I finished an essay this week, which meant I had the treat of dismantling a three-foot tower of books, pulling scores of coloured tabs off the pages and throwing them in Recycling, before returning the books to the library. And there it was at the bottom of the pile, a book I ordered at the start of 2016: Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One.
I picked up the book and paged through it, glimpsed images of boys on dormitory beds, of girls in white smocks standing in a row kneading bread. I rushed past them, not letting them fully register.
Not yet, I thought. It’s been a hard week, do I have to think about this today?
Isn’t that just the problem?
I get to leave these children’s stories under a pile of more pressing tasks for weeks on end. I can choose to think about them when I’m ready, skip past what is too painful. Most of all, I get to close the book when I want. Lucky me.
I opened the book again. All those rows of beds, the boys lying an identical position with their hands folded over their bellies. Orderly. Too orderly.
A couple of years ago I was in London, a tourist among tourists. A lady I met on a walking tour said, “Canada must be a lovely place to live.”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Such good people.”
“Yes, I mean we used to be, or at least – we used to think we were.”
“You have that mayor …”
“That’s not what I mean.” Where to start? “Have you heard of the residential schools?”
“Children – Aboriginal children – were taken from their homes and families.”
The woman looked at me, shaking her head.
“Many of them were – badly treated. They were abused, actually. Sometimes they weren’t given enough to eat. They got sick. It was a crime. It went on for years.”
“In Canada? I’ve never heard anything like that.”
My mother left bombed-out London in the 1950s. Along with many others, she came to Canada for the opportunities it offered. And she came to forget. The Toronto I grew up in was the place people came to start new lives. Scary memories might have hovered over our breakfast table, but soon I made the short walk to Huron school and stood for the national anthem each morning, along with neighbours from Hungary, Portugal, Greece and Japan.
So You Want to be a Nurse! So You Want to be a Stewardess! Sexist: sure. But the covers of these books were so shiny. They offered us possible futures like sweets in bright wrappers. Growing up was a long way away, anyway. For now, all we had to do now was learn and play. School was a safe zone where our right to be children was protected.
I felt good at school – not just comfortable, but virtuous. Having a school like this – knowing everyone could have one – was part of why I was proud of Canada. I never imagined it could be any other way.