(Edmonton) “What do you mean you’re quitting? Nonsense!” said Clare Drake over the phone. Practice starts at 5:30—be there!”
It was a low point in Willie Littlechild’s days at the University of Alberta. The physical education student and Golden Bears hockey player was overwhelmed with the unfamiliar demands of university life, so he decided to throw in the towel and head back to the reserve. As one of very few Aboriginal students on campus during the 1960s, it was lonely at times, he says. He was also battling memories of abuse as a Cree child at the Ermineskin Indian Residential School.
But after that bracing call from the legendary Golden Bears hockey coach, Littlechild gave his head a firm shake, took a deep breath and hitchhiked from his home in Hobbema (now Maskwacis) back to Edmonton, arriving just in time for practice.
Looking back, that crucial moment was perhaps the most important affirmation of his life’s journey, as he would soon finish his bachelor’s degree and then complete a master’s in physical education. He would also become the first Treaty Indian in Alberta to earn a (U of A) law degree, moving on to a brilliant career as a lawyer, as the first Treaty Indian elected to parliament, for Wetaskiwin-Rimbey, and as chief for treaties 6, 7 and 8.
“I owe my life to hockey and my university education—it opened up the whole world for me,” says Littlechild, who was awarded the U of A’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1999 and received an honorary doctorate from the university in 2007.
“I don’t think I would have stayed even a year had it not been for the Golden Bears. It was because I had an immediate group of friends as teammates, and because I had to be at practice every day and keep my marks up. There was a motivation and discipline pressing me to stay there, and Clare Drake was a kind of father figure to me.”
Today Littlechild is one of three commissioners on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which held its final national meeting in Edmonton earlier this year. Since 2008, the commission has travelled to more than 600 communities across Canada, hearing thousands of stories of the abuse of 150,000 Aboriginal children, removed from their families and placed in residential schools between 1870 and 1996.
Some 12,000 survivors live in Alberta, and Littlechild is one of them. For him, bearing witness is both powerful and poignant.
“When I heard those different painful stories of how people were mistreated as a child, that’s me—it’s my own journey over and over again,” he says. “I have a very traumatic and negative history, and when I hear the stories of abuse, I go down to the depths with the speaker.”
Littlechild recalls the racist slurs, the strict prohibition on speaking his native tongue when he knew not a word of English, and the physical abuse: “I remember one time getting a severe beating with a hockey stick for something I didn’t do, and I just wouldn’t give in. The worst of all, of course, is the sexual abuse, and that whole range of abuse—that’s me.”
But the stories emerging from the TRC are not all pain and despair, he says. Occasionally more positive stories of humour and kinship emerge from the darkness.
“Maybe it’s selective hearing, but it seems to me many of the positive experiences former students [of residential schools] were talking about were tied in with sports. The girls especially say that without basketball or volleyball or track and field, they wouldn’t have made it. The boys say the same about hockey.
“The contribution of sports to our survival and success is huge. When I got to university, hockey and education were so intrinsically linked.” A 1999 video of Wilton Littlchild describing the crucial role that sports played in his life is available here.
As the TRC wraps up and the commissioners prepare their recommendations for social change, the biggest fear is that their report will be shelved and forgotten, says Littlechild, much like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples of 1996. To make sure that doesn’t happen, he will encourage his fellow commissioners to shape a small number of pointed, realistic recommendations, he says, rather than producing a long list that could run the risk of neglect.
“The saddest thing would be for me to go through this experience of repeating this history and not have any change because the recommendations aren’t well directed. I’ve seen both sides: I’ve seen the loss of hope in kids in an eighth-grade classroom who say, ‘I’m just waiting to die.’ And I’ve seen the positive hope in children who expect from us a better future. You can see the difference in their eyes.
“It might be our one and only chance, so we have to do it right.”
By Geoff McMaster, University of Alberta