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Defenders for Human Rights
Wilton Littlechild

Wilton Littlechild Truth and Reconciliation

GRADE LEVELS = 5 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Six 60 minute class periods

“For the child taken, for the parent left behind.”

Wilton Littlechild—now a Cree Chief—was six years old when the Government law and policy took him to a residential school three miles away from his grandmother and his grandfather, and gave him a number: ERIS65.

“65, come here.”

Funded by the government and run by Christian churches, the 139 recognized residential schools sought to “civilize and christianize” indigenous peoples at an early age. The goal was to replace indigenous culture and language with mainstream Canadian culture.

“It was about taking the Indian out of the child: it was about assimilation.”

Today, the act of “forcefully removing a child from their home” is called a human rights abuse in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The last residential school closed less than twenty years ago, in 1996.

It was an unknown, scary place for Wilton. He spent many sleepless nights hiding under his bed, studying. His flashlight was his only defence against attacks in the night. Alongside the “unbelievable” abuse he faced – both physical and sexual – he watched his classmates be beaten for not working hard enough, or getting answers wrong, or for no reason at all.

He watched two fight back.

These moments of small rebellion – even if they were immediately beaten back – jolted him and stuck with him.

His classmates inspired him to seek justice. Sports – hockey, in particular – kept him in school, and allowed him to later chase that justice as a lawyer.

As a young man, sports were an escape from the abuse. After fourteen years of residential school, his commitment to hockey, as well as to his culture and spirituality, was what got him through university and law school.

His work brought him to Geneva as Maskwacis First Nations and Treaties # 6, 7‎ and 8 representative to the United Nations, to the British High Courts in London to argue for the inclusion of Treaties in Canada's Constitution.  Chief Littlechild says he wanted to “follow his elders’ advice to make Canada a better country” for the generations ahead than it was for him and his family.

Like his grandparents, he struggled throughout his work to find justice for indigenous treaty rights – rights written into treaties between indigenous peoples and European colonists since 1763. These rights are also built into Canada’s Constitution. The treaties, he explains, include a “cradle to the grave” right to education. Indigenous leaders continue to fight to see the treaties in action, and a key element is the struggle to be heard.

As a Member of Parliament, Chief Littlechild saw Nelson Mandela speak in the House of Commons. Seeing Mandela speak inspired him, but he wondered why other voices couldn’t be heard and understood – elders, chiefs, women, and children.

“Why not us?”

After 2008, when he proposed a resolution to allow the Assembly of First ‎Nations National Chief to speak to the Members of Parliament and to replace the House’s traditional mace with a talking stick, Wilton felt true change.

“We had our place to speak, using our symbol to do so.”

He says the path to a better Canada is truth – a “true and honest story” of lived experience – and reconciliation, or “wītaskīwin” – Cree for restoring “good relations” founded on respect. Through “wītaskīwin,” the goal is “upintowin” – “lifting each other up.”

Chief Littlechild has spoken to some of the world’s greatest and most famous leaders, but he’s spent more recent years listening to the stories of the forgotten and the ignored. With the TRC – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – he’s visited small communities across Canada. He takes rare routes to hear indigenous truths about life in mainstream Canada.

Though the commission was never about residential schools specifically, Chief Littlechild and his fellow commissioners kept hearing the same familiar stories over and over again. Shaky voices told of indigenous children from across Canada taken miles away from their families, often never seeing them again. For the first time, he understood just how common his own story was.

Of the 150,000 Canadian residential school students, it is estimated there are at least 80,000 survivors, and Chief Littlechild and other Commissioners at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, heard statements from over 6,750 Survivors of residential schools, members of their families, and other individuals.

Raised to forget their past, Wilton and his fellow survivors have done the opposite: they work to record their stories. For some, it’s the only time they’ll tell painful memories. Others find a “healing effect” in telling their story to anyone who will truly listen.

Indigenous language is important to him. He heard many times from students who were beaten for speaking their own language.  Fortunately, because Cree was the only language his grandfather knew, it was not beaten out of him.

Healing, Chief Littlechild says, lies in “balance.”

“Think of the medicine wheel and the four aspects of a person – the spiritual, mental, physical and emotional elements of health. It’s all about balance.”

Moving on from his time in residential school has been a bumpy road. Since he grew up with “strict discipline and punishment,” he transferred similar, though less severe, treatment to his own children and grandchildren. He yelled and hit, because he was yelled at and hit.

Asking for forgiveness from all of them, including his wife, was difficult and, like the government’s apology for the residential schools in 2008, a long time coming.

“The best outcome from this experience is that I tell my wife and children, ‘I love you.’ Every day.”

That love and cooperation, he told University of New Brunswick students in 2011, is key not only to his recovery, but also to the success of reconciliation.

“You can go on one path on the railway track and try to walk,” he told the lecture hall. “You can for a distance, but eventually you’ll fall off and try to get back on. But if your friend walks on the other rail, and you hold your hands together, you can walk for miles without falling off, because you support each other.”

The biggest honor I have ever received is to be named after my grandfather in a Cree honoring ceremony. His Cree spirit name was "Mahigan Pimotewh", Walking Wolf‎.