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In my early childhood, I lived a traditional Cree life. I grew up in the forests of northern Alberta, Canada. My grandfather Edward Twin taught me how to live a good way of life. I shared his love for the forest and all that I was learning about our culture.
At the age of nine, I lost this beautiful way of life when I was forced to leave my family to attend a residential school, one of more than 130 such schools for Aboriginal children created by the Canadian government and run by various churches. The goal was to wipe out Aboriginal cultures, languages and traditions by removing us from our families and forbidding us to speak our Native languages. I spent 10 months of every year living away from my family, far from home. It was a harsh existence, but Aboriginal parents could be put in jail if they tried to prevent their children from being taken away.
related article We All Need Each Other by Yo Kano, USA Yo Kano was introduced to Buddhism and the Soka Gakkai in 1977 by his music teacher who was teaching him jazz theory and trumpet. He founded International Communication Service for the Blind (ICSB) in 1995. For much of their 100-year history, residential schools were hidden from the majority of Canadians. It is shocking to look back and know that Aboriginal families were deprived of the human right to bring up their children. We children, in turn, were victims of a hidden history, ashamed to talk about our past and what we had suffered, fearing ridicule and disbelief.
I quit school at 13 years of age and began my working life picking rocks on a farm. I went on to work many jobs over the next 40 years. In my early 50s, I pursued my lifelong dream of becoming a writer. At this time, I met Constance Brissenden, an SGI member, who taught a writing class that I attended. She introduced me to the SGI and Nichiren Buddhism. This was my turning point. I came to appreciate the writings of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda as well. This was new territory for me. I wanted to be sure of who Mr. Ikeda was and that he was someone I could trust. Over time, the depth of his knowledge about Buddhism and his commitment to human rights convinced me.
As I studied the writings of Nichiren, I learned that I did not have to look outside myself for answers.
My first surprise was how similar the philosophy of Buddhism was to the teachings of my grandfather. As I studied the writings of Nichiren, I learned that I did not have to look outside myself for answers.
I found courage in the philosophy of Nichiren. I have often chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo at crucial moments, such as writing about my school experiences in my first children’s book, As Long as the Rivers Flow. Although it has been painful to write and speak about my experiences, I do not waver in my commitment to educate others about this hidden history. After many years of Buddhist practice, I found hope and expressed it in Goodbye Buffalo Bay, a sequel I wrote about my last year in the school and moving on.
On June 11, 2008, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to First Nations, Metis and Inuit people on behalf of Canada for a century of residential schools. For school survivors and their families, it was an emotional day. Finally, our personal histories could be told without fear of denial or reprisal. The Prime Minister’s apology made it possible to share this long-hidden aspect of Canadian history. I no longer worry that people who read my books or hear me speak about residential school will ask, “Is it true? Was it that bad?”
Although the residential school scheme destroyed many families and took many lives, I am proud to say it did not destroy our cultures. I’ve given more than 1,200 presentations in schools across Canada over the past decade, and am impressed with the programs and curriculum now being introduced to teach the positive aspects of the Aboriginal way of life. I can now talk openly about residential school. The truth is out, and I am hopeful about the future. The children are being remembered and honored at last.
[Courtesy, October 2011 SGI Quarterly]
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A Fierce Determination to Live
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