Indigenous people have long stressed the unspeakable horrors of residential (boarding) schools in North America. Last year, those horrors were made inescapably real for many when mass graves were unearthed at multiple school locations in Canada. Since then, the fight to confront the colonial and genocidal function of these schools has ramped up, and that fight reached a new height when a delegation of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis leaders met with Pope Francis at the Vatican—a meeting that was followed by a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in driving the residential school system. In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc welcomes back journalist Brandi Morin, who was at the Vatican for last month’s historic meeting, to discuss the ways that the colonial violence embodied in residential schools lives on today.
Brandi Morin is an award-winning French/Cree/Iroquois journalist from Treaty 6 territory in Alberta, Canada. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets, including Al Jazeera English, The Guardian, The National Observer, The New York Times, Vice Canada, and CBC Indigenous. Read Morin’s latest reporting here.
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Pre-Production/Studio: Adam Coley
Post-Production: Stephen Frank, Adam Coley
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, great to have you all with us once again.
We are joined once again by Brandi Morin, who’s a leading Canadian journalist of Cree, Iroquois, and French descent, who covers with in-depth analysis the social, political, cultural life, and struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada. She’s written a lot for Al Jazeera. A number of series on Al Jazeera, she’s been covering the Pope’s trip to Rome, which we’ll be talking about, apologizing for the past crimes against Indian people, to unearthing the heart-rendering murders and colonial story of Canadian boarding schools, where Indian children went from the 1870s to the 1990s.
We’ll explore the deep connection there is today between the destruction of Indigenous culture, these boarding schools, what the Pope did, to the missing and murdered among Native women that takes place in Canada, like it does here in the United States. Once again, Brandi, welcome. Good to have you with us, really good to have you with us.
Brandi Morin: Tânisi [“hello” in Plains Cree], Marc, thank you. Thank you for having me.
Marc Steiner: I’m glad you could make the time. I know you’re covering 17 things at once.
Brandi Morin: I love it though.
Marc Steiner: Wouldn’t have it any other way. So, let’s start with the trip to Rome and what that was about, and the story also in that of Lorelei Williams, the woman that you centered in one of your stories around that trip to Rome. So, take us back a bit, A, how you got there, and what this was? What’s the history of this?
Brandi Morin: Yeah. So, this was a historic meeting between Pope Francis and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit delegates from so-called Canada. The Pope had invited them to talk about the evils of the residential school system, in which the Catholic role played a huge role. They ran close to 70% of the Indian residential schools in Canada, and we know that Indigenous children were kidnapped, stolen from their families, and forced to attend these assimilative schools, where most often they experience severe neglect and sexual, emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, and were punished for speaking their languages, and just degraded as children in every way. Thousands of them didn’t make it out alive.
The world was shocked last summer when some of the graves of our children began to be unearthed. It started in Kamloops, BC where 215 unmarked graves were found. Then it started snowballing across the country where these former residential schools were, where these graves are being discovered. So, there was a lot of grieving, a lot of pain.
So, there was the Anglican Church, the Prosperian Churches that were involved in running these schools, but the Catholic Church administered the majority of them and funded by the federal government, they were the only church that still hadn’t apologized. The survivors and families of survivors have advocated for years for an apology from the head of the Church, which was the Pope. So, the Pope invited this delegation to Rome, and I was privileged to be able to go along and document these historic meetings for Al Jazeera English in late March and early April. It was a pretty incredible experience. It was a devastating, emotional rollercoaster of a ride.
Marc Steiner: I was thinking, there’s a couple of things that popped through my head as you were speaking, but let me focus in. One of the stories you did, at the center of this story was this woman Lorelei Williams. There’s this amazing cape that she is wearing, this red cape. She talked about her mother, who lived through the schools, and her father, who was a famous artist who lived through the schools, and how her mother became an alcoholic. You can tell her story more, but it just was so moving. She said, “I 100% feel like the government killed her. I even wanted to sue them. The government has killed all our people that have died before their time. My mother was trying to numb that pain, that’s what killed her. The colonizers wanted to wipe our people off our lands.” So, talk about her, and your interaction with her, what you saw in her, and what her story is, and how is kind of emblematic of the literal genocide motor against Indigenous people in Canada?
Brandi Morin: Absolutely. Literal genocide, yes. So, I’ve known Lorelei for a number of years, Lorelei Williams. She’s an Indigenous advocate. She’s an advocate for Indigenous justice as well for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. So, she had found out about this meeting happening in Rome, and she told me she knew she just had to be there. Both of her parents attended residential schools, both of them are now deceased. So what she did was she paid her own way there. She wasn’t a part of the official delegation.
I wanted to connect with her right away, so we decided to go to the home of the gladiators, to the Coliseum one evening. She brought this stunning silk cape that is in honoring of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. She wore it there at the Coliseum, and the sun was setting. She started to tell me the story of how her parents survived these houses of horrors, and how her mother experienced sexual abuse, and physical abuse, and emotional, everything that you can imagine, and how her mother dealt with that pain. She became an alcoholic, and she literally drank herself to death. She went into liver failure, and her father died young, too. It was absolutely heartbreaking. But she was there not only for her parents, but to bring awareness to this crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that is a symptom of colonization, that is a remnant of the violence of these residential school systems.
Our women are being stolen like our children were stolen. Our women are being targeted for violence just like our children were targeted for violence. This hasn’t stopped, it’s ongoing today. So, she wanted to bring that urgent message to Pope Francis, and hoped that it would get out just by her being there, even though she wasn’t a part of the delegation.
Marc Steiner: Do you think the Pope heard her?
Brandi Morin: I think so. I know that the delegates brought up a number of these concerns with the Pope in their private meetings with him. Her presence was very prominent there in Rome. She went to St. Peter’s Basilica and sang there and danced there, and supported the survivors, walked with the survivors. So, hopefully the Pope became aware or is aware of these continuing genocides.
Marc Steiner: There’s so many other places that we could take these conversations because of all you’ve been writing about and all you experienced with the Pope, also your stories about the missing and murdered women that continues to this day. I want to explore with you just for a moment these connections, what they mean. I think people don’t… In Canada there’s this Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which the United States has failed to do at all yet, to even take that step.
But the whole reality of, what you can describe, thousands of Indigenous children, of Native children who were killed, died in those boarding schools, buried in unmarked graves, across Canada. To me, as I read about it, I remember I did a story about the men’s camps in the United States years back with the same thing that’s happening, where all these mostly white men working on the oil pipelines ended up raping and attacking Indian women across the country. The same thing happens in Canada. There’s a horrendous connection, for me anyway, between those two that’s an arc, that it’s connected. I’m wondering if you could explore that for a bit, and also give people watching, listening, the sense of what happened in those boarding schools and the stories that came out of there?
Brandi Morin: Yeah. So, when the European colonizers first arrived on Turtle Island, they had an agenda to mine the gold, to extract the resources, and to steal the land. It brought violence. That violence was also projected onto the people of the land, the Indigenous people, and especially the Indigenous women. So, any violence against our Mother Earth, it transcribes onto violence against our mothers, against our daughters, against our sisters. So, that always has gone hand in hand.
Our mothers are the life givers, the life givers to our children. Our children were targeted by these colonizers who wanted to take control, who wanted to take over these lands that our people have called [home for] millennia. They started to kill us off, and then they targeted the children to attempt to assimilate them because our ways were considered savage, our ways were considered pagan and evil. They tried to indoctrinate Indigenous children into their culture and their ways, and they did it by force.
It all translates to what’s happening today. The residential school era did not end. We still have thousands and thousands of Indigenous children that are forcibly removed from their homes today, because they are overrepresented in the child welfare system. Because our families are reeling from the effects of colonization, from the effects of the abuses of these boarding schools, and not given the resources or the opportunities to heal. Our children are being taken continuously. Our children make up the majority of children in the child welfare system in Canada. It’s a complete money maker.
And the extractive industry is ongoing. Canada is built on industry. It is a mining nation, and it’s continuing to perpetuate that violence against our people. Our people are still being removed from their lands. Our people are still being targeted for violence. And we know that the violence that industry brings, whether it’s through man camps or whether it’s through the violation of Indigenous rights, that our women are being raped and murdered. Everything is connected. The thing is, this isn’t something of the past. This is something that is continuous, that is ongoing.
Even in the United States, these borders were created by the colonizers, but the effects go all the way down the line. There are children, Indigenous children, that died all across the US as well. I was just there last summer. I was on assignment for National Geographic, and I went to Pennsylvania, to Carlisle, where one of the most infamous Indian boarding schools was. I followed the roads by Sioux Lakota, who repatriated their children who had died there. They gave them a beautiful traditional burial. The graves of your children there, the Indigenous children in the United States, are about to be unearthed across the nation. So, this is something our people have been dealing with and have known for a long time, but it’s just now being exposed to the mainstream.
Marc Steiner: So, there was a stat. Let me start with this – I probably neglected to write it down, but you’ll probably remember it. In this story, when you mention foster children, you mentioned the percentage of Canadians who are Native, who are Indigenous, and the percentage, which I think was 55% if it was not more, of children who are forced into foster care. Is that right?
Brandi Morin: I think our percentage maybe makes up about 5% now, of Indigenous in Canada. Yeah, I think it’s closer to about 60% of the children that are in the child welfare system.
Marc Steiner: So, when I think about that, when I read that, when I read about the numbers of missing Indigenous women, and murdered Indigenous women that has taken place today, these man camps around that are actually at the heart of most of the murdered women and the rape of these women, and then the stories about people being taken away, can you talk a bit about what the struggle is against that, and what people are doing to stop that? What should take its place?
Brandi Morin: At the heart of it is racism. It’s been that from day one. It’s apathy. It’s apathy from our governments and from the justice systems, from the inadequate policing systems that we have. For instance, I was just up in Wet’suwet’en territories a few weeks ago in Northern British Columbia, where the Wet’suwet’en people have been in a fight against the coastal gasoline pipeline that’s being built through their unceded territories. They don’t want it there. They don’t want their lands and waters to be destroyed by industry. They’re also concerned about the impacts to their communities, the impacts to their women. It happens to be in an area that’s parallel to what’s known as the Highway of Tears, where dozens of, mostly Indigenous, women and girls have disappeared or vanished.
I was up there, and the RCMP, which are the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, have been deployed to those territories on behalf of industry to make sure that this project gets done. Meanwhile, they’re harassing and intimidating these Indigenous land defenders every single day. There has been well over $20 million that the police have put into arresting and antagonizing these people that are just defending their rights. It struck me because here we are parallel to this Highway of Tears, and so little has been done. So little amount of resources have been put into addressing this crisis that we have, this genocide. Yet, they’ll bring in dozens of police daily to harass these Indigenous land defenders on behalf of industry. It puts it into perspective. On our end it doesn’t make sense, but it does make sense when you understand what their agenda is. Their agenda is to extract, their agenda is the economy. They’re not interested in human rights. They’re not focused on protecting Indigenous women from these harms. It’s blatantly apparent.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to come back to what you were just saying, but it made me think about one of the pieces that you were writing about, which is about missing and murdered women. That really… It just pierced my heart, because I saw my own daughters, one of whom is part Indigenous. I could see her face in that little girl’s face. When you wrote about Mike Balczer, his voice alone, he is so compelling.
Talk a bit about that. I don’t want to get emotional about it, but it really gets to me that we’re talking about babies, young girls, children being murdered and raped on this highway you talk about in Canada. It’s all part of the exploitation of the resources, which doesn’t give a damn about people’s lands or lives. And snatching children away to put them in foster care. All these things are wrapped around. So the question is, how do we begin to unravel this and stop it? There’s got to be a movement beyond just Indigenous people that says no.
Brandi Morin: Yeah, Mike’s daughter, Jessica Patrick was 18 years old. She was a young mother. She had a baby. Her body was found dumped off a cliff outside of Smithers in Northern British Columbia. Her murder remains unsolved. The police haven’t really done much about it.
We had a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Coming up on three years in June, it will be, that the final report and calls to justice were released. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that he and his government would do everything in their power to implement these calls to justice and to take action. It was rhetoric. Little to nothing is being done, or has been done. It’s heartbreaking. Our women are continuing to die. We had a young woman in Vancouver whose body was just found last week dumped in somebody’s backyard. It’s continual, and it’s not a priority. It’s just not a priority.
But there are grassroots people, there are grassroots organizations that are doing what they can to raise awareness. There are campaigns, there are different avenues such as social media for education. Even I, as a journalist, I use my platform. I am a survivor. I ran away from a group home when I was 12 years old, and was held against my will and raped by older men. I could have been a statistic. I have a book called Our Voice Of Fire talking about that, and trying to humanize our people, and humanize our women, because our women haven’t been looked at as human beings. We’ve been looked at as runaways, as drunks, and not valued. It’s trying to bring that understanding. Because there’s just been such a separation, such a segregation. And an understanding of our cultures, and an understanding of the harms that we’re done, and the things that we’re healing from, and just such disrespect towards our people and towards our women. So, most of the work is being done via a grassroots level.
Marc Steiner: Do you think this combination of what happened with the Pope, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, with the activism of Indigenous people and other people that were allied with that, massive demonstrations have taken place, can actually begin to make the kind of definitive change that’s needed?
Brandi Morin: Yeah, it’s not going to happen overnight. I’ve been told this over and over by elders, by Indigenous leaders, by survivors. Many survivors and intergenerational survivors are on a healing journey, and there’s no linear path on that healing journey. Everybody’s at different stages. Whether they are processing that grief, processing that anger, whether they are ready to forgive, whether they are prepared to move forward. Is the Pope’s apology an answer? No, but it’s a step. It’s a step. I was told by Chief Wilton Littlechild, who is a revered Indigenous lawyer and leader, who is also a survivor who was at the Vatican, he said, it’s key because now our people are able to move forward in forgiving. Because that couldn’t happen before when there was no acknowledgement of wrong.
So, this process of reconciliation, it could take generations. It’s on a very personal, intimate, and individual level, but it’s also a collective level. Yes, there are allies that are very passionate. There are allies such as yourself who are doing that work to really understand the truth of the brutality of our history and to reckon with where we are now in order to move forward together, because ultimately that’s what we have to do. We are all here with the different Indigenous nations that have called these lands home for millennia. The European nations’ settlers that are here now, we’re not going anywhere. Neither of us are going anywhere. So, it’s about that healing together, and walking that path forward together. It’s going to be painful. It’s going to be ugly, but it’s also going to be worth it.
Marc Steiner: Right. Exactly. I think that one of the things you’ve done in the pieces that you’ve written and produced is you’ve shown also the beauty and power of Indigenous men and women who have suffered through this, but are building lives and standing up to it and saying, we’re going to change it and fight it. That’s an important piece.
Brandi Morin: They wanted to take our languages away. They wanted to take our cultures away. They wanted to strip us of our identity, and our laws, and our spirituality. But we are reclaiming everything that was stolen in a very powerful way, and it’s a really beautiful thing to witness. My kôkom, my grandmother, was a survivor of residential schools. I am a part of that new generation that is going back to who we are, but just reclaiming it to where we are now. I feel really blessed to be a part of that, no matter how difficult a process this healing is.
Marc Steiner: Well, Brandi Morin, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. I really do appreciate all the work you’re doing, and the writing you do, and getting these stories out. We will do our best to get them out with you here at The Real News. That’s a commitment. Folks who are listening, watching this, on the page I have linked to all the articles that Brandi has written for Al Jazeera and more that touches on the subjects we talked about today. You can get a really in-depth look. Brandi, before I let you go, what’s next on your agenda?
Brandi Morin: Oh my gosh. I’m working on so many different things. I’m actually working on a feature documentary with Two Canoes Media and Pyramid Productions from Rome. My book, Our Voice Of Fire, is coming out. I’m working on a podcast series for Canadaland. I’m also working on another feature documentary film. I have a lot of different irons in the fire. I appreciate all the work that you’re doing. What you’re doing is a key part of reconciliation, and I want to honor you and thank you for that.
Marc Steiner: Thank you, Brandi. Thank you very much for joining us again. Look forward to talking to you again very soon.
Brandi Morin: Hay-hay [thank you].
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. You can find links to more about this conversation here on the site. Please let me know what you think about what you heard today, and what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get right back to you. Again, the links to Brandi Morin’s articles will be attached to this story.
I want to thank Adam Coley, Stephen Frank, Cameron Granadino, and Kayla Rivera, our hard working creative team here at The Real News for making the show happen. Thank you all again for joining us. I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.