(composed at the finale of the Truth and Reconciliation performance, Vancouver, September 22, 2013)
The gang raping and torture of the little brown boys and girls stopped for one evening, and for that evening alone. Remarkably, the lean and anemic children were given a regular meal, and a change of clothes, and even a bath. For it was Christmas Eve, and the local pale church goers needed some entertainment.
All the Indian kids knew the score by then, it being a simple matter of unnatural selection, since anyone who didn’t play the game didn’t live very long at the Edmonton residential school. Only the obedient were still alive. And so they all donned their starched white uniforms and their frozen smiles with no fuss or bother, and they somehow limped and trudged to the waiting school bus.
At the front door of the cold stone building, Jim Ludford awaited them with his prescribed leather strap as the snow fell on good and evil alike. Ludford was the representative of the god that had brought the children to this place where half of them would die. Every Sunday in the United Church chapel, Ludford always concluded his sermon with the reminder to his little brown flock that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”.
The boys and girls who filed carefully past him that night were all good little Indians, and therefore dead, or soon to be. But like the pale ones who waited for their yuletide performance, the kids knew how to imitate the living. And Reverend Jim Ludford looked out at his creation that Christmas Eve in the year 1963, and he knew that it was good.
The children sang well that night, for they knew what would happen to them otherwise. Their voices recalled Gitchi Manitou and the little baby Jesus, come to redeem the world of all of its sins. And when they ended their performance with a refrain of Silent Night, of all those present, only they understood the silence.
The wall of polite pale faces seemed to enjoy the savages’ performance, and beamed happily as Reverend Ludford spoke his lies to the congregation and invited them to give a special monetary offering that night to further their important work among these poor unfortunates. The parishioners did so, of course, for Canadians are very nice people. Some of them even gave the brown children specially wrapped Christmas gifts, and little boxes of sweets, and the Canadians felt good with themselves for it, which was the whole point.
The children did not stay for the entire service, of course, lest they embarrass the church folk by staying for the lavish Christmas dinner in the church hall. Ludford guided them sternly back onto the snow-entombed bus, collecting from them all of the special gifts they clutched in their cold little hands. And on the drive back to the residential school, the clergyman chose from among the children three boys to receive his special thanks, later, in his bedroom.
None of that mattered, ultimately, in Ludford’s world, and in the bright and empty United Church where the performance had come off without a hitch. The show had gone on, and that’s what counted.
Those things never change.
Fifty years later, one of the brown children whose body still moved even though his soul did not found himself among the same pale crowd of nice Canadians: the very same people, in fact, who had paid Reverend Ludford to rape him and beat some of his friends to death. The good pale people still gazed through the brown man while pretending to see him, and once more they welcomed him to perform for them. And knowing what awaited him if he didn’t, once again the dead Indian walking didn’t let them down.
The brown man drummed for them and pretended to know about the aboriginal songs that he had learned from his uncle, and the white Christians watched him for awhile and feigned respect until something else caught their attention. Some of them gave him the hugs and compliments that passed for specially wrapped gifts, and like a half century before, their offerings were collected back from him before the evening was over.
The Indian sat alone after his performance, in the huge and bustling auditorium filled with Official Reconciliation without any Truth, watching as the mostly-pale crowd drifted by and imagined themselves to be informed and on the right side of history, just as they had in Edmonton, decades before, and when their first smallpox-spreading missionaries had fallen on his ancestors.
The Indian knew better and he saw the big lie, but he would never say so, for he had learned when so very young that another moment of survival was all that mattered.
The truth is pointless, he’d told his own son before the boy had killed himself. The truth is like that one moment in the boys’ dorm when I defied Reverend Ludford and pushed him away from me, and he held my arm down on a hot stove top until I passed out to teach me what was actually true.
But even in his tortured remembrance, the brown man did not allow life to depart completely from him. Gazing about the bustling auditorium and its desperate effort to reassure the conquerors, the Indian knew what was true. For somewhere, he had once heard that reconciliation meant, at its root, not equanimity, but quite oppositely, the way that one person is made subordinate again to another.
The white clergymen behind the United Church display booth, he noticed, still wore their stiff white collars, and they smiled just the way that James Ludford had.