A Jew’s education on Canada’s residential schools atrocity

How a trip with Indigenous leaders to Yad Vashem, Israel's museum of the Holocaust, was the beginning of my lesson on Canada's own crime against humanity

When I was in school there were two things I learned nothing about: the Holocaust and the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada. 

And while the two genocides were much different, the pain, I would learn more than 30 years later, was the same.

That lesson began while I was with the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and had to deal publicly with anti-Semitic remarks made at a federal health conference by a former chief of the Assembly of First Nations, David Ahenakew, in 2002.

Ahenakew would eventually be convicted of promoting hatred. The conviction was later overturned, the judge in the case ruling that while the remarks were “revolting, disgusting and untrue,” they were not made with the intent to incite hatred. It was through this experience that I began to understand that our two peoples knew nothing of each other’s ordeals.

That troubled me until I had the good fortune to meet Chief Phil Fontaine. We spoke. I learned that we were two peoples travelling parallel but separate paths. We planned a trip to Israel that included chiefs of Canada’s First Nations and leaders of the CJC.

Many criticized it as a political trip. Others insinuated it was an attempt to propagandize the treatment of First Nations peoples in Canada. It wasn’t either of those. It was a trip of mutual learning that helped us embrace each other’s experience.

On the final day of our journey, we gathered at Yad Vashem, Israel’s museum of the Holocaust. There, on the grounds, is a children’s memorial designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.

The memorial is a dark hall of mirrors in which a single candle is reflected millions of times. On an audio loop, the names of the Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust are read out. It takes a year and a half to recite all the names once.

When we exited the exhibit overwhelmed by sadness and grief, Elder Fred Kelly and Fontaine asked us all to form a healing circle.

It was there that I heard for the first time the stories of chiefs and elders who experienced the tragedy of residential schools, of children who were beaten, starved and abused both physically and sexually, of those who never came home and those whose deaths went unrecorded in unmarked graves.

It was a crime against humanity without the gas chambers or bullets, which, like the Holocaust, eradicated generations to come – the children who died as a result of their mistreatment and the survivors who never learned to understand the love of a parent.

A few years later, through my association and friendship with philanthropist Michael Dan, who works with First Nations communities on various economic development projects, I developed new friendships and my learning curve continued. One of those friendships was with Elder Kalvin Ottertail, who presented me with an eagle feather for my work. I treasure it to this day. It helps remind me of the children who never came back.

Bernie M. Farber is executive director of the Mosaic Institute.

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