They say when you become a mother you decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. And we mothers, when our children walk out of our sight, we often carry the low-level anxiety that something will happen to them, that someone will take them, that someone will hurt them, that someone will rob them of their innocence and joy, that they’ll be broken, with the rest of our heart along with them. We know that it’s statistically unlikely, that these things rarely do happen, but it’s still the first place our mind flashes when they’re gone a second longer than we expect.
When I read about the horrors of what was done to Canada’s First Nations1, how the children were snatched away to residential schools2 and white adoptive families3, my heart breaks for those kids, how could it not? I can’t imagine taking young children, those sweet little cuddly believers in magic, those joyful discoverers of the world around them, and putting them in a harsh world of abuse, rape and even death. Who could imagine their own kids placed in that world without feeling horror? Anger? Grief?
But my heart breaks again for their mothers. How would I have felt, knowing that pieces of my heart were being torn away? That those fears that I have now were for them actually statistically likely? And that if my children did come back, that they would most likely come back as broken strangers? That they’d no longer have a connection to my language and culture, to me? That I’d miss all the milestones of them growing up, their teeth falling out, their changes from children to teenagers, their growing understanding of the world? How could those mothers carry that knowledge, that horror, that abyss of sadness? If someone took my kids from me to be tortured, I’m not sure whether I’d be able to carry on at all. I think I’d feel hopeless and powerless and yet like I should have been able to stop it, to protect them. Even imagining it brings me to grief, and I don’t think I can fully imagine the reality.
When I think about the purpose of all of this, it only makes it worse, especially when I look at myself. I’m living in a foreign country, trying to teach my children my own language and culture in addition to what they learn here. It’s generally seen as positive that I’m doing so, that they’re learning English and other perspectives. But the culture I’m teaching them is Canadian, the same culture that created this horror, the same one that could not see the benefit of allowing others the same freedom. The same one that came up with this horror to stop the First Nations from passing on their own languages and cultures. We wanted to “instil in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origin. When they graduate form our institutions, the children have lost everything Native except their blood.”4 It wasn’t enough that we Europeans came over, took the land, and then pushed the First Nations into tiny, fragmented pieces of it. But then we went and took their children because they weren’t becoming like us, and because we couldn’t see them as mothers and children like us. For more than a hundred years, up until 1996, we took all those hearts walking around, and then we broke them. And buried some of them in unmarked graves. 5