Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The Torah tells the story of the Jews coming out of Egypt. On Pesach, we’re told to feel as if we were one of those Jews. So what does that mean? I think it refers to empathy. In other words, be empathetic and sense, feel and intellectually consider what it was like to be ruled by others.
How does one do that? Look out your window and see the native community. Walk over to them and ask them about the residential schools and listen closely. Watch their brows furrow and their eyes drop as they tell you about the brutal beatings and the children who went missing and were never heard from again.
You’ll feel empathy. You’ll feel rachmanut – tremendous sympathy.
I take you through this exercise because I’m aghast that so many sophisticated Canadians, individuals who consider themselves aware and compassionate, know nothing about the suffering of our Aboriginal Peoples in residential schools. I’m even more upset that many Jews have never heard of this blight on Canada’s human rights record, this black mark on our national soul.
I would ask you to share this article and the following points with your children, siblings, parents, friends, colleagues, cousins, bowling partners, teachers, principals and nannies. Tell every Canadian about the residential schools.
Let them know they were erected in the 19th century to Christianize native children so the government would no longer be required to pay for its treaty obligations. Tell them that more than 150 residential schools existed and thousands of children died there, while thousands more were subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Tell your loved ones that church leaders and security forces would often take native children from their parents’ arms and transport them hundreds miles away for an “education.” Frequently, students wouldn’t see their family for an entire year. The children – Métis, status and non-status Indian, Inuit, Inuvialuit and non-Aboriginal – were forced to change their names and were forbidden from speaking their languages.
On Shavuot, when we remember the giving of the Torah, we should recall as well the thousands of native children who were mentally abused, and murdered (some say as many as 100,000) in our country, Canada.
Ask yourself, “How could I not know this? Never again?”
Tell those you know that on May 10, 2006, an “Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement” was signed by the government of Canada, effectively giving reparations to any former student still alive as of May 30, 2005. This was the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. A lump sum of $10,000 was paid per student for their first year in school, and $3,000 was paid for each additional year. Further claims could be made for serious physical and sexual abuse.
How could I not know this? Why do we expect others to know about the Holocaust?
When you share the information in this column, include that Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to our Native brothers and sisters. Say that a “truth and reconciliation” process set up in British Columbia called for every school in Canada to teach about residential schools. Fortunately, the Northwest Territories will start a pilot project this spring in its public schools to teach about residential schools, and it plans to expand the project to 40 schools next fall. Shouldn’t private Jewish day schools include residential schools in their curricula?
Familiarize yourself with residential schools. Teach others. We said we would.
Chag Samayach. Happy Shavuot.
This column appears in the May 31 print issue of The CJN