WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.
Celia Haig-Brown’s book Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Housing School was one of the first texts to describe experiences of survivors of residential school from their perspectives, especially those who had been forced to participate in Kamloops Indian Residential School.
It was published in 1988. Since then, many more books by native authors, academics, and survivors describing these experiences have been published. News has written hundreds of stories. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up, which issued reports and shared the experiences of the bereaved.
But when Haig-Brown set out to write his book more than three decades ago, there was very little to compare it with — and it presented its own challenges, including setbacks from both native and non-native readers, because the legacy of residential schools had hardly been interrogated outside indigenous communities until then.
Haig-Brown, whose England-born father Roderick Haig-Brown was a famous author and conservationist in BC, is not original. She says she became interested in residential schools after talking to native friends about their time in this system. She interviewed their family members to learn more.
But when she submitted her book to a publisher, Haig-Brown says she was quickly fired by an editor who said she had a friend whose experience teaching at a boarding school was very different from those described. in the book.
Haig-Brown, a persistent person with a desire to share the truth, found another publisher. Tillicum Library Imprint, a division of Arsenal Pulp Press run by a school survivor, Randy Fred of Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, was interested.
Fred said the stories in the book were similar to what he experienced at the Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni, BC
Fred wrote the preface; he cut his nine years in the residential school system down to 10 pages during the editing process. He explained the food – or lack thereof – the abuse and the effect the system had on his family.
“After I finished writing it, I cried for the first time in many, many, many years,” Fred recalled.
About 20,000 copies of the book have been sold since its release – a small number compared to bestsellers, but for a book that addressed issues that were not yet mainstream at the time of publication, not terrible. Haig-Brown said she thinks the book has done “very well.”
For the most part, Haig-Brown said, the initial reaction was positive. Indigenous people who went to other boarding schools contacted her and told her they had similar experiences.
However, there was some decline from indigenous communities; they questioned whether a non-native person should share native stories.
“My only answer I can come up with, I think, is that the housing schools were white people doing their job,” she said.. “For me to know about and talk about it was important.”
A newspaper review in Ontario, meanwhile, suggested that the book was simply about a school in BC that might not represent what was happening at residential schools in other parts of the country.
“I thought, wow, this is Ontario, they can not accept anything that comes out of BC as the truth,” said Haig-Brown, who now lives in Toronto.
33 years later
It’s 33 years since Haig-Brown’s book was published, but only now are some Canadians acknowledging the atrocities that indigenous peoples faced at these so-called schools — partly prompted by the location of about 200 potential burial sites near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School and similar finds of unmarked graves at other schools in Canada this year.
Haig-Brown and Fred are happy that people are paying attention — but they are frustrated that it took so long.
“I find it incredibly disrespectful to all the natives who have told these stories over and over again and have been ignored or seen to invent things until we have this ground-penetrating radar,” Haig-Brown said.
“It’s like, if we can have science, then we think. But if thousands of people tell these stories, it’s just stories.”
She said she never even questioned the validity of what she was told, unlike the first publisher she approached because the people she interviewed had no reason to lie.
“The prominent details of the tangible grief and the lingering horror of those moments — I could not believe … it was true. There was just no doubt,” Haig-Brown said.
Arsenal Pulp Press has experienced a renewed interest in the text this year. But Haig-Brown said there are many more resources available these days and the focus should shift to native voices.
“I’m not a native, I’m a white woman. I think it’s important that we know these stories, but I also think it’s really important to hear what indigenous people themselves have to say, and especially on This time.”
Fred believes that if the book were published today, it would be a bestseller.
“The discovery in Kamloops, the unmarked tombs, I mean, that just totally changed so much … in society in general across Canada. It has a huge impact,” he said.
This effect has given Haig-Brown hope for the future.
“It’s a really complex feeling that comes out of this,” she said. “Sadness, sorrow, recognition … and hope to move on, a hope of healing.”
Support is available to anyone affected by residential school and those triggered by the latest reports.
A national crisis line for Indian housing school has been set up to provide support to survivors of after school and other affected. People can access emotional and crisis services by calling the 24-hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.