Monday 24 August 2015

Testimonies of (Aboriginal) Hunger

Testimonies of (Aboriginal) Hunger
A while ago I asked my research assistant, Jinelle Piereder, to search the recent report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.” (Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication 2015)
 I asked Jinelle to find testimonies about hunger in Canada’s now notorious residential schools, about which I have posted earlier blogs. See my blogs “Cultural Genocide of Canada’s Aboriginal People, June 16, 2015 and “Canada: Malnourishment of Aboriginal Children”, July 19, 2013. These were the schools in which Aboriginal children were imprisoned, abused, and starved from the 1870s to 1996 (when the last school closed) in order to “take the Indian out of the child” and convert them into (lower-class) white people. 

Below are the quotes Jinelle found: they speak for themselves. It’s shocking for me to read testimony from Canadian Aboriginals that resembles testimony I’ve been reading for the last few years about North Korea. I’ve left in the references that Jinelle included, in case you want to find the quotes yourself. The page numbers listed at the end of each quote are from the main report. However, each quote has its own statement number, location and date listed in the TRC report’s references (example below).

“Woodie Elias recalled being hungry all the time at the Anglican school in Aklavik in the Northwest Territories.
‘You didn’t get enough; hungry. So once in a while we go raid the cellar and you can’t call that stealing; that was our food. I got somebody, go in the kitchen and get the bread.'" (TRC, AVS, Woodie Elias, Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, 12 September 2012 Statement Number: 2011-0343, p71)

“Of the food at the Fort Alexander school, Faron Fontaine said that all he could recall was
‘kids starving. Kids going in the kitchen to steal food. Lucky thing I knew some people that worked in there with my grandfather, they used to steal me, sneak me some food all the time, send me an apple or sandwich or something. It’s pretty good to have connections in there I guess. As for those other kids, I don’t know how they survived. Maybe their stomach shrunk enough that whatever they ate was filling them up, I don’t know.’” (p71)

“Andrew Paul said that every night at the Roman Catholic school in Aklavik,
‘we cried to have something good to eat before we sleep. A lot of the times the food we had was rancid, full of maggots, stink. Sometimes we would sneak away from school to go visit our aunts or uncles just to have a piece of bannock. They stayed in tents not far from the school. And when it’s raining outside we could smell them frying doughnuts, homemade doughnuts, and those were the days when we ate good.’” (p71)

“Doris Young said that hunger was a constant presence at the Anglican schools she attended in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
‘I was always hungry. And we stole food. I remember stealing bread. And they, the pies that, that I remember stealing were lined up on a counter, and, and they weren’t for us to eat, they were for the, for the staff.’” (p72)

“Ray Silver recalled that a small grocery store used to dump spoiled fruits and vegetables by a creek near the Alberni, British Columbia, school.
‘And us kids, we used to sneak from the school, we must have had to walk about a mile, sneak away from the school, sneak over the bridge, and go to that dump, and pick up apples, they were half rotten or something, and they threw out, they were no more good to sell, but us kids that were starving, we’d go there and pick that stuff up, fill up our shirts, and run back across the bridge, and go back to the school.’” (p72)

“The conflict over food turned to abuse when students could not keep their food down. Bernard Catcheway recalled that in the 1960s at the Pine Creek, Manitoba, school,

Source: TRC website

‘we had to eat all our food even though we didn’t like it. There was a lot of times there I seen other students that threw up and they were forced to eat their own, their own vomit.’” (p74)

“Ethel Johnson had vivid memories of watching her younger sister struggling to eat food that she was not used to eating at the Shubenacadie school.
‘She didn’t like it. And the nun was behind her saying, “Eat it.” They used to call her pussy when she was in school; blue eyes I guess. And she couldn’t eat it, and she started crying. And then she tried to make her eat it; and she couldn’t. And then she threw up, and then she put her face in there. And she couldn’t; when you’re crying you can’t eat anyway.’” (p74)

“Gladys Prince recalled how at the Sandy Bay, Manitoba, school, the
‘priests ate the apples, we ate the peelings. That is what they fed us. We never ate bread. They were stingy them, their own, their own baking.’” (p 77)

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Book Note: Herta Muller's The Appointment

Book Note: Herta Müller’s The Appointment

Herta Müller (Wiki Commons)
Herta Müller is a Romanian writer, born in 1953, who since 1987 has lived in Germany. In 2009 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the time, I read news articles hinting that she did not deserve the prize and that her writing was inaccessible. So when I picked up one of her novels at a sale, I put off reading it for a long time. The novel is The Appointment (Henry Holt, 2001).

I was wrong to put off reading this book for so long: it is beautifully written and translated.  Müller is very sensitive to the physical environment and as I read the novel, I could feel the heaviness of the air before the rain and see the colours of evening skies. I could also imagine the poverty-stricken living conditions of Romania, the cramped apartments and the booze-soaked men. Romanians under the dictator Ceauşescu lived quiet lives of desperation (a phrase I’ve just discovered was coined by Henry David Thoreau).

This book is in the tradition of Kafka’s The Trial and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. The protagonist is riding the bus to an appointment with her interrogator. Along the ways she muses about her life and about the fellow passengers on the bus, the old man in a straw hat, the man with the briefcase, the elderly woman going to market, the father with a crying baby. The driver doesn’t care about the schedule and gets off the bus whenever he feels like it, so she worries about being late as she watches him munch his rolls.

Unlike Kafka’s protagonist, Müller’s protagonist knows why she is being interrogated. I am not giving the plot away to reveal that she works in a clothing factory exporting goods to Italy. In desperation she put a note in a few pairs of trousers asking anyone who read it to marry her, and including her name and address. She is now being interrogated for betraying the socialist fatherland and for being a slut who would go with any Italian man who wanted her. She seems resigned to her fate but she is very afraid of the consequences of being late for the appointment with her interrogator, whose tactics include sleazy charm as well as threats.
Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1981 (Wiki Commons)

As she muses about her life while riding the bus, we learn obliquely about her relationship with her previous and present husbands, with her beautiful friend who has affairs with much older men, and about others in her life. We also learn about her grandfather who was deported to “the camp,” where her grandmother died. At first I thought Müller meant the Nazi concentration camps set up for Jews, but then I realized she meant the camps to which so-called enemies of socialism were deported. And we learn about her former father-in-law, a jumped up nobody who joined the Communist Party, started wearing perfume and riding a white horse, and picked out people he didn’t like for deportation to the camps.
Sighet Prison Memorial Museum,
interior with cell doors and
portraits of former inmates (Wiki Commons) 
In this novel—and probably in the actual Romania of the time-- nobody cares about anyone. The protagonist’s husband’s colleagues at work steal his clothes and laugh at him when he has to go home half-naked. The entire country is “decivilized” (a word I learned from a Russian academic when on an academic exchange trip to the Soviet Union in 1990).

Müller ends her novel with the sentence, “The trick is not to go mad.”  And indeed, The Appointment draws us into a world of madness, just as did Kafka (presciently, before European communism) and Koestler. I recommend this novel, and I’m going to read a lot more of Müller myself.

Wednesday 5 August 2015

Robert Owen: Pioneer Social Reformer

Robert Owen: Pioneer Social Reformer

On July 25, 2015 I attended a family wedding in New Lanark, a village near Glasgow in Scotland. 

New Lanark, Scotland, 1984
(Wiki Commons, edited by original artist)
New Lanark is one of the most important sites of the British Industrial Revolution. It is where Robert Owen (1771-1858), manager and then owner of a cotton mill, introduced his radical social experiments in the treatment and education of workers. As opposed to the then-prevalent and entirely self-serving belief among the ruling classes that the poor deserved what they got, Owen believed that people were the products of their circumstances and that if they were properly treated, the poor would not be prone to vice, drink, and disease.

By today’s standards, Robert Owen was a terrible employer. According to the tourist information I received, he employed children as young as ten, and they worked ten and a half hours a day, six days a week. But by the standards of the day, he was a truly revolutionary reformer. At the time it was not uncommon for children as young as four to work in factories in extremely dangerous jobs, fourteen to sixteen hours a day seven days a week. 
Robert Own, aged about 50 (Wiki Commons)
In 1816 Owen also established the first nursery school in Britain. That’s probably one reason why the bride at the wedding—the daughter of one of my cousins--chose this site. She is a former nursery school teacher who now assesses student teachers.
The children of Owen’s workers entered the schools he provided when they were as young as 18 months, and they continued their education until they were ten or (if their parents could afford to keep them out of the factory) until they were twelve.  For some reason Owen believed especially in music and dance for children. He also opposed corporal punishment of children. He also established an adult education institute for his workers.    

Compared to the British policy toward the poor at the time, Owen was a radical reformer. Nor did he confine his efforts to the cotton mill he owned.  He lectured on social reform well into the nineteenth century, and he also helped establish some of the first trade unions in Britain. My guess is he probably had far more influence on British social thought than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, two German-speakers who would not have been integrated into British society as Owen was.

As it happens, when I visited New Lanark I was also reading Alison Light’s book, Common People (Penguin 2014).  Light is a British social historian who decided to trace four lines of her ancestry, through all four of her grandparents. There weren’t many records of them, as they were indeed common folk, not the aristocrats fictionalized in Downton Abbey or self-indulgent artists like the Bloomsbury crowd that we often take as representative of British history.

 Light was born in 1955. One of her great-grandmothers spent the first eight years of her life in a workhouse and died in an asylum for the “insane.” Workhouses were appalling institutions where the poor were warehoused, given minimal if any food, and denied education, fresh air, or any form of recreation. Families were also separated. The idea was to make life so wretched for the poor that they would leave the workhouse, thus not being a charge upon the parish.

Some of Light’s ancestors worked in the eighteenth-century needle trade, manufacturing needles in their homes, risking blindness from poor lighting or shards of metal flying into their eyes. Many others led peripatetic lives, travelling all over Britain in search of work, enduring periods of unemployment and sickness without any assistance from their rulers. Light’s own father, born in the 1920s, had to leave school at 13 to go to work, even though he wanted to stay.

Alison Light (
Light makes clear that life for common British people was extremely difficult. Only after WWII did it become possible for people like her, from common families, to enter university. Indeed, only after WWII was any serious effort made at social reform, despite the earlier existence of trade unions and the Labour party.  

Many of the more ideological students of international human rights still contend that “economic” human rights were introduced by the Soviet Bloc and by less-developed countries, while “the West,” so-called, focused only on civil and political rights. Reformers like Robert Owen in Britain (and briefly in America, at a failed social colony called New Harmony that he set up in Indiana in 1925) put the lie to this still common perception. It is true that the United States persecuted and deported many of its social reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so that it does not have a viable left-wing, social democratic political alternative today. But social democracy and utopian socialism have a long history in most Western countries.

Those whose ideological predispositions make them despise “the West” as full of colonizers and exploiters would do well to read Light’s history of her own family to find out what life was like for most British people. They should also be more aware of reformers like Owen.