This past January I was a guest speaker at an Aboriginal History class at York University. I spoke about my family’s role in the 1869 and 1885 Resistances during which my ancestors fought against the government of Canada in an effort to preserve their sovereignty. They lost and ended up dispossessed. From then on, trauma was passed down through generations of my family, until it reached me. Intergenerational trauma is kind of like PTSD, and it and contributed to my issues with addiction and homeless.
When my presentation was over I fielded questions and listened to students give their condolences and customary remarks of “I never knew that happened in Canada,” and “I’m so sorry”; everything was pretty much run-of-the-mill until one student in the back raised his hand:
“Hello, My name is _____. I am deeply moved by your story, Mr. Thistle. And please don’t take this the wrong way, but what I am about to tell you may greatly offend you … I just don’t know how else to say it.”
I urged him to say his piece. I told him I was pretty thick-skinned and could handle whatever he had to say.
“Well,” the student said, “I am in the military. I’m stationed here in Toronto, and we have a battle standard in our Regiment that commemorates the Battle of Batoche in 1885. My Regiment is the regiment that put down the Rebellion and your ancestors under General Middleton’s command.”
He was right. I wasn’t ready for what he had to say. I was shocked and confused.
“We salute that standard whenever we are called to march, just as we salute all of our victories in all the battles we have served in over the years. We are told a much different account of the Battle of Batoche than the one you have presented here. We are told it was a glorious victory that forged Canada. But from what I have heard here today, it sounds like the exact opposite: it sounds like an army against a bunch of families trying to defend their homes. I feel conflicted and sad… and… I’ll never look at that standard the same again. Never.”
As I shuffled my papers at the front of the room, trying to find my words and compose myself, I understood what my purpose had been in lecturing that day. Apart from sharing my and my ancestor’s story with the class, I had been sent to share my message with this soldier, to show him the truth about my people, the truth about what that battle had done to my family.
“Thank you again,” he said, “This talk has truly been enlightening. I’m going to tell the rest of my Regiment about what you’ve said here today. They need to know.”
This encounter has played in my head numerous times since that lecture. In that moment I wish I had had the courage to tell him how I felt, but I didn’t. I just stood there speechless. But perhaps that was enough to let him know how much it had meant to hear what he had to say Perhaps he could tell how much of a gift it was.
Jesse Thistle is a Métis academic who has been published in numerous academic journals, magazines and books, and has worked on several short documentaries. The focus of his research and writing is centered on his lived experiences, offering insight into Indigenous homelessness, history, and intergenerational trauma, crime and prison complexes, social work and addiction studies.