TRC Essays and Reflections

Diary February 26, 2014
Residential School Experiences by Clarke Hamel

Gordon Burnstick “This is not the answer.”

How can I do this man justice? I can’t. And I don’t have to. Gordon is far more capable of representing himself than I will ever be. His life is a testament to the human spirit, overcoming all odds. Perhaps I live a sheltered life, but I have never been in the presence of someone who has been through so much and is still here in relatively good condition. His life brings to mind a report last week stating that researchers now believe aboriginals were stranded in the Bering Sea area (Beringia) for thousands of years because the front door to North America was ice-blocked. An entire and distinct race of people lived a hard-scrabble existence, stalled by ice, for thousands of years. It makes the Judeo-Christian lost-in-the-desert saga look like a cakewalk. Gordon must be descended from these incredible Beringian survivors. Despite parents who abused him physically, despite residential school staff who abused him sexually, despite being drafted into a fight club, he is still here. Despite his self-abuse, the shame, rage, isolation, endless cases of alcohol and a trail of bloody, beaten, and probably still racist white boys, he is still here.

After this life warrior’s stunning, riveting and humbling talk, my partner Rochelle and I tried to make sense of it. How do you identify with someone whose life experience is so far outside your own box? This man did not come from the wrong side of the tracks; he came from a totally off-limits neighborhood. Listeners beware! I felt like a voyeur listening to survivor porn. Porn, however, is not supposed to be real; it is not supposed to be a true representation of life, but this time it was in my face. I am extremely glad that I did not have to go through such an impressive hell as Gordon, but the man was living proof it could be done, if needed. His survivor story makes the ongoing TV series of the same name look like Cheerios. At the end of his talk, I realized I needn’t have worried about my ability to identify with him. I can still empathize. I do have a heart. His humanity is my own. We all come from the same place, the same Mother. And hearing his story and carrying it in my heart makes him my spirit brother. I accept the connection, reciprocity and responsibility that relationship entails.

What we failed to discuss in our pair group and should have was whether or not Sir John A would be happy with our speaker. Gordon was the end result of our first prime minister’s colonial experiment. What would our first PM think of his legacy and the “consequence” standing before us? Would he apologize and go back to making harps, BBQs, or whatever he doing now? Would he care, or be curious about the assimilation/colonization that still takes place in the schools, courts, child care systems, in all the systems of the occupier and the human, social and economic devastation that results? Would he see it as the necessary and proper cost of getting the Indian out of the individual? Does he stay awake at night eagerly anticipating the next bill that may bring about a final solution?

Perhaps we underestimate the man and he has a reflective heart. Does he ever ask if ethnicide is more cruel than genocide? At least with genocide, though the total number of dead may be enormous, each individual dies once, and fairly quickly, unless they are doing hard labour. In ethnicide, the bonds of family, society and culture are slowly, relentlessly, insidiously stretched beyond breaking until the individual is left to make his/her way in the world from a place of deep trauma and neon shame. How do you make a life for yourself when all you want to do is crawl into a hole and die? It is not possible. I remember that Gordon referred to himself at one point as a zombie. Gordon is not an ordinary man and could never be an ordinary zombie. This dead man walking comes armed and ready to explode. We have to ask ourselves how many zombies has this country created? Is still creating? The last I heard the walking dead are reproducing and at far greater rate than the predators. Revenge may come sooner than we think. It will not be sweet.

I need and would like to talk a little about the real reason Gordon is still here: divine intervention. Enter wonder and awe. Had it not been for the extremely bright light and voices he saw and heard at a time of certain death and saw and heard again at other points in his life, I believe he would not be among us. Both he and his son survived due to the miraculous healing of physical and psychological conditions that most others would not have survived. His resilience and faith are triumphs that shake off all bounds. It is interesting and curious that Gordon did not discriminate in the practices he used to call upon divine help, incorporating both aboriginal and colonizer rituals and beliefs. As my partner and I reflected on this topic, it brought up doubts in the other and she revealed that she was struggling with her faith. I expressed my sympathy for her conflict and revealed that I too had endured and overcome a faith struggle, a night that turned into a lifetime. I told her that I hoped her journey would not have to be as dark as mine, but we each have to go through what we must.

The last thing I would like to have asked Gordon is something that I still struggle with, how do you forgive your father? Is it an act or a process? Is he still doing it? Has Gordon forgiven himself? And lastly I need to ask if Gordon has forgiven a government that is still on an assimilation/incarceration path albeit with some rare and wonderful detours.