Why are the Borg the most terrifying villain in the Star Trek universe? Certainly they are not more powerful than the Romulans, or the Dominion Empire of later Deep Space 9 seasons. Any fictional antagonist can offer a physical threat to the Federation. The Bord, on the other hand, pose a existential threat, not to a government or a civilization, but to individuals in their very personhood and identity. What are those four horrifying words they utter — “You will be assimilated.” Even the great Jean-Luc Piccard was no match for the determination of the Borg to rob their opponents of their very selves. That is horrifying. And the Borg are not the only sci-fi villains to play upon this basic, almost primal fact that the loss of self is more to be feared than physical harm. I still get freaked out when I watch that scene in The Dark Crystal when the Skeksis drains the life force from the podlings, turning them into empty shells of the beings they once were.
It may seem a strange connection, but I have had these narrative moments in my mind over the last few days as the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission has come to and end and published its conclusions. Perhaps the most damning phrase that has come out of the commission is the unequivocal declaration that the Residential School system amounted to “cultural genocide” on the part of Canadians against the Aboriginal people. So, what does that term mean, and why should it so powerfully convict us of the profound wrongs committed at those Residential Schools.
The Anglican Church of Canada is currently promoting a social media movement #22days, referring to the 22 days between the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Aboriginal Day on June 21. During this time, we are challenged to hear the sacred stories of those who endured the abuse of the Residential Schools. Each day, the church is releasing another survivor’s story, which you can find here.
It goes without saying that any number of unspeakable horrors happened in those schools–one former teacher talks about beatings, and children contracting rare forms of tuberculosis in their bones. And by now, I’m sure we have all heard the shocking statistic that children were as likely to die in the Residential Schools as soldiers were to die in World War II. The difference being, the victims of residential schools were callously tossed in unmarked graves without their families having any idea of their fate. What was that I said last week about people not being things?
But when I listened particularly to the story of Eva Louttit describing her experience of entering the residential school system, it struck me there was a horror to these schools that went beyond the death rates and even the cruelty of ripping children away from their families — these schools robbed Aboriginal children of their fundamental identity and personhood. Louttit describes how the first thing that happened to her at the school was having her long black hair cut off. She sat in a chair surrounded by piles of hair shorn from the girls who had gone before her — “The first attempt of the residential school to cut me off from my Indianess.” Later, when Louttit was able to go home and rejoin her own community, she was called “White Man” because she had lost too much of her language, too much of herself to be fully accepted once again.
Louttit’s story is a powerful, personal illustration of that “cultural genocide” perpetrated by the residential school system. A kind of genocide which is perhaps more insidious and more evil even than the bloody massacres that took place in my own homeland. Robbing generations of children of their basic cultural identity is nothing less than a violation of their fundamental humanity.
I love Canada. By their point, I probably identify more as a Canadian than an American (after all, I’ve spent my whole adult life here). I am counting down the days until my citizenship application comes through. But it is fair to say we have a stain on our collective conscience. And let us not forget that guilt is born especially by those of us in the Anglican Church of Canada, which operated so many of those schools. I am not sure what the answer is, or how reconciliation can ever truly be achieved. I know one place to start is reading the 94 recommendations from the commission regarding issues of education, health care and fair access within the legal system for Canada’s Aboriginal people.
And I know that, personally, what we can each do is listen to those sacred stories being shared by survivors. To look into the reality of what happened for generations–and what was still happening even a few short decades ago–fully endorsed by our church and our government. Perhaps in allowing these survivors to speak their stories, and to receive them in a spirit of humility, we can somehow begin to restore at least some semblance to the humanity so disturbingly stolen from them.