Tough lessons

As a young child, Ricky Vernon O'Brien's main mode of transportation was by dog sled. Then, he said, he became a dog himself. When O'Brien was seven, the Canadian government took him from his isolated Yukon existence - where he lived with a family whose major source of livelihood was trapping forest animals - and put him in a boarding school. On their first day, he and hundreds of other native children, most complete strangers to each other, were herded together in the basement of the "residential school," as the educational institutions dedicated to assimilating First Nations youth were called. "It was like dogs put in a pen to sort themselves out," he said, describing a scene of mass brawling. O'Brien said he was able to establish himself at the top of the pecking order because his time outdoors working with his hands made him stronger than many of his peers. But while he might have overpowered the other children, he too was cowed by a system which he labeled "physically, emotionally and sexually abusive." The students were severely punished, beated even, for speaking their own languages or practicing their traditional religions. They were regularly humiliated; O'Brien recalled the sight of children who had wet their beds forced to spend the day wrapped in the dirty sheet as punishment. To survive, he said, "I became really good at fighting, and that's all I knew how to do." That solitary skill, he said, precipitated his criminal record as an adult. And that, he explained, returned him to the same kind of place as the residential school he had come from. "I went to jail, and it's no different," he said. But it was his son, he stressed, who "paid the biggest price" for the government's policy of deracination, intended to erase their cultural distinctiveness. The sexual abuse O'Brien suffered, he said, made it impossible for him to stay faithful to his romantic partners and led to emotional distance from his son. "I couldn't hold him. I pushed him away," he said. "I didn't express my love for him." It was only once others stories of abuse began to come out and he reported his own experience in 1981 - and the perpetrators pled guilty - that O'Brien began to work through and overcome what had happened. Though O'Brien, now the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for the Yukon territory, has since turned away from crime, remarried, and become a successful carpenter, many of his peers have not done as well: "A lot of them are dead and a lot of them are living on the street. Now we're going through lawsuits." Just last week, shortly after O'Brien's recent trip to Israel, the Canadian government agreed to compensate 80,000 aboriginals sent to residential schools. The $1.7 billion settlement should result in about $21,000 reaching each former student, as well as $111 million for a foundation promoting traditional First Nations healing techniques and a "truth and reconciliation" commission. The payment needs final rubber stamps from the cabinet and courts, but is expected to be disbursed by the government and religious institutions that ran the residential schools starting next year. The schools were operated sporadically over a few hundred years under the auspices of the Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches. The last one was closed in 1996, though most had been shut by the 1980s. "We welcome today's announcement," AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine, himself a victim of abuse, said in a statement issued on the day the settlement was publicized. "This is a tremendous day for First Nations, for survivors of residential schools, and for Canada."