I downloaded this book from the Internet for free. As I'm typing this I can't remember where I found it but I will add the info to this review when I remember.
At first I was surprised that this book was available to read for free. How odd I thought. Wouldn't this author first try to make some money from his book? I felt a bit guilty taking it for free. After all I am always talking about supporting the industry by buying books from brick and mortar bookstores. But free is free and one can never have too many books even if the dollars in one's wallet are finite. Still, I wondered why free.
In the end my book wasn't free. I've printed it out and will bind it up in some fashion so I can pass it on for someone else to read for free. So the cost of paper and ink has been and whatever binding material I use will be a cost to me even though the author reaps no financial reward from me. I feel I have the author's permission to do this. At various places in this book Bear Chief apologizes for or acknowledges his short comings to the people he now feels he should have treated better. He hopes they will read his words and understand.
Nowadays whenever I review or comment on writings, fiction or non, about the effects of residential schools or, more generally, racism, on Canada's indigenous people, I almost always say, I thought I understood. And it is true that I've read a lot, listened a lot and thought a lot about it. When I decided to read this book, I thought I already understood. I thought I knew what to expect from Arthur Bear Chief's story.
And to a certain extent I did. I already knew what Bear Chief would tell me of the abuses he and others endured in residential school. We all know of the appalling things that happened to children: the physical punishments for such things as speaking their own language, the sexual abuse, the neglect of health and nutrition, the stripping away of clothes, hair and culture. We intellectually know that the children suffered loneliness, fear, terror, starvation for not only food but the love of their own families. We intellectually know that these things have had a devastating affect on indigenous people. How could it be otherwise?
But knowing something and understanding something are different things. I've come to the conclusion that I may never fully understand the effects that the residential school system has had and continues to have on individual survivors, their families, their communities. I believe though that in listening to Arthur Bear Chief's stories, I understand better than I did.
I listened. While it is true that I was reading from black and white written pages, it was as if Arthur Bear Chief was in the room with me, talking to me. The book is written in a clear and easy to read conversational style. I suspect I may have first been influenced by Judy Bedford's preface to the book. Ms Bedford was Bear Chief's helper in getting his book published and her preface describes their process in getting the book together. They had many meetings at which Bear Chief would tell her his memories and what he wanted to say, sometimes over and over again. She spoke of his bitterness and impatience in getting things done, his demands on her time. She acknowledged that even though she considers Bear Chief a great friend and was amazed at the "power of his memory", he sometimes made her angry with his demands. An unusual introduction to a book I thought but at the same time it made Arthur Bear Chief a flesh and blood person for me.
And so when I read his words I too could hear the bitterness in his voice. The sadness, the loneliness, the anger. And despite the umpteen times he said he didn't care, the regret. The regret for all the years he spent trying to fit into white society and in so doing becoming an "apple Indian". The regret for not being a better father to his children. The regret for hurting all the women in his life that he didn't know how to love and who didn't deserve the treatment they got from him. The regret for not caring.
And yet Bear Chief is also proud and seemingly desirous of praise for all the things he did accomplish as that apple Indian. And he wonders what he might have been able to accomplish had he not attended residential school away from the love of his family. He went to residential school for ten years, from the age of seven until he was seventeen. Presumably , he would have us believe he could have accomplished great things.
And you can hear and understand his anger and bitterness at having to go through the examination for discovery process, reliving all those bad memories that he had suppressed all for the sake of totting up how much he was entitled in compensation. His anger that his ruined life equates a certain amount of money that the lawyers take a third of and the government charges GST on. Anger that somehow some people's lives tot up to more than his.
So when he asked, " Am I a bad person?" my inclination was to rush to answer. No! No, you are not a bad person. Until I realized he was not asking me, He was asking himself. My opinion was irrelevant. My opinion of his book is irrelevant too. He didn't write it for me. He wrote it for himself as part of his own healing process to rid himself of his demons. He wrote it for all the people for whom he was less than who he could have been, in the hopes that if they read his words they will understand. He wrote it for all the people who are suffering as he is, to encourage them to speak up and share their stories so they can heal and also so that what happened will not be forgotten, swept under the carpet and bought off for a few bucks.
And as for the rest of us, ours is not to have an opinion but to listen and understand better.
Oh, I found this book at its publisher, Athabasca University Press's website at aupress.ca.