By Marty Ballentyne
“From unmarked graves, their bones cry out
‘Don’t let what happened to us be forgotten’“- Aaron Peters, Perfect Crime
30 years ago, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was created to investigate and propose solutions to the challenges affecting the relationship between First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples, the government and Canadian society. 5 years later, they submitted their report. The document was 4,000 pages long and set out a 20 year plan to implement 440 recommendations. To this day most of the recommendations have gone unimplemented. But the report contributed to an awareness of the vast differences in the lived experience of indigenous and non indigenous people in Canada. Though disappointing to many who longed for action, not words, it was a small step forward.
That same year, Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan closed its doors. It was the last of 139 residential schools operated by the federal government. I was surprised when I learned that fact. I didn’t know schools had remained open well into my adulthood.
In 1996 I was in my mid 20’s, living on a steady diet of caffeine, adrenaline and punk rock. I had spent most of the 90’s working for Missinipi Broadcasting, where by day I was a DJ and on air host - my dream job. By night, I was the frontman for The Ugly Sisters, and we played all over northern Saskatchewan for welcoming audiences. But doing covers wasn’t enough. Once we got the band up and running, we spent our rehearsal time working on songs of our own. We decided to create a separate identity for our music, because it was very different from the stuff we played at cabarets. It was heavier, influenced by bands like Fugazi, Prong, and Suicidal Tendencies. Breach of Trust was born. I was tasked with writing the words, and I looked to the punk bands I loved for inspiration. I also drew from personal experience - freshly clean from drugs and alcohol, I had begun attending ceremonies, learning our ways. The experience of being indigenous was rich, and no one was singing about it. I felt empowered to do so. We released our debut in late 1995, and embarked on our first tour of Canada, playing Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg and other cities. The record (Dead Issue EP) got some attention, and we met other indigenous artists making contemporary music, for the first time. It wasn’t a ‘scene’ yet, but something was happening.
In the fall of 96 I got invited to play solo at an aboriginal showcase in Regina. Tasha Hubbard, now an award winning filmmaker, booked me for the gig. I saw the mighty Chester Knight and the Wind perform, and caught a glimpse of Breach of Trust’s future in their young guitar player Colin Cheechoo (he joined us a few months later). But the one who made the biggest impression was Aaron Peters from Winnipeg. His record Don’t Say Reality was just out, and having snatched MBC’s copy for the trip, I cranked it all the way down to Regina. One song in particular cut me to the bone - Perfect Crime. It was about the lost children of residential school, about Aaron’s own experience as a foster child, and how white people would never know the damage they did. ‘If ever there was a perfect crime’...Aaron’s style was different than mine, but he was sharing stories of our people in song. I had found a kindred spirit. We became instant friends and remain close to this day.
This past week, Aaron’s song has been my soundtrack to the heartbreaking news of the discovery of 215 bodies of children, some as young as 3, at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School. It took me a full day to comprehend the magnitude of the horror. What followed has been a rollercoaster of emotion - anger, sadness, exasperation, and pain. I have been thinking of the families of those children, what they must be feeling and going through right now. I’ve thought a lot about my grandmother, who attended residential school in the early 1930’s. I had a strange thought - if she had been a victim like one of those children, my entire family would not exist. I would not be here. How does one process a thought like that? Social media has given me a window into the big national community we call ‘NDN country’, and I see that we’re all grieving. It’s yet another trauma we have to find our way through. My heart goes out to everyone who is feeling their way through this difficult time.
It has been a comfort to see that there are many non indigenous people who are reacting to the news as well, mostly in shock and disbelief. I have heard from many such friends, checking in, all expressing solidarity. It helps to know that, maybe, the atrocities that our people endured at the behest of church and state might finally be seen for what they were, and are. This isn’t a ‘sad chapter in history’ - this is a story that predates the birth of Canada and continues right up to the present day. Too many Canadians in our communities still have no clean drinking water. Survivors of residential schools are mired in the court process, a resolution still out of reach. I have long thought that the concept of reconciliation can only ever be a hollow notion unless Canada is willing to reckon with its own history - there can be no reconciliation without reckoning. I’ve read that Kamloops is the tip of the iceberg. There have been many calls in the past few days for all residential school sites to be dug up. I, for one, hope that this comes to pass, and soon. It would allow our people the chance to reclaim the bodies of their family members, to give them proper burials, to hold ceremonies and honor them, to move toward healing. For the rest of Canada, it would, perhaps, be the reckoning I think the country needs. To see the depth of depravity, evil, and suffering brought upon so many innocent children is to look at the darkness at the heart of this nation. To reconcile this ugly truth with the notions of ‘true patriot love’, and a land ‘glorious and free’ - THAT is the real reconciliation. Having said that, I am reminded that it’s up to communities to decide how to proceed. For too long our people have been subject to the will of others. At this sensitive time, despite the urgency we all feel, our communities need space to figure out what’s right for them.
Today Aaron’s lyrics are as powerful as ever. In the bridge, he sings ‘From ourselves we hide, from the darkness deep inside/You took away our pride. And you'll never know what you have done.’ I believe that - they’ll never truly know. That’s for us as indigenous people to carry. But by acknowledging what happened, by recognizing that we have suffered unspeakable horrors, and by realizing that this is not some distant history but a story that is being written in this moment, there will be progress. Nothing will ever make up for what’s been lost. Canada, you have a LOT to answer for. That there seems to be an awakening awareness of this gives me a glimmer of hope. In the Breach of Trust song ‘Disease’ I wrote ‘true is my wish for better things, no shame, no pain and suffering’. I knew back then it was a wish that would probably never be fulfilled, but I wanted to say it anyway. I still wish for better things. I am hopeful. Some days, it feels like that’s all I’ve got.