BREAKING THE RACE BARRIER

In Features /

By Fatima Najm

Unless she was ambushed near the creek, it took Cyndy Baskin 10 minutes to get home from school. They’d knock her to the ground, calling her ‘squaw’, kicking her as she lay there.Baskin’s tormenters would tower over her, deciding between pushing her into the creek or bludgeoning her with their boots.

“My family had just moved away from the aboriginal community in Northern New Brunswick so we could go to a white school, they meant well, but it was hell to pay,” said Baskin.

It wasn’t the residential school system, but her instructors humiliated Baskin with such gusto, it may as well have been.

If a child raised a question about her culture in history class, the teacher would say, “Let’s ask Cyndy, she’s one of them.”

The seven-year-old wanted to crawl under her desk and die every time that happened.

That was Baskin’s first exposure to a mainstream education. Peers bent on ridiculing her because her father is Mi’kmaq, and instructors who sneered at her way of life.

Countless others who make up the non-reserve aboriginal population, estimated at 700,000 by Statistics Canada, have been similarly traumatized by racism in the school system.

But not all of them will be able to channel the rage into something positive. With every beating, Baskin became more determined to fight back. But not with blows.

Her brother did that and she saw what happened to him.

“He would act out, and try to stand up to the treatment we got and got strapped at school by teachers,” said Baskin, shaking her head at the idea. “Sounds like I am talking about something that happened centuries ago, but this happened during my childhood.”

One thing that school taught her was that knowledge translated into power.

“School taught me a hunger, and a need to empower myself, so I turned into a sponge, and soaked it all up,” said Baskin, who is an assistant professor in the social work department at Ryerson University.

The bigoted outbursts Baskin endured could have left her averse to the idea of education, as it has so many others. Onlyeight percent of aboriginal people in Canada were university-educated in 2001, according to a report released by Statistics Cananda last week.

Cyndy is a proud part of thateight per cent.

“I had this fierce desire become as good as qualified as all those who looked down on aboriginal peoples,” she says.

At 16, Baskin got on a bus to Toronto, a city she had seen only on T.V., and went to work in Bell Canada’s mailroom. Then she completed high school, got a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto, and then a bachelor of social work degree program from York University. Now she’s pursuing a PhD. ***

“Good for nothing drunken Indian,” the boy mumbled, pointing at Chantelle Anderson’s third cousin, Theo.

Anderson, who is half Cree, listened in shock.

“He was calling half of who I was bad,” said Anderson, a fourth-year fashion design student at Ryerson.

But, at 16, there was very little she could have done.

She gathered her courage, and responded, “I’m aboriginal.”

He was quick to qualify his statement, “but I don’t mean you, I mean those Indians at 20th Street.”

Anderson knew exactly what he meant. In Saskatoon, 20th Street and Avenue H marked the most impoverished part of town. It is an area Anderson knew well and visited often. Her grandmother lived there.

“I wish now I hadn’t let that go, but I wasn’t as confident about my aboriginal identity then as I am now,” she said.

At the time her porcelain complexion meant being able to disguise who she was.

***

Identity is a vague concept, articulated through tradition, lifestyle and language. Aboriginal identity becomes even more ambiguous for the offspring of those who suffered through the residential school system. Imagine if your parents, or their parents before them were taught to despise their own culture. Beaten for speaking in their language. Taunted for practising their traditional way of life. Sexually abused.

According to several reports compiled by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, that is what happened every day at residential and day schools for aboriginal children run by churches across Canada. The schools were meant to assimilate native people into a more ‘civilised’, European society. The Indian Act, consolidated in 1876, gave the church the legal means to strip the indigenous population of Canada of their culture. The government also negotiated the treaties that registered aboriginal people on file and allocated geographic areas to them. Agents arrived, counted how many people were around, and moved on to the next settlement. If you resisted the idea of having the terms of your life dictated to you, you lost your status. If you were on hunting or fishing expeditions at the time, you didn’t get status.

“To them, it meant it was the end of a way of life,” said Baskin. “And rebellion was not an option, you could be shot, tortured or your family subjected to all kinds of abuse.”

In a 2001 survey of 117,000 natives, 48 per cent of youth interviewed said they had not finished high school. According to the study, one-fifth cited “boredom” for leaving their schooling incomplete.

But Baskin and other scholars believe that the toxic impact of residential school system remains. The last residential school closed shop in 1984.

“The aboriginal people who endured the cruelty have become very closed about it, they internalized some of what they were told, and their sense of self was shattered,” said Baskin. “The horrors of the residential school system are not accurately reflected in our history books, and we need them to be, so that the truth is brought out.”

***

Today, not signing on as ‘Indian’ when the agents came calling means a vast number of non-status aboriginal people are not entitled to educational grants.

For the few who are eligible for scholarships, they must meet the competitive criteria set out by the universities they hope to attend. First you get the grades in high school, then you apply to university. Once you get in, you apply to your band for a scholarship.

“Bands are like municipalities, they have money set aside for education, just as you might have money set aside for hydro or infrastructure,” Baskin explains.

There is a finite amount of money that depends on the band you belong to and what they managed to ‘negotiate’ through the treaties. Your band awards the scholarships based on grades, and program of study. Once in school, you have to keep up your grades, and re-apply every year.

“Sometimes, a student will be in first year, will have gotten the grades, but when she applies to renew her scholarship for second year, she might find there is no money,” said Baskin.

Despite the competitive nature of the process, Nadine Jackson, 25, says that financial assistance fuels racist rhetoric about aboriginals.

“The racism and the resentment comes from the idea that we have advantages as aboriginal people,” she said.

At Dalhousie University, she learned not to say she was aboriginal when the mere mention of it would elicit sarcasm about getting a free ride through school.

If disparaging comments don’t deter the aboriginal people from university, there are other barriers.

“The maze of bureaucracy the aboriginal students have to navigate to get here can be dauting for anyone,” said Monica McKay, coordinator of Aboriginal Student Services. “You have to fill out forms at every level, and often feel like you must meet a certain criteria before you can speak to anyone is willing to speak with you face to face.”

Many of the students are the first in their family to attempt a university education, so there is no question of getting guidance from a parent.

***

When Baskin arrived in Toronto, she wondered what it would be like for no one to know that she was aboriginal. When people guessed Italian, she didn’t correct them.

“If you can pass off as white, you do it,” said Baskin.

And she did it for the same reason that hundreds of others decide not to identify themselves as aboriginal. To avoid being judged by misinformed members of society.

“There is no box to tick on the admission form because that could be seen as discriminatory,” said McKay. “So there is no way to track aboriginal students on campus.”

There is, however, an active group of peer supporters who help Inuit, non status, Metis, and First Nations students get used to dealing with systems at Ryerson.

“When you move from a small aboriginal community or reserve to a big city like Toronto, you lose your entire support system,” said Jackson, who is originally from Yellowknife.

Fermin Latimer, whose mother lives on a reserve, agrees.

“It’s like emigrating to another country,” said the third-year bachelor of commerce student. “You go from being surrounded by family and the community to knowing no one.”

Aboriginal Student Services has extensive links to the urban native community in Toronto and a limited list of scholarships and bursaries that students can access.

Last week, a squalid stretch of the cramped basement of the business building was filled with the magnificent sound of Aboriginal drums. As Bonnie Lavand lit a match and buried it in medicinal herbs – a mixture of sage, sweet grass and cedar bark  Baskin explained the smudging ceremony that was to bless the Fall feast, the diners and the new office space. Lavand carried the smoldering herbs over to the guests who stretched their hands out over the scented smoke, fanning it towards themselves.

According to aboriginal tradition, “just as we might clean out a new apartment, and wash out the fridge before we put food in it, we cleanse the new space of the energy of those who occupied it before us,” she explained.

The drumming pierced Baskin’s heart. The insistent beat awakened something inside her and the suffocating basement space, where Aboriginal Student Services and International Services for Students must make do for now, dissolved into the drumming.According to traditional teachings, the sound speaks to the pulse of all creatures, . As the hypnotic beat gathered momentum, the drums bound Baskin, Jackson, McKay, Latimer, Lavand and Anderson in a tight knit circle. Each of them on their own separate path, weaving in and out of the fabric of their community, strengthening it with each stride.


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