Sunday, 22 March 2015

Residential Schools - Healing From Racism

Hey everyone,

I am a safety instructor. One of the courses I teach is Enform H2S Alive. H2S gas is extremely toxic and is prevalent in a variety of industries. This course teaches workers how to prevent exposure and how to respond to an emergency. This course is a prerequisite for almost every worker in the Canadian Oilpatch.

I have been teaching H2S Alive for about 1 year now and one of my customers is a safety training company that serves Native Americans. I travel from Red Deer to Maskwacis (formerly Hobema) to teach students on the reserve. I would like to tell you about my experiences.

When I tell people that I am working on the reserve I hear some very racist things. There is a lot of prejudice. Some people retort that they "feel sorry for me" or that they wonder why I waste my time! There are many racist stereotypes that I am sure you are aware of; but from my experience I have found quite the opposite to be true. The vast majority of my students are more respectful and more diligent than the 'white' students I teach in Red Deer! Yes, there are challenges but, I overcome them through a high standard of professionalism and compassion. At the end of the day I take great pride in my work and find much fulfillment.

I have had many conversations with the owner of the company about his people. One thing that really stands out is what he has told me a lot about residential schools and how damaging they were to families, communities and their entire culture!

Residential schools were the cherry on the cake after hundreds of years of crimes against the Native peoples of this land. Kids were stolen away from their parents and taken hundreds of miles away, many never to see their families again. Many kids died, many kids were sexually abused, many kids were beaten and made to work in slave-like conditions. It was truly horrendous.

Sir. John A MacDonald (the guy on a Canadian $10 bill) was who authorized residential schools and it took century of human rights abuses before our current prime minister Stephen Harper finally apologized. But the cultural healing process has only just begun.

Did you know that it was compulsory for kids 7-15 to attend residential schools?
Did you know that native people required "permission" to wear traditional native clothing?
Did you know that the last federally run residential school (Gordon Indian) closed in 1996?
- See: Legacy of Hope - 100 Years of Loss

What is worse is that I have lived in Alberta most of my life and I went through the public school system and DID NOT LEARN about what my own government had done to these people just a short time ago!

So with all that said; when I teach on the reserve I am acutely aware that my role may be perceived similarly to that of a teacher from a residential school. Since many of the problems Native people face today stem directly from residential schools and institutionalized racism, there are very fine lines which I must navigate. But I am proud to say that I have had many successes teaching and I believe my role is a positive force for good.

After teaching on the reserve for the last year my perceptions have changed. Consider the fact that there is a disproportionate percent of homeless people in Red Deer who are of Native American ancestry. Then consider the violence that they have endured for the last few hundred years! Consider how blankets were handed to them under the guise of charity, blankets laced with small pox! Consider how the buffalo herds, their main source of food, were decimated by settlers who slaughtered entire herds just for sport! Consider how they were rounded up onto small plots of land and tricked into signing unfair treaties they didn't understand! Then consider how the Canadian government, of our generation, propagated racist policies through residential schools designed to "civilize" these people! I could go on, but my point is that extreme injustices have been committed and the healing that needs to take place will take generations.

I take great pride in my ability to overcome language and cultural barriers while instructing my classes. It is a challenge that I love to take. When I first start a class I can feel the tension. I am a white guy from Red Deer coming to their community to tell them what to do. There are students who cannot read so I must administer the exam orally. There are students with learning disabilities so I must use a variety of visual and verbal tools so as to communicate the lesson effectively. There are cultural barriers and racial tensions which I must assuage.

There is one final remark that I wish to make. Since the safety courses I teach are a job requirement for oilfield workers it goes without saying that it is necessary to pass in order to get a job. But for many of the people living on the reserve who wish to work and who wish to better themselves this is an very large barrier to overcome. If they fail H2S Alive because the instructor wasnt willing to put in the extra effort to administer the test orally, or if the instructor just blurrs through the material paying no heed to the learning needs of the students; then doors will close for them. I see my job as a crucial step towards improving their lives. It makes me very happy to know that I am removing barriers. It gives my job a great deal of purpose. I feel like I am part of the healing process. I feel like I am part of the solution.

I want to be part of the solution so let the healing begin with me.

Has it ever happened to you where you found yourself standing in a group of people and the conversation turned to racist, homophobic of sexist? Did you find yourself either joining in or going along with it? Maybe you were fearful to go against the group's momentum?

I have found myself in this situation before. Someone makes a joke about "those indians" or "those fags" and I laugh! I am not a racist, a homophobe or a sexist; but I have in moments of weakness just went along with the conversation. I have laughed. I have said hurtful things. I am ashamed. But I firmly believe that part of the healing process is to talk about it and raise awareness.

My experience teaching on the reserve has been an eye opening experience and it it with new resolve that I say:

The next time I am in a circle of people and the conversation turns racist I will not just stand there and laugh out of fear. I will show some spine and lead by example. There is an easy way to do this without just starting a fight:

Ask questions that raise awareness. 

Through a series of mindful questions and gentle nudges the conversation will shift and so too will the group sensibility. 


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Also, Alberta is about to enter a provincial election and my wife Krystal Kromm is the Alberta Party candidate for Red Deer North. 

Check out her website to learn about her platform!