I write against violence. I write against fascism. I write against one person dominating another. -- Timothy Findley
In considering my current novel, Like Raisins in Scone (working title), it's clear to me that I am writing against "violence…and…one person dominating another," as Findley said. The story does its best to look at the early days of Indian residential schools in Canada and to explore what that world was like for those children and the people charged with their keeping.
What I discovered while writing it was that all the terrible things that went on in residential schools in all places and all times affected anyone whose life touched those schools -- the children, obviously and most egregiously, their families and communities in different but equally devastating ways. We know this now, thanks to Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and all the research and seeking that preceded it. What has followed the TRC's mandate has brought many such atrocities to light and to a wider audience. These revelations are long past due.
In recent years I have heard several Indigenous leaders and writers say things like, "We are all treaty people." and "Everyone in Canada is affected by residential schools and their legacy." Such statements opened my eyes to new ideas. They broadened my thinking and invited the discoveries I made while writing my book.
I discovered through my research and through getting to know my characters more fully, that many staff were almost as trapped as the children. Instantly I must say that this is not an excuse for cruelty or the institutions that supported it…but I have come to realize that it is true nonetheless. Many nuns and priests took vows of obedience believing in their god and their church. Some naturally entered their new lives with already-bent hearts and minds, but some did not. What a challenge it must have been for them to find themselves living in remote places, ordered and encouraged to inflict strict punishments on "those" children. Other. Ungodly. Dirty. This is what many staff people, and the communities that raised them, believed.
But what of those who found themselves in these schools with no way out? At the mercy of the orders that trained and programmed them, they went where they were sent. They stayed because they were told to. They survived because they were human, and to some, releasing their inner brute was not what they wanted. They had to learn to survive in an environment that taught cruelty, suspicion and separateness.
I realized during my research and writing that just as some guards in prisons and Nazi prison camps and orphanages around the world have always found ways to offer whatever small kindnesses and relief they could, it was logical that some in residential schools would have done the same. My initial plea to the universe that someone, sometime, was kind to the children was answered in the form of Sister Mary Victor.
I learned that there were, in fact, other real historical figures who advocated for the children in Indian schools – matrons, teachers, writers, at least one physician. I'm sure there were others my research did not reveal.
Like Raisins in Scone is not an apology for white people or the churches or governments. It is an exploration of what can happen to twist a human being, how urges are managed and mismanaged. How human beings react and respond when they are themselves trapped in circumstances beyond their control. It is an examination and indictment of Indian residential schools, to be sure, but it also offers an opportunity to explore the mindset of individuals and reflect on how a society helps to shape those individuals…for good or ill.