Interview by Gundula Haage
Michel Jean, in your book “Maikan”, you address the violence and discrimination that indigenous children were subjected to under Canada's residential school system. These Christian-run boarding schools separated indigenous children from their families for more than one hundred years. Why did you choose this topic?
The residential school system was based on a Canadian law that says: “Kill the Indian in the kid”. The whole purpose of these schools was to keep the children away from the influence of their own culture, religion and language. To us members of indigenous communities, it was more or less known what was happening there, but it was not known by the general public. I had to write about it.
What did it mean for familes, that whole generations of children were kept away from their communities?
We’re still living with the consequences today. The last residential school closed in 1996. That’s not long ago. When you take kids forcefully out of their homes, when you tell them that their parents are retarded, that their culture is savage, that their language is useless – what is the effect?
Their link to their parents breaks. Many of them are mad that their parents left them at the residential schools, where many children were abused. Parents, meanwhile, were often ashamed that they were forced to let go of their kids, even though they had no other option. It was enforced by the police.
Whole generations of kids grew up in a hostile, violent context. Of course there were problems further down the line. There are many studies into the consequences. Wherever there was a residential school, social problems like alcoholism, violence and homelessness ensued several years later. Today, traumatised kids have grown up and had families themselves.
Based on what they had to endure, some might not be able to become loving, caring parents themselves. Some researchers say it’s going to take seven generations to get rid of all the intergenerational trauma. It’s like a train in motion: It takes a long time to stop, once it is running.
In 2022, there were international headlines about the discovery of anonymous mass graves on the grounds of former residential schools. They revealed that hundreds of children had died in these schools due to neglect, poorly treated illnesses or abuse. Why were these crimes not discovered earlier?
Because the people who went to the residential school didn’t talk about it. It was traumatic and they were ashamed. It was a taboo subject in the communities. In 2013, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission started to shine some light on it but the extent of the horror was still unknown.
When I researched my book, I went to one of the residential schools in Saskatchewan, where they recently found numerous bodies. It is located in a pretty looking valley. On top of the valley there’s a small chapel and they have a road lined with crosses running to the top. But it is no longer pretty when you learn that the priests would make the kids walk on their knees up to the top of the valley.
I once had a reading of my book “Maikan”. An 18-year-old Innu came to me afterwards and she told me: “I never liked the ex-residential school inhabitants, because they drink and they're violent. But I didn't know why they were like that. Now I know.”
“People who went to the residential school didn’t talk about it. It was traumatic and they were ashamed”
Didn’t the young woman know about the Residential School System?
She was living on a reserve with family members who were at residential schools, but still she didn’t know about it. People don’t speak about it and it’s still not taught in school. Even indigenous history hardly has a place in the curriculum.
You learn about Cristopher Columbus, but nothing much about our indigenous culture. In my community, in Mashteuiatsh, they found archeological remains that show that people have lived there permanently for more than 5,000 years.
But that’s not in the history books because Canadian history, for many, still starts with the colonisation. The systematic discrimination of the residential schools is a logical consequence of that.
Back then, they regarded indigenous communities as retarded. There was a strong belief that Europeans were introducing civilisation. And this is still in the thoughts of many who justify it today. The whites didn’t understand that we see the world differently.
“For us Innus, the world is a circle. Humans are not more important than any other animal”
What distinguishes the “indigenous” perspective from the “European” view of the world?
The European way of seeing the world is like an arrow: Always going up. First, you invent the wheel, then the car, the plane, the rocket. For us Innus, the world is a circle. You're young, you're old, you're dead. Elders say that God created being old to force kids to take care of their parents, as their parents took care of them.
When I was at school in the westernised education system, we learned about the pyramid of life. There’s human on the top of everything else. As Innus, we don’t see a pyramid. Humans are not more important than any other animal. When a hunter kills an animal, he thinks that the creature accepted death so he can live. Everybody has a place.
That’s why when the Europeans came to Canada, most of the indigenous communities said “Welcome, there’s place for everybody”. They didn’t know that the Whites would just take their territory.
“You want to hear stories but they remind me of events that were not happy when I was a kid”
Did your parents tell you these stories?
No, unfortunately like for many Innu of my generation, there wasn’t much connection and knowledge passed on to me when I was young. My community is Mashteuiatsh at the Lake Saint-Jean in Québec but I grew up in the city with my parents, outside of the community. When I became interested in my roots, my mother got mad and said: “You want to hear stories but they remind me of events that were not happy when I was a kid”.
She had been treated badly as indigenous woman. There were always fingers pointed at her, so she didn’t want to be noticed. Only later, did I managed to convince my grandmother to teach me something about our culture.
Do you have an example of what your grandma taught you?
I was always pestering her with questions. “Tell me a story, teach me the language!” But it’s impolite to interrogate elders for Inuit. You look and listen. Asking questions makes you a pretty good journalist but it doesn't convince an old Innu woman to speak. Once I learned that, it was easier.
I do have memories with her I’m very fond of: One time, at Christmas, we were having a big party. But I didn’t have any voice. So my grandma took some roots and prepared an infusion with it. And that same evening, my voice came back.
Another day I was walking with her into the woods, and I managed to remain quiet without asking questions. She found the root that she had used for my throat. She showed it to me and taught me how to use it. That’s how I learned.
When you’re raised without access to your own culture, but people treat you as an outsider, there’s always something uncomfortable, something missing. When you don’t speak the language of your people, it doesn't make you white, it just makes you an Innu with one more wound.
How are the children from your community in Mashteuiatsh learning about their heritage and culture today?
Innu traditions and knowledge are still not part of any school curriculum. The Canadian government doesn’t see it as important to finance such efforts. But a lot is happening in the communities. My mother’s cousin, for example, goes with kids to the forest for two-three days and teaches them what to collect, how to take a bird or rabbit, and how to cook it.
I don’t have children myself but whenever I can, I go to my community and do things with kids, teaching them about literature or poetry or whatever interests them. One of the reasons I write is for the next generation and my community. Because when I grew up, I didn’t read stories about Innus anywhere. I never saw an Innu on TV, in a movie or in politics.
“When you’re raised without access to your own culture, but people treat you as an outsider, there’s always something uncomfortable, something missing”
And in the meantime, you are a news anchor on television, right?
Yes, but I'm still the only Innu news anchor in the whole of Canada. On Christmas, I once started the show saying “hello everybody, Kuei, welcome”. “Kuei” means “Good Day” in Innu. A lot of people where mad at me, my boss got complains. But also, I received so many videos and messages of Innus who cheered and celebrated, just because in the 24 hours program on TV, there was one word spoken in Innu.
Do you think indigenous cultures are valued differently now that we are talking more about sustainability and climate justice?
I see it a lot in the younger generation. They pose many questions about sustainability, indigenous knowledge and also the atrocities that took place. I’m already in my sixties so for me, it's a great source of hope. For a long time we've been alone.
Whatever we would say it felt like being a lobster in a pot: Somebody would put a lid on it. The lobster was in there, boiling, and nobody cares. But nowadays, it’s no longer possible to keep the pot closed. I am very proud to see that the younger generation is better than we were. They are more affirmative of their origins, more openly proud of it.