Images from centuries old book used to teach Cree children english | Image Source: Crystal Sinclair
For Crystal Sinclair it was painful to grow up feeling like an outcast in her own land, separated from her family into foster care and then be sent to a residential school – while seeing non-Natives get treated better. The Fish River Cree woman is a survivor of the Poplar Hill Residential School she attended from 1977-78. With the momentum of the last Truth and Reconciliation gathering in Ottawa last month, Crystal pulled out an old family ‘heirloom’ – a book used to assimilate and colonize Native children – and brought it to Ottawa in hopes of sharing it with others, closing that negative chapter of family history forever.
The book dated from the 1800’s is small in size and delicate in nature; the pages are yellowed from over a century of existence and at times the text is overtly racist as it ‘transmits’ western ‘lessons’ and way of life. Ironically Crystal’s mother mailed her the book so she could learn Cree, but she quickly realized its significance. Sinclair says she wanted to share this book with the world because it is an important part of hidden Canadian history; “The government must be exposed for what happened to First Nations children when they were trying to colonize us and break families apart.”
Sinclair contacted MUSKRAT to tell the story of the book and to help digitize its pages to preserve and share before making the journey to Ottawa. Sinclair passed me the book to look over. As I turned through the pages my mind wandered. I started thinking about all of the little children’s hands the book had passed through. Who were they? What were they like? Their scribbles and writing reminded me of my own- outlining the pictures like I did in elementary school. On the first page there’s a number. In some residential schools children were identified by numbers. Was this that child’s identity number?
Sinclair’s family was one of the many families that was torn apart by the negative impacts of colonization. She grew up with her grandparents in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Their life was hard. They faced poverty, racism, violence in their community and dehumanization as Native People. At 6 years old she was sent to live with a Mennonite foster family in northern Ontario because her grandfather was too sick and elderly and her mother had already moved away for work in another province.
The foster family was extremely religious, praying and reading the bible 3 times a day while she was forced to attend school wearing awkward Mennonite dresses. It was here she learned to speak English in school and German at her foster home. When she was in grade 9, she started being physically abused and molested. Once her guidance counsellor found out and began an investigation, she was sent off to Poplar Hill Residential School. It all happened so fast she says, “one day I woke up to all of my things packed and I was shipped off with no contact to my mother.” Not being able to connect with the other children she spent a year there lonely and isolated.
After her time at Poplar Hill, Sinclair was sent to live with another Mennonite family in Dryden ON, that ran a bible camp for Native people before reuniting with her grandmother. By that time her grandfather had already passed away. Once again living in poverty in the inner city of Winnipeg, she started using drugs and alcohol while struggling to deal with her issues of pain. Eventually she overcame her adversity and went on to complete her degree in Social Work at Ryerson University in 1999.
Since then she has turned her life around. Sinclair is now the Mental Health Addictions Coordinator at Old City Hall Court in Toronto. As an activist and community leader, she helped start the Idle No More movement in Toronto. She describes the experience as a spiritual movement that mobilized youth and united communities; “It was a powerful thing. We’re not going to stand for the government taking over and taking our land and leaving us impoverished. That is done, no more of that,” she says.
For everyone reconciliation means something different. For Sinclair reconciliation means that “action must happen in the political, economic and sociological context to empower Native Peoples to flourish in society as equal partners which was was agreed upon in the Treaties. A new narrative can begin to happen when both sides work together with respect, dignity and equality for all.” Crystal believes that, “to begin this process of reconciliation the government should agree to implement the recommendation to accept the UN on the Rights of Indigenous People. First Nations people will continue to insist that our rights will not be ignored or diminished.”
One of the 94 calls to action from the TRC findings states that students must learn about Indigenous cultures, the history of residential schools and their impacts on survivors. Currently, Sinclair uses the book and her story for teachings with whoever would like to hear them. She adds, “I’m on a journey of reclamation of culture, teachings and healing. I just want to share anyway I can to foster help and hope in people.”