Dear Colleagues and Friends,
Below are two clips from a news story that has recently gotten National media attention. The story broke a month ago when it first happened. In a nutshell a teacher's assistant in Thunder Bay took a seven year old, First Nation boy stood him on a chair at school and proceeded to cut his hair, which he was growing out for traditional dancing. The boy's mother has said that he stated that "...after she cut my hair, she took me by the shoulders and forced me to stand in front of the mirror. She made me stand there and said 'look at you now.'". The TA has been suspended. The Thunder Bay Crown has indicated to the Police that there were no grounds for criminal charges, and it wasn't in the public interest to lay charges.
Anyone who has attended the Cultural Competency or Awareness Training or simply is Aboriginal will be familiar that one of the things that occurred regularly in Residential school was forced haircuts for the boys and girls that attended. This was done in a very institutionalize fashion, in front of other children. Many survivors of Residential or Day Schools recall this as one of their worst and most humiliating memories of school. The traumatic and harmful effect this particular ritual had on generations of Aboriginal people is well documented. All one has to do is look at the cover of John S. Milloy's A National Crime to see two pictures of little Aboriginal boy named Thomas Moore. The pictures have been superimposed as one photo to see the before and after picture together as one. On the left is the little traditional boy with long braided hair in beaded dress and a fur robe and on the right is the representation of the "civilized" Thomas, well barbered, in a suit. This picture is the epitome of the National policy that was in place and the false assumptions that lead to thinking that "assimilation" was okay in the name of "civilizing" people.
Some may think that this was only hair---and it will grow back. Some may argue that this was not a racialized crime. But as a mother of two "status Indians" my opinion is different--and this is a sad story. This was a seven year old boy whose family have encouraged him to learn about his culture, traditions and religion and in a brief incidence one person has potentially crushed any dignity or pride in those beliefs. Hair has spiritual significance to many First Nation people/groups. From my perspective this was an assault that squarely falls within the definition of assault in our Criminal Code and further that it is a form of hate crime. This act would be wrong if it happened to any child but given the historical background in "educating" Aboriginal children and the fact that the school knew the boy's reasons for having long hair, I think it is hard to argue that there is no racial motivation involved. If hair has religious purpose and part of the purpose is to practice of a religious or spiritual rite than I think it is fair to say that this little boy's freedom to practice religion pursuant to the Charter has indeed been violated. Is suspension enough? What is the interest of the public if it is not in protecting our children and our constitutional rights?
A participant at a regional Aboriginal Healing Foundation Gathering in 2000 was quoted as saying "When I was growing up, when I was in the residential schools, I was lost for a very long time....I didn't hear the drum beat, I heard the organ. It took me 36 years to find out who I am." . I did not have to attend Residential school but I am not blind or immune to what this system has done my people. I hope that families and my people can heal overtime to over-come the obstacles that intergenerational trauma and continued racism present. In moments like this I wonder if it will ever be obtainable. As an optimist, I have to believe that many people will also see what happened here was wrong on so many levels. I also have to believe that what I teach my children about our culture is something that one person cannot just take away with the snip of scissors---including that actions like this do hurt and that is why it important for me to teach them raise their voices against such hatefulness. So despite people like this TA, I will continue to help my kids find their Anishinabe selves and assist them to establish their identity until they are ready to define it themselves. This way, like me, they will have the gift of always knowing who they are.
Thunder Bay mom wants answers after teacher's aide chops off son's hair
CBC VIDEO NEWSCLIP
On-line comments and responses to this news:
"What concerns me is that the Crown has determined that it is not in the public interest to prosecute the TA even though the precedent has been set [cutting hair being an assault]. So according to the Thunder Bay Crown Attorney it is not in the public interest to protect a child who has been assaulted, humiliated, and traumatised by a person in a position of authority, in what appears to be a racially motivated attack. In other words, enabling racism and protecting racists is in the public interest, according to the Crown in Thunder Bay." -On-line commenter-
"To me, the scariest thing about this story is that someone who lacks the obvious common sense and intelligence to know that this sort of thing would be a huge mistake, has such an influence in the development of future Canadians." -On-line Commenter
"It isn't just the hair cutting that is at issue here: she judged his appearance unacceptable and then proceeded to humiliate him by cutting his hair at school. This is not only an assault but an event that will forever remind this boy that this woman thought there was something wrong with him. " On-line Commenter
"I was beaten and humiliated in school by teachers. I still feel the rage in me when I think about it. 40 years later. All I can say is ...pity the teacher that messes with my kids." -On-line Commenter
"Until I read this story I didn't really know what the phrase " Gobsmacked" meant. I am a teacher's aid. I have been one for almost 16 years now and I was completely gobsmacked when I heard this. Fire her and charge her! Ours is a position of trust both between the child and the parents. Not only did she commit assault but she violated that trust." -On-line Commenter
"Intergenerational Impacts" refer to "the effects of physical and sexual abuse that were passed on to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Aboriginal people who attended the residential school system." -from Where are the Children Website at http://www.wherearethechildren.ca/en/home.html (external - login to view)
- Christa Big Canoe
Policy Counsel, Aboriginal Strategy
Legal Aid Ontario
Atrium on Bay,
40 Dundas Street West, Suite 200,
Toronto, ON M5G 2H1
Phone 416-979-2352 ext.6414
For more on the Aboriginal Justice Strategy visit: http://www.legalaid.on.ca/en/publications/0902_Aboriginal_Strategy.asp (external - login to view)