In Search of Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous Communities

First they came for the communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a communist
Then they came for the socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one was left
To speak out for me.                                 

 — Martin Niemöller

The recent discovery of multiple unmarked grave sites of children who died in Canadian residential schools is certain to be a shock for many Canadians.  Growing up in the Canadian prairies, I learned nothing of the residential school system, still operating during my school years.  Indeed, to learn that the last Canadian residential school closed only in 1996, decades after I had graduated from school, was a somber awakening for me. 

I grew up as the child of immigrants from Russia, my parents and grandparents among those escaping almost certain starvation in Stalin’s Russia.  The Canadian government was generous, offering land to European immigrants who would farm it, land, that had belonged to Indigenous Nations who had been relegated to reservations in more Northern regions of the country. I did not learn of these economic incentives until years after my parents died; I do not know if they and other European immigrants were aware that they were beneficiaries of ruthless, racist colonial policies and the harm they inflicted. If they had been, would they have refused the land or would they have felt entitled as white “Christian” settlers?  

“Spirit Catcher” – Indigenous art installation in Barrie, Ontario
Memorial at the base of the “Spirit Catcher” in memory of the children who died in residential schools. 

As I look back on my formative years, I recognize the blatant racism towards Indigenous people that was so prevalent in the use, for example, of pejorative references to Indigenous individuals, who often sought work as farm labourers. Years later, television further reinforced racist stereotypes, through the Westerns that were a major movie genre.By the late 1990s, I had become more sensitive to such racist messaging, Watching the 1995 Disney movie, “Pocahontas” with my toddler granddaughter, I was horrified at the scene in which sailors of the incoming English ship see the land and its native people and sing “Savages, Savages”.  Thankfully, she didn’t understand and asked what they were saying. Determined not to repeat the message, I responded, “Sandwiches, sandwiches – They must be very hungry.” 

In my nursing career, I have had the opportunity to work as a public health nurse with Indigenous communities in our County in addressing some of their health priorities.  The connections I made during that time afforded me the later opportunity to invite Indigenous Elders to guest in my community health classes to speak to students directly about the health issues faced by Indigenous communities. But the experience that reached my very soul was being invited to visit the Eabametoong  First Nations community during my time as President of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario.  During that visit I was invited to a meeting in which an elderly man tearfully spoke about his own experience in a residential school.  It was heart-breaking and life changing.  Not everyone has these opportunities, and to those who do not, I recommend the 2002  film, The Rabbit-Proof Fence. The film is based in Australia and depicts both the colonizing intention and brutal methods used in the attempt to extinguish Indigenous culture and replace it with a white, European one.

The residential school system began in the latter half of the 19th century, during Florence Nightingale’s lifetime. Lynn McDonald, a sociologist who has catalogued the entire collection of Nightingale’s written works (See https://cwfn.uoguelph.ca/volumes/), notes that despite racism being a social norm at the time, Nightingale was born into a more liberal family that did not share these views. Through her travels, Nightingale had become aware of the colonial residential school systems and the high morbidity and mortality rates of Indigenous residential school children. As was typical of her evidence-based approach,  she studied the health of Indigenous students in colonial residential schools and in 1863 generated a report , comparing her findings with the  health of white British children.  It is not clear to whom the report was sent, presumably the responsible British government official(s).  The report includes the statistical evidence of the health disparities of Indigenous children with British white children and includes an overview in which Nightingale identifies probable causes, areas for further research, and suggestions for corrective actions. Some of these suggestions might be expected, such as measures that would reduce the spread of communicable diseases, e.g., avoiding overcrowding and providing adequate ventilation. 

Other suggestions relate to Nightingale’s concern with the colonization process. For example, she notes that “no account appears to be taken of the past history of the races on whom it is desired to confer the inestimable blessings of Christian civilization”  (p.13). She remarks on the naturally “stronger stamina” of some tribes in their “uncivilized condition” who, when they “are obliged to conform themselves…to the vices and customs of their civilized (!)neighbours, they perish from disease” (p. 15, italics and exclamation point in original). Nightingale notes critically that many of the pioneers of “British civilization are not always the best,…ready for any act of oppression” (p.16) , and ready to take advantage through the introduction of alcohol and indulgence of their own personal vices.

Although Nightingale’s report is critical of the process of colonization, and there is some suggestion that she questioned the purpose of colonization in what seems a sarcastic reference in to bestowing “inestimable blessings of Christian civilization”, the report falls short of criticizing British Imperialistic ambitions and its related colonization policies.

As we, in the 21st century engage in de-colonization efforts, it is important to appreciate Nightingale’s work in raising the issue of the health of Indigenous residential students and providing evidence and recommendations for improvement. We wish that she had gone further and challenged the oppressive and racist nature of colonization as a foreign policy. It has become popular to label her as ‘racist’ and dismiss her on those grounds. But to do so is itself dehumanizing, as it does not consider the complexities of living within a culture while gaining sufficient distance from it to address its inherent flaws.

We must ask ourselves, how many of us know the effects of our countries’ foreign policies on citizens of other countries and have lobbied for changes to those policies?  Indeed, how many of us have studied the effects of our governments’ current domestic policies with respect to the health of Indigenous people and joined with them in demanding change? 

At this time, in Canada, the discovery of unmarked graves of children at former residential school sites is far from over. We cannot undo the past, but we can support Indigenous people in their grief, and we can join with them in lobbying  for meaningful change to confront the systemic racism that still exists and informs current policies. Canadian Senator, Murray Sinclair, Canada’s second Aboriginal judge who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 noted that, “The most important actors in the process of reconciliation are not governments, are not church leaders, they are the people of Canada.”

Nursing involves the health and healing of individuals, groups, and communities, in a culturally sensitive manner. Never has the need for healing been more pressing than now, with the discovery of more and more children’s graves at former residential school sites. Actions to facilitate such healing is consistent with nursing knowledge, particularly caring theories such as Watson/s Theory of Human Caring and Critical Caring. Furthermore, I would suggest that Senator Sinclair’s call for action for the “people of Canada” is actually an ethical imperative for nurses. Taking action to address systemic racism at the policy level is also consistent with theoretical nursing knowledge, evident in nursing theories that include a focus on upstream nursing, e.g., Critical Caring and the Butterfield Upstream Model of Population Health.  . 

If we, as nurses in the 21st century, reflect with disappointment that Nightingale did not go far enough in 1863, surely it gives us cause to reflect deeply on the activism that we are called to answer to in our own time. We have the opportunity to take Nightingale’s recommendations one step further by actively engaging with Indigenous communities and other communities of color who suffer the injustices of racism. We can advocate for policies free of outdated systemic racism. We can get involved in forming anti-racist policies and actions.  The time is now!

2 thoughts on “In Search of Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous Communities

  1. Thank you. I have not read a clearer description of Nightingale’s position on residential schools,or a better refutation of the popular charge that she was simply a racist. As usual, the historical figure proves more nuanced than social media would have us believe.

    Liked by 2 people

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