Canada’s native Tlingit: ‘North-America had its own concentration camps’ (4 June 2019)

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Journalist Nienke Beintema and her family are spending a year in the Canadian village of Atlin, close to Alaska. Atlin is located on traditional territory of the indigenous Tlingit people. Atlin has 300 inhabitants, about one third of whom are Tlingit. Most Tlingit live in a separate neighbourhood, called Five Mile – five miles (eight kilometres) outside the village. In Five Mile there are no fluent Tlingit speakers anymore, although some people are learning the language and it is taught at the local school.




Canada’s native Tlingit: ‘North-America had its own concentration camps’


Canadian native children were taken away from their homes until late into the last century, to ‘assimilate’. Many are still traumatized.



“One day a government bus pulled up in front of our house. We had to get in, my brother and I. I was five years old. I did not want to go, but we were told that my parents would go to jail if we refused.” These are the words of Kaushee O’Shea, an elder of the Tlingit community of Atlin, Northwest Canada (see text box). She is talking about her childhood at a Catholic residential school in Lower Post, almost 500 kilometers away.

O’Shea has been invited to the local primary school to tell her story to the lower grades: ten children from five to ten years old. The children are sitting on a rug on the floor in front of her and are a captivated audience. O’Shea’s visit coincides with a “Homecoming Celebration”: Atlin welcomes back its Tlingit fellow villagers who were taken away as children, and many of whom are now living across Canada. Through music and dance, meals and spiritual ceremonies, they are aiming to advance their healing process together.

“I hardly saw my brother at that school, because boys and girls lived in different parts of the building,” O’Shea continues. “There were hundreds of children from all over the north. We were not allowed to speak our own language, wear our own clothes, or talk about home. Otherwise we’d be punished.”

“Did you go home on the weekends?”, asks an eight-year-old girl.

“No, it was too far away,” replies O’Shea. “We were allowed to go home once a year in the summer. There would always be a new baby. But I never got to know them, all those new brothers and sisters. I still don’t know them well.”

“Did you ever do fun things at school?”, another girl asks. O’Shea ponders her answer, looking at her hands.

“No, we didn’t do any fun things there,” she finally replies. “The nuns were very strict. There was no love. We weren’t allowed to write letters home either. Once a year we received a card from our parents. The envelope would include five dollars. But the nuns would put that money in their own pockets.” She pauses again. “It was a sad time.”



Starting in 1874, the Canadian government ran a network of residential schools throughout the country. Its purpose was assimilation: the indigenous population had to be dissolved into white society. In many schools, children were not allowed to go home at all during the first five years. Only in 1996 did the last school close its doors. The time of the residential schools is now seen as a black page in Canadian history. The schools symbolize the oppression of the indigenous peoples, or First Nations, as they are called here. For generations, children grew up without any knowledge of their traditional way of life, language or culture.

Today’s 1.6 million native Canadians therefore have the same dark history as, for example, the Aboriginals of Australia and the Inuit of Greenland. Much was lost with the arrival of Western culture. Their rich language and traditions, stories, in-depth knowledge of nature and identity gave way to depression and alcohol and drug abuse. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Canadian First Nations under the age of 45. Suicide rates are five to seven times higher than among other Canadians.

The story of O’Shea, tailored to an audience of young children, only scatches the surface of the tragedy. In the past twenty years, details have gradually emerged about the physical, mental and sexual abuse at the – mostly Catholic – residential schools. An estimated four to six thousand children died there. The numbers were published in a 2015 report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. O’Shea’s school in Lower Post turned out to be one of the worst in all of Canada. In the 1990s, one of the supervisors who worked there in her time was convicted of 28 cases of sexual abuse.



That evening my family and I attend the Homecoming dinner in the social centre of Atlin. The non-Tlingit villagers are expressly invited. At first we hesitated whether it would be appropriate for us to go: as outsiders we don’t want to intrude. But the school teacher has convinced us how important it is for non-indigenous people to come, “to show our respect and support.” The spiritual ceremony earlier today, in which many homecomers were given a Tlingit name for the first time, we have let pass. But attending the dinner does seem appropriate. Everyone brings something to eat, according to local tradition. We have baked a large spice cake.

There are around one hundred Tlingit and about twenty non-indigenous people. We do feel a bit out of place. But that feeling soon disappears as we are warmly welcomed by at least a dozen people: “How great that you’re here!” With a plate full of sweet potato and moose stew we sit down at a table with an older man. He introduces himself, but prefers to remain anomymous.

“Have you ever heard of PTSD?”, he asks, out of the blue. “Post-traumatic stress disorder. The same thing soldiers have when they come back from a war. That’s what we have too, the survivors of the residential schools. PTSD.” He eats thoughtfully, with an expressionless face. “In Europe you had the Nazis with their concentration camps,” he says, when he hears where we’re from. “North America also had concentration camps, right up to the 1990s. We are the survivors.”

His story sends shivers down our spines. In his family he is the third – and last – generation to go to Lower Post. “But my children also suffer the consequences,” he notes. “And their children.” Two of his children have committed suicide. He says that the detailed testimonies he has given about the abuse at Lower Post have thrown him back ten years in his healing process.

He thinks the Homecoming in Atlin is a good initiative. “It’s the first one,” he notes. “After all those years. Only now are we ready. ”

The dining tables are pushed aside. A band of older Tlingit men starts playing country music. “Oh Lord, now we need you more than we ever did before,” the band leader sings. An older couple dances intimately. Small children swing each other around. A woman in her forties dances on her own, her arms in the air. The others observe from the side. The elderly chat with each other. People in their thirties clean up the plates. Teenagers look at their phones.



Canada’s formal process of Reconciliation started in 2008 with the establishment of the Truth and Reconciation Commission. In that same year, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologised to the victims of residential schools, on behalf of the Canadian government. But Reconciliation is not just about residential schools, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission emphasizes. According to this committee, Reconciliation is about “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.”

In the context of Reconciliation, research has since been carried out into the abuse, as well as public discussions, information and education. There are subsidies and tax breaks for indigenous groups. Incidentally, Reconciliation is seen as separate from the legal process concerning indigenous land ownership. That process is very controversial and still not completed.

Reconciliation itself is also controversial – and the subsidies in particular. I notice this during an evening with ‘white’ friends by a woodstove in a log cabin, a week before the Homecoming. We are talking about a nearby community, Ross River, which is struggling with a vicious circle of unemployment, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and overall hopelessness. “But those subsidies don’t solve anything,” someone says. “They only create dependence. It is precisely these subsidies that enable people to stay in their beds all day.”


Strong leaders

Another friend has a more nuanced view: “If you have never learned to get up on time in the morning, or to do your schoolwork,” he says, “because your parents, and your grandparents, are too broken to provide structure and set an example… And if your whole village has a drinking problem… Then as a young person you have to be extremely strong to be able to break that circle on your own.”

And if someone does manage to escape from this misery, I wonder, do they have equal opportunities? I mention recent Dutch research into the chances of job applicants with a Dutch-, versus Arabic-sounding name. A resumé with a Dutch name on it, and a violent crime, has three times more chance of a positive response compared to the exact same resumé with an Arabic-sounding name, but no violent crime. “That undoubtedly plays a role here too,” someone responds.

One of these friends runs her own company. She talks about new tender rules that give priority to indigenous people. “I have thirty years of experience,” she says. “And now I lose jobs to people who just started. Quality no longer plays a role. That’s not right either.” As a compromise, she says, companies can seek cooperation with indigenous colleagues and prepare a tender together. Cooperation can benefit both parties – and is also an objective of the new rules. “I tried that once,” she says, “for a week-long project. But then that person didn’t show up all week.”

But can we really blame that person? And, more importantly, then what is the solution? Nobody has a concrete answer. The term “strong leader from their own community” is often mentioned. But brain drain is a big problem: many talented young people don’t return to their villages after their education.


Never finished

Joan Jack, a lawyer and prominent member of the Tlingit community in Atlin, also mentions brain drain. I visit Jack a few weeks before the Homecoming in her self-built wooden house in the Tlingit neighbourhood outside Atlin. On her walls I notice several frames with uplifting statements about courage, perseverance and self-esteem.

“Very few indigenous people in this town have a higher education,” says Jack. “That’s why white people run the village. And the school. Yes, there is the occasional Tlingit lesson. But education overall is white. That really has to change.”

Will Reconciliation ever be finished? “No, it’s never finished,” Jack replies. “White people often complain: ‘Doesn’t it ever stop? Get over it.’ But we can’t just get over it. The trauma continues. And it will continue, as long as the discrimination continues, and the unequal opportunities. And as long as the government refuses to say: we really commit to change, and we will ensure that you will have actual sovereignty over your lands again.”

Yet Jack sees herself as an optimist. “I have to be,” she says. “Otherwise I might as well kill myself.” She becomes emotional. “People call me a racist. But I tell things the way they are. White people are afraid to hear that, because they have no idea.”

These are also the words of our table companion during the Homecoming dinner, when he talks about residential schools. “You simply have no idea. You wouldn’t believe what happened there.” He dips his last piece of bread into his moose gravy. “But we’re still here. They tried to get rid of us, but we’re still here.”