How A Novel About Clones Helped Me To Process The RIIS Cemetery.

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It was a Wednesday afternoon a few weeks ago when myself and some of my STARS cohorts decided to join another university class in a visit to a special patch of land just west of Regina. We arrived at 701 Pinkie Road, and as we stepped out of the car into the open field we were met with unbroken heavy winds that surged through he -3 air. Light hail nipped at our jackets, and we all felt a little underdressed for this excursion. We stood under grey skies that muted the colours of the world around us. I couldn’t help but think that the discomfort that the blustery whether brought was probably appropriate. This wasn’t supposed to be a comfortable experience. Grieving the past never is.

We approached a small fenced area, about the same size as an average backyard. Beyond the fenced boundary lay acres of featureless prairie, set against of background of skyscrapers, dwarfed by the enormous saskatchewan sky. Inside the fence was flat ground, a few trees, and some brush. Along the fence posts, and littered on the ground were stuff animals, plastic flowers, and other trinkets. Worn and weathered, these relics were intentionally placed above the earth to commemorate what lay beneath it: the remains of approximately 30 students who attended the Regina Residential Indian Industrial School. They function, I imagine, as stand-in headstones for graves that would otherwise be unmarked.

As I took in the sight, and pondered the significance of what I was seeing, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the final paragraph from my favourite novel, which I had just finished rereading a week before. “Never Let Me Go” by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro, is a book about a 31 year old Kathy H who recalls her days growing up at an English boarding school called Hailsham. After a few clues are dropped, we find out about a third of the way through the novel that Kathy, along with all the students of this school, are clones who are being raised so that their organs can be harvested in order to prolong the life of “normals”. I have written a few university assignments justifying why a novel study of this book would be a good compliment to a study of the history of residential schools. There are many parallels between the dystopian reality Never Let Me Go’s characters live in and Canada’s history with colonialism. Parallels that are both overt and subtle. The themes of the book are memory, place, self-determination, justice, and identity. All things we ponder when remembering our history.

The final scene of the book places Kathy two weeks after her last friend (and love) has “completed”. This is the term used for clones who have died whilst making an organ donation. Kathy has only her memories to keep her company now, and she is now herself preparing for the first of many donations that will end her short life. On her way to a donation centre she parks her car on a road in the country side and takes a moment to grieve her completed classmates.

“I found I was standing before acres of ploughed earth. There was a fence keeping me from stepping into the field… and I could see how this fence and the cluster of three or four trees above me were the only things breaking the wind for miles. All along the fence, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing… I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it.” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.287)

This picture that Ishiguro paints in the final paragraph of his novel is nearly identical to what lay before my eyes in that blustery field. Except, instead of acres of ploughed earth, a symbolic grave for Kathy’s organ harvested class mates, I saw maybe 1000 square feet of literal grave.

Mike gave a short introduction to this history of the school that no longer stood here, and the current challenges with maintaining this space.

The Regina Indian Industrial School (RIIS) operated from 1891-1911. This location was viewed as a model for Residential schools across Canada. One that other schools should aspire to. Residential schools existed as one of many assimilation initiatives by the Canadian government. For more than 100 years students were placed in schools far from their homes, where the goal was to prepare them for mainstream Canadian culture. This was done by forbidding many things that were tied to Indigenous identity, such as language, spirituality, traditions and cultural approaches to family and provision. Conditions at these schools were abhorrent, and abuse of every fashion occurred within their walls. During it’s 20 year run, RIIS schooled approximately 500 students, and it is believed that nearly 100 died during their time there.

In the same way that the clones in Never Let Me Go are robbed of organs they need to survive, First Nations people were robbed of their language, spirituality, practices, and customs, which they needed to survive as a culture. If “Kill the Indian, save the child” was the agenda of Canadian residential schools, then it could be understood that “Kill the clone, save the organs” was the agenda of the donations program in Never Let Me Go.

Mike concluded his talk by opening up a container of apples. He said that Joseph, the resident Elder of the U of R, suggested bringing a treat for the kids. We each took a piece and proceeded onto the grounds. I think we all felt very reverent as we walked wondered the space. People began finding whatever landmark they could that represented a child’s resting place and started doing their thing. Praying, reflecting, mourning.

I found a lone doll propped up against a post and tried to imagine the girl who lay beneath. I tried to remember her is if I knew her. I tried to imagine the homesickness she must have felt at the school. I tried to think of the happy memories of home that she must have clung to during those times. The small comforts brought by friendships formed with fellow students who shared a common anguish. I wondered what she wanted to be when she grew up, and if she believed she could be that. And I wondered if there was a moment before her death were she realized she we not grow up to be that or anything else, and that she would not see home again, or feel the love that is transmitted through the embrace of family.

In all my imaginings and wonderings I’m sure I fell short.

As I sat there pondering these things, the roads of my thought lead me to another excerpt from Never Let Me Go. Kathy recounts an incident from her childhood at Hailsham. Thinking she is alone in her dorm, she listens to a song and interprets the lyrics to be telling the story of a woman who is told she can’t have babies, but then does, so she holds the baby close, cherishing it, never wanting to let it go. Being a clone, Kathy won’t be able to make babies. She role-plays the woman imagined in the song by cradling a pillow, and swaying to the music with it in her arms. Kathy turns around and finds that Madame (one of the humans in charge of Hailsham) is watching her, transfixed, and weeping. Years later, as an adult, Kathy seeks out Madame, and asks her to explain why she cried at the sight:

“I was weeping for an altogether different reason. When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else. I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go…I saw you and it broke my heart. And I’ve never forgotten.”

This poignant experience made me long for what Madame saw in Kathy. Optimistically, I like to believe our story is the inverse of the one in Never Let Me Go. I like to believe that through changes in attitudes, through deeper understanding of the effects of colonialism, and through these acts of remembrance, that the harsh cruel world is the one that will not remain. That we will see a new kinder world rapidly coming. But in order to do that we need to press into remembrance and press into calls to action.

We want to have the site commemorated and protected from development projects so that these students will never be forgotten. In addition to the work already being done by the Commemorative Association INC, Project of Heart, RIIS Media Project, we also have started a petition to present to Mayor Fougeres. Please take the time to sign it.

#RIISup

 

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