What Does Stephen Harper’s Residential Schools Apology mean to Vancouver’s Harry Wilson?
by Rev. Kevin D. Annett
When I met Harry Wilson on the bus on 2 June 2008, he was barely conscious, inebriated and heading in the wrong direction. He could barely open his eyes when I sat next to him. It had been a month or so since our last encounter, but in that time Harry had suffered a heart attack and been evicted from his tiny bug-filled hovel in the Brandiz Hotel on Vancouver’s skid row. Now, he’s yet another of the homeless army who wander, and wander.
Harry is fifty four years old and a “survivor” of the United Church’s Alberni Indian Residential School.
As I tried to arouse Harry and get him home on the right bus, I suddenly wished that Prime Minister Steven Harper could be with us at that moment, and help me steady Harry and encourage him somehow. I wonder what Steven would think of Harry, or his story.
Harry Wilson was taken from his mother when he was five years old and incarcerated in the Alberni residential school. He was held there for twelve years and was routinely beaten and sodomized by a network of staff and fellow students, including the infamous Arthur Plint and Principal John Andrews. Their preferred method was to use a bathroom plunger on Harry.
One morning, evading his torturers, thirteen year old Harry escaped from the dormitory and stumbled across the body of a young girl from the school, on the playground, as he recounted to me in 1998,
“She was from way up north, a Haida girl. She was naked and all covered in blood, maybe sixteen. I told Andrews later that day and he told me not to tell anyone. She just disappeared. Then the Mounties came and shipped me over to the Indian hospital in Nanaimo … They held me there in a padded room, all strapped down. Stuck needles in me. I was in there for months, past Christmas … They kept telling me I never saw the girl’s body.”
Harry was one of the first Alberni survivors to ever sue the United Church, and they quickly silenced him with a gag-order settlement of nearly $100,000. The money was gone within a year, burned through by Harry’s lawyer, white social workers and all Harry’s sudden “friends”. Harry survives now by picking cans and bottles out of the trash along Hastings street, and he is rarely sober.
As I got Harry safely aboard a bus bound for his “home”, I imagined turning to Steven Harper and asking him what he thought could be done for Harry.
An apology was the last thing that occurred to me to suggest to Steven. After all, what good will mere words do for Harry?
After all, is Steven Harper actually sorry? And if he is, how much is he sorry for?
His lawyers and advisors, I’m sure, have answered that question for him, as they have for the United Church: We regret in general what happened to you, Harry – and a quarter million like you – but not enough to condemn the system that caused it; not enough to hold those responsible accountable by charging them with murder; and not enough to find that slaughtered girl’s remains and bring her home for a proper burial.
After all, that kind of regret could cause Steven himself to go to jail, if we actually lived in a world of justice for all. For he is, after all, the head fiduciary officer of the corporation called Canada that is responsible, with the churches, for Harry’s fate – and that unknown girl’s.
So, instead, this June 11 Steven will stand up in Parliament to a great media fanfare and say a lot of words that will do nothing for Harry, or that girl. Just like the residential school, or the “court settlement”, Steven’s “apology” will be something done by and for white people – not their aboriginal victims. As in the residential school, there will be enough collaborating natives on hand to applaud Steven’s words as passionately as they ignore Harry Wilson’s life. But none of it will save Harry from a daily torture and an early death.
I’ve been told that I am too hard on my fellow white folks and their paid aboriginal lackies, that I am impeding their attempt at “reconciliation”, even that I am “exaggerating” stories from people like Harry Wilson. But such accusations come from those who have not sat with me alongside Harry and tried to hold back the tide.
The truth stands as solidly as does Harry’s suffering, and in that sense both it and he are a mirror in which we can see who we actually are, as “Christian Canada”. Perhaps that’s why Harry, and I, are so detested by that culture.
None of that matters to me anymore. There can be no apology, ever, for what has happened, and for the continuing crimes. But maybe, if Steven and those like him sat with Harry for a day, saying nothing, just watching, and listening, and learning – perhaps, they would be changed. And then, Steven’s apology, like all our wealthy pretences, would shrivel and fade in the light of a terrible and glorious ending.
I hope for all that, today, as I seek out Harry Wilson once more, realizing, finally, that the “Christian churches” have it all wrong, for they are blind to what they have done to Harry, and to who Harry actually is:
“one who had no beauty that we should desire him, a man of sorrows, despised and rejected by us … for surely he has borne our sins and been stricken for our iniquities, and yet by his suffering are we healed.”
About the writer:
Kevin Annett is a community minister in the downtown eastside of Vancouver and the author of two books and a documentary film on genocide in Canada. Check out his website, LINK.
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