital was either that sick or was also having various surgical procedures along the way. I had seventeen of them over a ten year period. And, of course, like in any hospital death was more than a spectre.
I was nine years old the first time I remember waking up in the middle of the night to find the nursing staff gently wrapping up Peter. Peter was one of my roommates and he was the nine year old in the bed next to me. He had passed away around three in the morning.
I can even tell you it was a Monday night. Monday’s were arts and crafts night in the Children’s Hospital. Peter hadn’t been feeling all that great that evening and had stayed in his bed rather than going to the evening activity. Since I had just spend six weeks making a wallet in leather making I had decided on copper tooling this time around (we had the option of leather work, wood working, copper tooling, bead making, etc). Upon my return to the room I had been showing copper tooling to Peter. I was nine, he was nine, we were just a couple of normal kids from our perspective checking out our activities.
As was usual after the evenings activities the nursing staff come around with the evening milk and cookies. The institutional cookies of the day, Digestives or Arrowroot. On a good night we would get moderately warm “hot chocolate” milk but usually it was room temperature white whole milk. I don’t ever remember having seen 2%, 1% or skim. It was always just “milk”. I can’t remember if Peter had an evening snack or not.
After the evening snack the nurses came around with wash basin and k-basins for tooth brushing prior to going to bed. There were no sinks or plumbing in the patient rooms so our morning and evening ablutions were accomplished at the bedside with basins. The nurses put us to bed (remember I was only 9 years old then) and the next thing I knew was waking up with two nurses quietly washing and wrapping Peter. Two days later I had a new roommate.
Growing up in a hospital you do see death. There was no grief counselling or talk about what happened. It became just like that person had been discharged, not died. How well do you really understand death when you are nine or ten years old? It was just another event at the time.
The older kids, where I eventually found myself, knew what death was. By the time I was fifteen there had been four kids on my unit wrapped and gone. If it happened at a non-school time the nurses would hustle us into our rooms and all the doors would be closed. We would goof around in our rooms until the doors were open and life would continue. Although the older kids knew what death was by then they had also spend years hearing the quiet musing among the staff about how unfortunate it was that these kids wouldn’t have a long life. So death was, we didn’t argue or question it, we just accepted it even as they wheeled the latest down the hallway.
However when we were discharged most of us had a loving, or at least supportive, environment to return to. After all we were cute disabled kids. The individuals who are the unfortunate subjects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) didn’t have that luxury.
They were kept in a harsh structured environments often thousands of miles from their families. Where I might have been in the children’s hospital for as much as a year at a time many of the TRC victims were held where they were for most of their life. Where I might have had loving parents pick me up many of the TRC victims were given a bus ticket to the closes city when they hit 18 and wished good luck. In more cases than nought families were not even informed of a discharge and few of these kids knew where their families were anymore.
The disabled child was the poster child of hope while the victims of the TRC were the poster children of cultural genocide. That was the ideology of the day being passed off as “an act of compassion” and if you look around it is creeping back into our society.
Just one man’s opinion