In my family, older aunts and uncles tell a story about “the baby from the oven.” “That was Maryann,” my Aunt June tells me. This conversation dates back to the summer of 2018, on the Katzie First Nation Reservation in BC.
“The one with a hole in her back,” my mother intervenes.
“He had a spinal disease, he was like a big [gesturing to show her palm], almost bigger than the rest of it, and they used to keep it in the oven to keep it warm, ”June said.
They explained to me that it was a wood stove, with a small drawer lined with cloth.
My grandmother had a baby every year for almost two decades during the 1950s and 1960s; I have many aunts and uncles. And like all of them, Maryann was born at home.
First Nations people like my grandmother gave birth at home because they were denied access to regular hospitals.
The white population of Canada did not want First Nations people in their hospitals. A typical example of this disdain for us comes from a Victoria Jubilee Hospital Board meeting, where a board member stated, “The Indians were unclean and they damaged the hospital.” That hospital board went ahead with banning First Nations patients unless they paid upfront and at a higher rate than whites were charged. It’s something that many other hospitals in Canada did, forcing the Department of Indian Affairs to create its own, albeit flawed, medical system.
Although technically called “Indian hospitals”, they had all the characteristics of a residential school or a prison camp.
the Indian Hospitals they were places where medical experiments were performed on children without parental consent, where First Nations people were imprisoned against their will, and where it was a crime to refuse any treatment ordered.
The result was that Grandma Mary was left to her own devices to bring her family into the world. Her husband, my grandfather, was a fisherman and was at sea 11 months a year, so she made her nest in her room and did it alone.
Genocide does not begin and end with residential schools, writes Robert Jago. #TRC #FirstNations # TruthYReconciliation
Grandma Mary underwent a procedure to give birth. Before its expiration, she would take everything she needed to her bedroom: water, towels and, according to June, “a new pair of scissors … that she never used for anything else.”
June explained, “We all went to school and came home and there was a baby, and Mom was cleaning, cleaning the baby, cleaning the room.”
The night Maryann died in 1950, Grandma was with her. Crouching next to the oven, she gave him wood to keep the baby warm.
As the night wore on
her screams softened,
and then it stopped,
And when the fire went out, the baby died.
This is the Truth in “Truth and Reconciliation”. It is one of hundreds of thousands of individual tragedies that collectively make up the Indigenous Peoples genocide in Canada and, broadly speaking, it is an event that we celebrate today on National Truth and Reconciliation Day.
Genocide does not start and end with residential schools. Maryann was born and died without reservation.
My family is one of many who fled the reservation to escape federal control. After they had gone to residential school themselves, my grandparents decided that the best thing for their family was to run away. They left their home, the parcel of land that has belonged to our family for generations, and went to live as refugees in the small fishing town of Steveston, BC.
This is another part of the genocide.
Letting “the oven baby” die won land for Canada, built the railroad, cleaned up the prairies, re-natured the parks, and pumped clean water into every home in the country, or into every one of YOUR homes.
There are so many different parts of the genocide that we mark today, and many of them are still happening.
Residential schools are closed, Indian hospitals are closed, but still many First Nations women choose to give birth at home, in secret, to escape new forms of oppression, such as the so-called birth alerts. These are orders that a provincial child welfare agency gives to a hospital to inform them when a baby is born to the selected mother. Then the agency walks in and, in almost a third of the cases, seizes the child. In British Columbia, where First Nations people make up six percent of the population, nearly 60 percent of the people seized under birth alerts are First Nations.
My mother Virginia Jago was born at home. He died last week. She is too many things for me to say here, other than to say that her death has broken every piece of my heart. He was 64 years old and many more years awaited him with his family. But decades of poverty, and everything that came from it, took those years away from us.
This is also a Truth.
My mother’s last day with us, she spent it surrounded by her grandchildren. It was her granddaughter’s birthday. Her granddaughter shared the name of my sister who died when she was a baby, so my mother loved her especially. That day, despite years of health problems, I was as happy and healthy as I had seen her in years.
In her final photo, she was wearing her orange “Every Child Matters” T-shirt.
As a family, we have been receiving almost everything that Canada did to First Nations people, and my mother saw it all. Many members of our family went to residential schools, my mother lost brothers and sisters to the Scoop of the 60s, others like Maryann, due to discrimination in medical services.
We have lost a lot, and being with the family and seeing all of us together meant so much more to her, because she felt the meaning of those three words: Each. Kid. Matters.
We gave him this shirt to wear on his coffin, as a reminder of how happy he was in the end, and what it was like to be with his grandchildren who completed it. I shudder to think of the countless First Nations families who were denied this comfort because they took their children and would never return. As if taking the land was not enough, this part of the most elemental happiness, being with your grandchildren, was also expropriated.
These are some of the Truths. But what about Reconciliation, the other half of what we are marking today?
Just as you cannot put out a fire with a blowtorch, you cannot reconcile with people who still hurt you. Métis lawyer Breen Ouellette has observed that at the root of all the accumulated oppression of indigenous peoples is Section 91 (24) of the British North American Act, the law that created Canada. This section gives the federal government the exclusive right to make laws for “Indians” and our lands.
Every piece of land that is stolen from us, every child sent to a residential school, every underfunded school, every forced sterilization, every liter of toxic waste thrown into the reserve, everything, everything, begins with Section 91 (24). That section, what Ouellette calls “legislated apartheid, ”It is the line that divides reconciliation from oppression. While it is still part of the Constitution of this country, this country continues to be an active oppressor of our people.
The time has come to cross that line, this is how Reconciliation begins. Non-native leaders in Canada must separate themselves from those who have harmed indigenous peoples. Justin Trudeau and even Stephen Harper have shown the knack of saying the right words to appease people, and both have returned the next day to oppress indigenous peoples. But we don’t need more words, we need less; specifically, we need to remove Section 91 (24) of the Constitution.
Removing that part of the Constitution will not fix things overnight, but it will remove the legal basis for our oppression. Doing this will distance the Canadians of the future from those who have done so much harm.
On this day, we must look at Truth and anguish. I wish you could know what I feel and then magnify that a million times for each person affected so that you can see the magnitude of the pain that is the genocide of our peoples. With that knowledge, it would be imperative for each person to demand that we break with what came before and move on. On behalf of ourselves, the country and the children.
If you want to make a difference, consider making a donation to First Nations Family and Child Care Society, which helps support equity for First Nations children and youth, and reconciliation-based activities for all children in Canada.