DR. Edmund Metatawabin
I was brought into the world by four senior women of the village; my grandmothers. That piece of knowledge has always been significant for me. It carries me through many obstacles I face, knowing that I am on this world for a reason.
It is true that one of the effects of residential school incarceration, at a formative age, is that it minimizes an adjusted adulthood. There are many ingredients that can be ingested to bring back those feelings we had during childhood; self-loathing, isolation and feelings of inadequacy that prevents the survivor from moving forward.
As we recover the drum, the sweat-lodge, shaking-tent and ancestry feast ceremonies (to name a few) as well as sing our songs and dance the many expressions of honour, we recover a lost pride in ourselves. It has been a slow climb back. Our confidence and hope is on the rebound. As we become aware that bad things still happen to many other tribes; black, white, yellow and red, we can focus on the resilience of humanity. Now let’s all create wonderful things; books, plays, movies, art.
Today I take youth on a three-hundred kilometre Rafting Excursion to fight the effects of Nature Deficit Syndrome. As the Ipod batteries run out the youth begin to hear, see and feel the varied expressions of the natural environment. Management of a large raft, measuring 60 feet by 16 feet, has many teachings. You have to be aware of the river current, identify the shallow areas, anticipate rapids and work with the wind. This need for constant vigilance makes everyone move all the time and that’s good for the physical health.
I used to ask students how far back Mushkegowuk history goes. Their answers were in the hundreds and echoed the history texts in front of them. Not too many said that we have been on this land for several millennia. As the legends, oral stories and area land marks come to their attention, they realize our people have been on Turtle Island for thousands and thousands of years. As we uncover a landmark and express our curiosity, the elders have begun to fill in the blanks. The reason why it was hidden is a story in itself, a story to be told at a later time.
Our stories need to come out. We can help each other realize that experience, no matter how difficult, can be a teacher. I will advise youth (of all Nations) to speak to their old people and uncover their past – from those that lived it. You will have your story and the elder receives companionship and attention from you. For them that is a priceless exchange.
I'm a former Chief of Fort Albany First Nation, a Cree community on the shores of James Bay in Ontario, Canada.
I'm a writer, educator, poet and activist. The river that flows by my home has been in my family since time immemorial. To protect the river is to protect our culture, history and being.
As a residential school survivor, I assisted the founding of the The Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin Association (PKKA) shortly after the first reunion of the residential school in 1991 as a way to assist fellow survivors navigate the trauma they had suffered and be part of a larger voice. .
I own a sawmill and also work as a consultant, speaker and researcher.
Edmund Metatawabin: Trapping with my father
September 15, 2014
Edmund Metatawabin and Alexandra Shimo, Special to National Post |September 15, 2014 7:21 AM ET
In early 2013, the National Post dispatched me to James Bay, to write a story about the challenges facing the area’s Cree communities, including Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Moose Factory and Attawpiskat. Out of sheer luck, as I was changing planes in Timmons, Ont., I happened to run into a man whose family would become the centerpiece of my story, former Fort Albany chief Edmund Metatawabin.
As I discovered over the next few days, the story of Mr. Metatawabin’s family is very much the story of James Bay. His father Abraham — whom I was able to interview, at the age of 92, in his Fort Albany home, was a rugged hunter, trapper and ranger — part of the last generation that could define their economic existence in these traditional ways. By talking to Abraham, Edmund and Edmund’s children, I was able to trace out some of the ways that Fort Albany, and communities like it, have dealt with the transitions of the last century. I heard the good and the bad, and did my best to get both into my story.
Edmund now has a new book, in which he writes not only of his childhood in the outdoors, but also of his troubling and scarring experiences at a residential school. In today’s National Post, I am delighted to present an excerpt from Up Ghost River.
— Jonathan Kay, managing editor, comment, National Post
“Can I come? Can I come trapping?” my younger brother Alex asked. Papa and I were standing by the door of our house. Alex was still sitting on his bed of moosehide and blankets.
“No,” Papa said.
“It’s not fair! Ed got to go last time.” “He’s bigger.”
“Well, you’re not old enough yet.” “Yes I am. I’m five.”
Papa shook his head. “This one,” he said, gesturing toward Alex. “What a handful. I don’t know where he gets it from.”
“Probably from you,” Mama said. “You used to be like that when you were younger.”
It was spring and Papa and I were going trapping. I was already seven, but Papa said I still wasn’t big enough, so I watched him as he opened the trap and fastened it to the log that went into the water.
I knew that Papa wanted to put his traps farther afield since the traps he’d set around here hadn’t yielded much. I’d tried to talk to him about it and he’d said that it was out of his hands, and when I’d pushed, he had become quiet.
Outside the morning sun bounced on the last ice covering the puddles. Shadows of cloud slithered across worn grass. The first patches of green were sprouting up in the muskeg. We walked silently, until we got to the edge of town.
“Which way is the wind blowing, Ed?” “West!” I said and pointed.
Then we came to a depression in the soil that looked like two giant teardrops.
“What do you think made that?” he said. “That’s easy. It’s a moose.”
“How old is it?” “I dunno.”
“Feel the soil. Is it fresh?” “Yeah, I guess.”
“Look at the grass around the footprint. Is it still flattened? Or has it started to bounce back up?”
“It’s already fully up.”
“That means the animal was here two or three days ago. If the grass has just started to rise, it’s less than a day, and we should follow them. And if the grass is dry, or the soil hard, they are long gone.”
“So are we going to follow it?”
“No,” he said. “It’s already too far away.” We walked out to the Albany River, to where Papa had found martens last year. As we got closer, I heard what sounded like a baby crying. Papa started to run, panicked. The trap was supposed to break the marten’s neck, but instead the animal was desperate, hissing, squirming, clawing. It smelled of sweat, piss and fear. A bad omen, signalling that Gitchi Manitou was unhappy.
“Shh,” he said to the marten, and he made tender sounds like the ones he used to make with his daughter, Rita. Then he reached into the trap with both hands, there was a snapping sound and the marten fell slack. A female, from the size. He freed her from the trap and brought her close to his face.
“Life is a gift,” he whispered. “Thank you.” “Papa, one day, can I be a hunter like you?”
He shook his head no. I waited for him to explain, but he stayed quiet as he put a piece of meat on the bait pan. Martens don’t recognize human scent as easily as animals like foxes and wolves do, but Papa was always extra careful, especially when he had something on his mind. This time he reset the trap with such focus, it was like he was handling a robin’s egg. For extra measure, he wiped everything down with a rag.
Alex greeted us at the door. “What you get? What you get?” he said. “A couple of martens,” Papa said.
“Anything else?” Mama asked, looking up from her sewing. “No, I didn’t set any more traps.”
“Why not?” she said.
“Well for starters, there aren’t many animals around here. But I’ve also noticed the martens and beavers are pretty thin right now. Let’s let them recover.”
“What about your debt at the store?” “I’ll have to speak to the manager.”
“What about the extension to our house you were going to build?”
“I can still do that.” “Keshayno, we’re in debt.”
“We’ll be fine, Netchi. I heard that fur prices are up again.”
Over the next few days, Papa scraped the hides and stretched them on a circular frame. He showed me how to scrape the hide with a sharp knife so it could dry better. We hung the frame from a high branch, safe from the dogs.
The day the furs were ready, Papa and I got up before the rest were awake. He helped me button my coat and pants, cooked bannock and tea, and we walked over to the Hudson’s Bay store. We climbed the steps and opened the wooden door. A tall man about the same age as Papa was standing at the counter holding what looked like a bulky gun, which he was using to put sticky labels on some bread loaves. Papa had already told me that the manager was also called The Boss and that we all had to be nice to him. Ignoring Papa, the man straightened a price tag on a bag of flour. Above him were shelves stacked with supplies — sugar, Klik canned meat, tomato soup, lard, tea — and on the wall to his right, the more costly goods — ammunition and a number of rifles including a new one just arrived called The Savage 45. Furs were draped from the ceiling and counters, with the most valuable — otter, black fox and wolverine — sheathed in cotton to keep out the dust.
Papa shifted his weight and cleared his throat, and still the man continued pricing. After what seemed like a long while, he turned and slowly began to wipe his hands on his apron.
“Good morning, Abraham,” The Boss said in Cree. “What do you think of our weather? Jesus, it’s cold.”
“It’s not so bad. Just the wind.”
“It’s always so goddamned windy.” He looked at my dad. “I had it better in Timmins, you know. Little house in South End, right near the water.”
“You have good fortune here.”
“I do? S’pose you’re right. So what have you got for me?” he said. Papa pulled out the marten furs. They were the size of lean cats. “They’re beauties, these ones,” the man said.
“No sir,” Papa replied.
“Do you know the size of your debt?” “Yessir.”
“What is it?”
“Four hundred and twenty dollars and fifteen cents. That’s without the roofing tile.”
“And how much you think you’ll get for a marten?”
“I dunno. I heard prices were up.”
“You heard wrong, Abraham.”
“Well, how much then?”
“I can give you $30 each.”
“Thirty dollars! That’s $8 less than last week. Why the sudden drop?”
“Toronto isn’t buying right now.”
“All right, then,” Papa said. “Can you give me some sugar and lard?”
“No. There are new rules. The company is asking everyone to pay off their existing debts before getting new supplies.”
“I have children,” Papa said.
“Yes, I know.”
“We are hungry.”
“You and everyone else in this town. What am I supposed to do?”
“You are supposed to help us.”
“I am just doing my job, Mr. Metatawabin. Company’s orders.”
“How’d it go?” Mama asked as soon as we opened the door.
“Not bad,” Papa replied.
“Did you get the lard?”
“Uh … no.”
Excerpted from Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History by Edmund Metatawabin with Alexandra Shimo. © 2014 Edmund Metatawabin. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher.
A former chief recalls the horrors of residential school: Q&A
The Toronto Star: September 2, 2014
Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History, which was published this week, recounts the traumatic childhood and challenging recovery of Edmund Metatawabin, former chief of the Fort Albany First Nation band.
How many spoonfuls does it take to eat a bowlful of your own vomit?
Edmund Metatawabin knows: 15.
As a young Cree lad at the notorious St. Anne’s residential school, he remembers throwing up his morning porridge into his bowl and being forced to eat it again — spoonful by disgusting spoonful.
And he counted. And he remembered.
Just as he remembers the other serial indignities and casual tortures he endured at the northern Ontario institution during the 1950s.
With Toronto author Alexandra Shimo, Metatawabin recounts many of these in Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History, published this week by Knopf Canada.
He also recounts the alcoholism and depression that his boyhood trauma led him to as a man — and the traditional healing rituals and teachings he employed to reclaim his life.
The Star spoke this week to the former chief of the Fort Albany First Nation band. The is an edited version of the conversation.
You’ve gotten to a good place in your life now, a solid, happy place. What made you want to relive those horrors and make them public?
I think it’s good for young people, it’s good for people, it’s good for anybody to learn the true story about the past. And for me it was especially helpful when I read (Austrian neurologist) Victor Frankl who was a Holocaust survivor. I thought our story was bad, but here was somebody who was able to dissect everything, to explain everything, to help people understand what was happening to the children, to the women, to the men. And as a young person, it helped me understand what I was feeling about my own experience. I didn’t understand. I thought we were the only ones who went through that and I even began to feel that it was normal.
Can you briefly describe some of that experience, which you detail at length in your book?
I was slapped and strapped and made to suffer physically, sexually . . . A slap can happen anytime. Some of the other nuns used to pinch, but our supervisor was a slapper.
There was an electric chair . . . there’s a steel metal frame and we’re made to sit on that. And it’s attached to two wires going to a box where the brother would crank it up. So once the power starts you can’t let go of the chair’s arms. The power was on and kids, they were small, it would shake their whole body.
I was put in that twice. For nothing, for entertainment — entertainment on a Friday night.
What do you believe motivated the people who ran these schools? Was it simple sadism? Or did they just feel they were dealing with a lesser brand of human being?
Well they were dealing with a lesser brand of human being, that’s for sure. That’s in the history books. Duncan Campbell Scott (a Canadian poet and federal Indian Affairs bureaucrat in the early century) said that repeatedly. He said “my campaign is to get rid of the Indian problem until there’s no Indian problem left.” So I think he was talking about genocide when he was saying that. And, yeah, that was the attitude. You have to get rid of this problem any way you can. To make us frustrated was the intent. To frustrate us as much as possible.”
You write about how this kind of treatment came back to haunt you in later life. Can you talk about that and about how you came to heal yourself?
Well the memories are there, you remember everything. It’s when you see something, like a bag of oats in a store — the porridge incident would just come up. They call them triggers, and whatever you see — the colour of the strap, the colour of the ruler, the metal chair, those kind of things — effected you, making you remember.
And you do learn to hate yourself. You learn to try to harm yourself. You’re trying to hurt yourself. And alcohol was the best one. You can hurt yourself real well with alcohol. So we got carried away.
I lost everything. I lost any sense of self esteem. When I married, that’s when it sort of started to spin out of control. Me and my wife split for about six years. And it was a long process to come together.
But what brought me back were the ceremonies, the sweat lodges. Just going to the ceremonies and beginning to hear the elders talk about life experiences, life plans. And to wake up, to feel. My first sweat was physical, I had to walk out of there. My second experience in a sweat was totally, totally emotional. I couldn’t stop crying. We had a feast after. I was crying inside the lodge, I was crying outside, I recovered for the feast and I went home and cried for two more hours.
So there was a lot of stuff in my system. But after that time, then I began to think of my children and now my heart was feeling something. I began to see what I was doing, that I was hurting everybody.
Right now we are in the midst of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission that’s looking into the residential school catastrophe. Seeing it unfold, do you have confidence that it will do some good for people who suffered through experiences like yours?
Not too much. I think it’s up to each individual to find out and heal themselves. It cannot be done as a group of people and saym “I have a resolution, magic, we’re healed.” It doesn’t happen like that. It happens over years. You have to feel pain at the discovery, at a certain point in your life, that, “Hey, I better do something here.”
My hope is to talk to the Canadian people and remind them that I have a band number. This is the year 2014. Why do I have a band number? Why do I live in a reserve? Why is the minister of aboriginal affairs in charge of everything I do? Why does the bank not listen to me when I want to borrow money for a major business enterprise? Why do they shove my business plan to a native liaison officer? I am not treated as a Canadian citizen. I am an Indian within the meaning of the Indian Act. I am defined as a person that is not your average Canadian, I’m a second class person. I’m a nobody.
What I would hope . . . is that we gain access to the House of Commons, that our national chief is invited to sit in the House of Commons and have access to all the privileges the MPs have.
Purging the ghosts
August 30, 2014
Once considered proud symbols of Canada's contribution towards maintaining homogeneity within the British Empire, today, their harshest critics call them ugly scar tissue from a government-sponsored attempt at revising history through cultural genocide.
In 1996, the last residential school closed its doors in Saskatchewan, ending a shameful, century-long forced assimilation of young indigenous people disguised as an education opportunity.
What happened at these often-secretive institutions is now public knowledge, gleaned from testimonials of former students at various commissions of inquiry, but this aptly-titled, well-crafted book is an especially poignant reminder of the harm they caused.
To paraphrase Churchill's famous descriptive, Up Ghost Riveris a memoir containing a polemic wrapped in native history.
Erudite, with revealing photographs, it contains a series of recollections written by an award-winning Cree activist and educator, now in his late 60s.
Metatawabin was a translator during hearings leading to the Ontario Supreme Court's decision in January 2014 that forced the federal government to release all records of abuse from residential schools.
Much of this book consists of reassembled memories, where raw, often-coarse dialogues between various individuals offer emotional connections for readers, allowing insights into Metatawabin's strong support for the growing activism by indigenous groups, like the Idle No More movement.
It's an effective writing style, for by weaving together memoirs and indigenous cultural practises, the case that he makes for a louder voice in the country's political, economic and environmental decisions is cleverly strengthened.
Nightmarishly vivid confessions -- being sexually abused, whipped, forced to eat his vomit, and suffering jolts from a crude but functional electric chair -- complement those heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that opened in Winnipeg in June 2010, and is now scheduled to present a final report in July 2015.
From his memories of the 1950s, Metatawabin recalls the gist of the principal's annual lofty words to new students, like those at the start of his own eight-year stay at St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany, northern Ontario: "We are here to make you into good Christians and honourable members of Her Majesty's Kingdom."
Lined up according to height, the small-statured, Cree-speaking, seven-year-old Metatawabin is told "Number 4" is now his new name, but after learning the new language remembers thinking, "even dogs have real names."
For many of the more than 150,000 Indian, Inuit and Métis students who attended such schools, the insensitive and often-brutal treatment spawned a litany of consequences: Loss of language and culture; loss of respect for education and authority; loss of faith and trust in government; devastation to self-identity; and confusion about family roles.
Metatawabin writes, "the harms done to one generation become the fate of the next," a grievous observation supported by the disproportionate number of indigenous people crowding our penal system.
Being a capable student, Metatawabin was spared a similar fate, but separation from his Cree roots led to an identity crisis, negating the positives in his life, like a degree from Trent University and a loving wife and children.
He recalls how memories of former abusers made it difficult to "get over it," and not until he travelled to Alberta to learn more from elders about Cree rituals and spirituality was he able to reconnect with his culture, purge his ghosts and control an alcohol dependency.
Elected chief of Fort Albany, Metatawabin then helped arrange conferences in the 1990s that became precursors of historic lawsuits by indigenous groups and subsequent convictions of former abusers, prompting apologies from church leaders and from Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.
The $2 billion awarded to survivors of residential schools is another measure of atonement that Metatawabin feels justify his attempts to "honour the memory and harms done to the ancestors."
Metatawabin hopes his activism will help him find the quiet waters of peace and forgiveness, the place where Justice Murray Sinclair, who heads the TRC, has often said all Canadians must someday meet for true reconciliation to occur.
Acknowledgment of Metatawabin's mentor and researcher, Alexandra Shimo, a former editor at Maclean's, together with a heartfelt tribute by acclaimed aboriginal writer Joseph Boyden, both add to this memoir's sincerity.
It's a notable depiction of a dark period in native history, and like Beatrice Culleton's intense account of being a Métis in Canada (April Raintree, 1983), it reminds us that biased perceptions create harsh realities.
Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2014 G5
St. Anne's Residential School: One survivor's story
Former students of St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., say their dispute with the federal government over disclosure of documents shows true reconciliation is a long way off.
Edmund Metatawabin, 66, is one of several survivors pushing for the government to release documents they say would corroborate their claims of abuse.
His own story is like so many others, but also unique. He is a success story in Fort Albany.
'As soon as I opened the door, she grabbed my shoulder, gave me a vicious slap across the face from behind. And I hit the wall on the other side."'— Edmund Metatawabin, St. Anne's Residential School survivor
But when he was seven, he had no idea what was in store for him.
In 1956, succumbing to pressure from Catholic priests, Metatawabin's father dropped him off at St. Anne's. He was the first of 10 siblings to attend the school.
He went in with his father and was sent to the bathroom while his father talked with the nun. And then he heard a door close.
"I looked out the little window and saw my dad walking by, head down, looking really sad," said Metatawabin in an interview with CBC News. "I hear, 'Come out of there, that's enough, your daddy's not here to protect you no more!' As soon as I opened the door, she grabbed my shoulder, gave me a vicious slap across the face from behind. And I hit the wall on the other side."
That was Metatawabin's first impression of St. Anne's.
Rafting down the Albany River to the Ring of Fire
June 10, 2011
There is a Cree legend about the insatiable appetite of big brother.
Always famished, big brother demands his little brother work harder to bring him more timber, gold and fuel so he can feed his hungry belly.
Click here to see a gallery of the mighty Albany.
Ed Metatawabin tells this story from a wooden raft as it slowly makes its way through the pummeling rain down the 1,000-kilometre-long Albany River in Ontario’s Far North.
Directly above the Albany lies the Ring of Fire — more than 5,000 square kilometres of pristine wilderness that is believed to contain a $30 billion deposit of chromite, the ore used to make stainless steel. Prospectors also say a treasure trove of platinum and diamonds lies underneath.
But the pursuit of these riches means little brother must blast, bulldoze and bigfoot through the Albany watershed, the surrounding boreal forest and the swampy peatland of the Hudson Bay lowlands.
The race to develop the ring is already furiously underway. International mining companies have staked more than 9,000 claims covering 480,000 hectares. All-weather roads, bridges and a railway line are being planned to transport the precious ore south.
‘You gotta know how to do things yourself up here’: For modern reserves, success is in balancing tradition and capitalism
January 19, 2013
When I talk with Abraham Metatawabin about his life in the bush, there is a communication problem. I do not speak Cree, and the 92-year-old Fort Albany, Ont., elder does not speak English. But even with his son Chris acting as translator, there is another, more basic impediment: The hunting, trapping and fishing methods he learned as a young child in the sprawling riverlands west of James Bay are so basic to his way of thinking that he doesn’t even think of them as activities requiring explanation, and so I have to keep interrupting him for more detail. Commanding a team of sled dogs, building a shelter out of wood and cured animal hide, catching a pike dinner with nothing but a baitless hook: You either knew how to do these things in the bush, or you became a frozen, emaciated corpse.
I came to talk with Abraham at his home on the Fort Albany reserve not just because he is a link to a bygone era, but also because the Metatawabin family as a whole — of whom I met four generations, in three different communities, during my travels to James Bay this past week — constitutes a sort of living roadmap to the wrenching transformations that First Nations have endured over the last half-century.
Like most members of the Fort Albany First Nation, Abraham was brought up as a Catholic. But he still has strong memories of his grandfather, a traditional 19th-century medicine man whom the RCMP hunted as an outlaw. Abraham’s father was recruited out of the bush into the Canadian army, and fought the Germans in the First World War.
February 6, 2003
The Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin Association (PKKA) has called off
negotiations with the Catholic Church and the federal government.
February 6, 2003: Volume 30 #02
PKKA represents survivors of the former St. Anne's residential school in Fort Albany and negotiations were part of a settlement of claims of physical and sexual abuse at the school.
Ed Metatawabin, negotiator for the group, said the main stumbling block was the desire to include the loss of language and culture as part of the claim.
"The question has always been about the release they want us to sign," he explained.
"You sign a release absolving them of all liabilities and all actions including language and cultural loss."
"It's really hard to sell your birthright for a few dollars."
Interpretation of the reconciliation process is also a stumbling block for the negotiators.
"The survivors' understanding of reconciliation is that the reconciliation was to last as long as the school did," said Metatawabin.
"We've endured 70 years of language and culture loss."
Unless the government gives us an indication they're willing to listen to our concerns, we will not meet, he said.
Language and cultural loss are seen by the survivors as a significant component to the reconciliation and healing process; in fact dealing with those issues are the main objectives of the PKKA.