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Maiden Speech in the Senate Chamber

Honourable senators, I am humbled to rise in this chamber for the first time to share with you a story that contains an important and valuable lesson. The following is taken from Quite an Undertaking: The Story of Violet Guymer, Canada’s First Female Licensed Funeral Director:

The young woman was carried into the morgue and placed on the slab. She had died while in labour at the hospital only a short time ago, and with no family to claim the body, she was immediately brought to the funeral home for a pauper’s burial. Violet pulled on a gown and began assembling the embalming equipment. She was never prepared for the deaths of those who were so young. But this one tore at her heart: the woman was still carrying the unborn infant.

With sadness in her eyes, Violet turned to begin the procedure, placing her hand on the dead woman’s swollen abdomen. What was that? She felt something — a small kick! She moved her hand around the surface of the distended stomach. Yes, she was certain — the baby was still alive! Although she had lost a lot of blood and was unconscious, this mother was probably still living! The doctor had better get there quickly to save her and the baby.

Running to the phone, she lifted the handset and frantically turned the crank to get the operator’s attention.

Millie came on the line and in a bored voice, intoned, “Number, please.”

“Millie, get me the coroner! It’s Vi. Hurry!

These were the kinds of calls Millie lived for. She rang the hospital and passed the message on, staying on the line to hear what was going on over at the Funeral Home. This sounded interesting.

The coroner answered brusquely, “Yes?”

“It’s Vi — you have to get over here right now. This woman is still alive — I think the baby is alive too!”

Hanging up, she stood looking at the pretty young face of the mother, touching the mound of her stomach and praying he would get there before it was too late. The baby was full term and had an excellent chance of survival.

When the doctor arrived, he felt her carotid artery, frowned, and then pulled a stethoscope out of his medical bag. Placing the bell first over her heart then on the woman’s uterus, he listened intently for the sound of a heartbeat. Nodding gravely, he said, “We can take care of this.” Violet relaxed; he had made it on time.

The coroner reached into his bag, then turned back to the woman stretched out on the slab. Violet’s eyes widened in horror, for instead of a scalpel to do the caesarean, he had a hypodermic needle in his hand. Plunging the needle into her uterus, he injected the contents and slowly withdrew the needle, smiling with satisfaction. He waited a moment, listened again and confirmed it. There was no heartbeat, no sign of movement. Both mother and child were dead.

Vi had her hand over her mouth to suppress a scream. That was what she wanted to do. She wanted to scream, and cry and pound him with her fists. How could he be so cold, so uncaring, so cruel? She remembered the death of her own baby not long ago. He had not survived his birth four months early. She remembered the labor and delivery that was worse than the other five babies all put together. She remembered and mourned all over again. She felt a wave of nausea and willed herself not to vomit. This was not a time to show weakness.

She was able to compose herself, yet shock and anger clouded her face as she faced him. He was oblivious to her presence, packing up his medical bag and preparing to leave when he finally looked at her and noticed her reaction.

In his mind, “the problem” had been a slight inconvenience, which he had dispatched quickly and efficiently, momentarily forgetting he had an audience and not thinking the audience would care anyway. “After all,” he reasoned, “It was just an Indian.”

He walked over to Violet. He towered over her slight frame and looked directly into her grey eyes with a condescending look.

“What’s the matter, Vi? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. . . I’d have thought you’d be used to that by now.”

She bit her lip and with a quavering voice said, “I thought . . . I thought you’d try to save the baby, not. . .” she paused and took a deep breath “not. . .do what you did!” She looked away as the tears formed in her eyes.

He sighed. ”For heavens sake! Are you going to make an issue out of this? I did what anyone would have done. It’s all over. Besides, they didn’t have a chance. Vi, look at me.”

In a measured tone he said it aloud, “She was just an Indian. Forget it.”

He walked over to her and with a patronizing pat on her shoulder he said, “I didn’t think you would be able to handle this job. This is a man’s job, Vi. You shouldn’t be here. Go home and look after your children.” Then he smirked and said, “Or come home with me.”

He winked and pinched her cheek.

Forcefully she pushed him away. Eyes blazing, she said, “Don’t you ever touch me again! Get out of here!”

He shrugged, picked up his bag and said over his shoulder as he left, “By the way, I wouldn’t be talking about what just happened if you know what’s good for you. If you say anything, you will be out of business, Vi Guymer. Don’t ever forget that.”

Perhaps the (dead) woman knew the truth, and Violet knew the truth. But Violet also knew the doctor was right: no one would believe it; there was no one she could go to with a story of what had just happened. Even if there was someone who would believe it, nothing would be done about it. He was right again. She was “just an Indian”.

It was 1920 and the coroner himself had too much authority and power in town. She was saddled with the knowledge of something criminal and knew there would be no penalty for the perpetrator.

I reiterate this true story from Quite an Undertaking: The Story of Violet Guymer written by Elizabeth Lycar. The story played out in The Pas, Manitoba.

Honourable senators, my world, a world shaped by others through governmental policies and without true consent of Indigenous citizens, was predetermined before I was even born.

In 1952 I was born in The Pas, the same town that was the setting for this horrific and true story. In 1957, at the tender age of five, I entered Guy Hill Residential School also in The Pas. I didn’t realize that “she’s just an Indian” would be my determining fate for many years.

Today, that phrase continues to influence the actions of some of the people whom I meet. When you are born an Indian in Canada, you develop special feelers for racism — for others to give themselves liberty to make you feel less than — for others to say what they want, whenever they want — for others to continue to take your life without penalty, for others to act how they want, all without penalty, and sometimes under the rubric of the right to freedom of speech.

Racism exists in Canada, that’s true. And the racism directed at First Nations is unique.

Honourable senators, it is inherently difficult to be a witness to your own life, to continue to learn the subtle ways in which a First Nation’s life has, and continues to be, guided and hindered by racism. Even today, when I feel an experience of oppression, it evokes a strong emotional response in me, a response that ranges from guilt and shame to anger and despair. The way I address these emotions is the determinant for either fostering or thwarting the passage from denial and resistance to anger, to affirmation and change.

While I was rereading the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in preparation for a conference I attended in Thompson last week, I felt stirrings of rage and unhealthy anger for the first time in 50 years. That was scary for me. This unhealthy anger was fuelled by the letters posted on a senator’s website.

Colleagues, I felt fear and shame as I read them. These letters have been posted and available for public consumption for over a year with no clear purpose other than to generate racism towards First Nations. I have no recourse but to come to this conclusion as there have been no efforts made by the senator to earnestly and constructively examine the issues within these letters which range far beyond residential schools.

Honourable senators, shaming rituals such as these letters posted on the aforementioned website divert public attention away from troublesome social and political realities and towards scapegoated victims; they propose simplistic, dramatic and emotionally charged solutions to complex issues. However, shame can be a powerful tool, which, when harnessed correctly, can be used to allow Indigenous peoples and senators to become agents of change, and to allow institutions to become places of transformation.

Colleagues, I, like most, am guilty of becoming trapped in my own way of thinking at times — trapped in my own way of relating to others. I can become accustomed to seeing the world in my own way and accepting that the world must indeed be the way I view it. I can lose sight of objectivity.

It was not until this ongoing issue with the posted letters that I took myself out of my comfort zone and realized that I need to listen to others, to have candid conversations with other Canadians. This situation has assisted me in overcoming the vulnerability I feel in difficult encounters, which can, at times, cause me to shut down.

Honourable senators, when a relationship such as that within the Senate Chamber today brings up ancient discomforts, I become afraid, I harden my heart and I want to react impulsively. However, it is at these times when I look to find a place where my heart and my spirit can stay engaged. A teaching from an elder says: Never let your ego overpower your spirit. I hold that close to me.

Colleagues, Richard Wagamese in his book A Quality of Light states that:

If we, as Indigenous people —

— and I extend this to senators as well —

— allow these wounds to continue, if we allow the atrophy of our cultural ways, our language, our teachings, our communities and our people to continue; if we allow our anger, our pain, our denial to continue to be inflicted on ourselves — then we say — shame on us. Shame on us for their perpetuation, knowing what we know.

Honourable senators, we are all tribal people. We have an instinctual craving for security, survival, community, love, and justice as individuals and as a collective. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves more often that we have those old fires in common.

Today, I am asking my colleagues, honourable senators, to practise and model reconciliation within ourselves, our offices, our dealings with one another, our public institutions and Canada as a whole. In the Throne Speech it states,

I call on all parliamentarians to work together, with a renewed spirit of innovation, openness, and collaboration...Canada succeeds in large part because here, diverse perspectives and different opinions are celebrated, not silenced.

These diverse perspectives include the voices of Indigenous peoples. As senators with a foundation in rendering sober second thought, we cannot allow the deep issues brought forward within these letters to continue to remain silenced by not dealing with them and facilitating an open, honest and constructive conversation about their contents.

Honourable senators, we cannot be party to silencing the other letters that were not posted — the letters that were undoubtedly sent reflecting the other side of the experience.

I have several avenues of thought that we might apply in order to be able to deal with this. The first is the implementation around the TRC’s Call to Action No. 46 which, in part states:

Governments at all levels of Canadian society must also commit to a new framework for reconciliation to guide their relations with Aboriginal Peoples.

Beyond moving forward on this and similar “Calls to Action,” perhaps we can consider a motion to refer study of the matter to a standing Senate committee. Furthermore, it may be prudent to consider a change to the Rules of the Senate in order to put an end to this type of abuse.

These are viable paths to pursue, and I will consider and examine each of them in the days and weeks to come. I urge colleagues here to do the same. We must act to deal with this appropriately and make a collective decision to do what is right, what is moral and what is just.

Honourable senators, we cannot change history. We do not seek to. We only seek to use its wounds, its poisons, its pains and its failings to strengthen us for the march forward, to form the reconciliation framework for a new and stronger Canada for all of us — a framework in which we may all heal ourselves. Thank you.

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