Breaking the intergenerational cycle
Personal essay by lessLIE
Editor’s note: This essay contains personal stories involving addiction and abuse and might be triggering to some. Reader discretion is advised.
Being a great parent in any era of humanity has probably always been a challenging undertaking. Being a great contemporary First Nations parent, despite the legacy of colonialism, cultural genocide, and the residential school system, makes great parenting even more challenging. Many of our family members never had proper parenting because they were taken from their families as children and put into residential schools. Many were abused and made to feel worthless. This has created an intergenerational cycle. Yet the legacy of poor parenting resulting from the residential school system has to end somewhere. As a parent of a two-year-old baby girl, I have given myself the challenge of being the best parent possible by any standard. Like many others, I want my daughter to have a better childhood than I had.
My childhood was filled with many wonderful memories, yet unfortunately, it was also filled with trauma. I grew up being raised by my extended family, many of whom had problem with drinking. This was a part of the legacy of residential schools: my parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles had problems with alcoholism. I witnessed them drinking, and even as a child, it was embarrassing and sad. Like those who went to residential schools, I saw many things during my childhood that I should not have been exposed to, and which would form the foundation of who I would grow up to become. On the few occasions when I have walked East Hastings Street in Vancouver, I have thought that statistically, that is where I should have ended up. Some of my childhood experiences are indirectly attributable to the residential school syndrome. I saw adults in my family getting drunk all the time. I witnessed sexual and physical abuse. I personally experienced poverty and molestation. I saw, learned, and experienced things that a little boy should never go through. These traumatic experiences formed the foundation of who I became as an adult.
One of the worst and most traumatic childhood experiences I had was watching my mom and stepdad argue at the dinner table in front of me. My mom said something to my stepdad, and my stepdad got silent for a few seconds, then, in front of me, punched my mom in the mouth. I was so shocked and hurt to see this. All I could do was put my head down on the table and cry.
Another time, family members were so drunk that they forgot to buy groceries. When they finally sobered up, and bought food, my younger sister and I were so hungry that we began to cry as we reached into the paper grocery bag and pulled out bread to eat.
As an innocent kid, my family were my only role models. They taught me love and acceptance, yet as my childhood experiences illustrate, they also indirectly taught me demoralization. I grew into a shy, lonely young man who did not know how to view the opposite sex. As a child, being molested gave me a warped sense of sexuality. I was unhappy, and did not care about my life, or the lives of the women I was intimately involved with. Through those experiences, I knew my life had to change. At the end of the day, I was a good man. I was educated and talented and generally tried to live a good life. But my personal issues stemming from my childhood caused me to carry myself in shame. I had to make changes in my life. I wanted to live a better life than what my family gave me and the residential school legacy taught them. I felt the only way to do that was the become a family man.
In 2013, I met my partner Amanda, who was herself on a healing journey. A couple years later, we were blessed with our daughter Cadence. Amanda and I have both overcome our own trauma and addictions, and as parents, we want to give our daughter a childhood that is better than we had. We want to break the intergenerational cycle of residential schools of poor parenting and demoralization. Every day we do our best to be the best parents we can possibly be. This is not to say we are perfect or do not make parenting mistakes. As a contemporary Coast Salish man, I believe it is important to be a good father. So many people walk away from parenting responsibilities. I believe it is vital to our future to raise our kids properly today. Amanda and I do this with our daughter Cadence. We do our best to love her every day. We teach her the ABCs, counting, colors, art, drumming, tradition, happiness, pride, manners, a good diet. I know that my daughter is watching and learning from me, just as I did with my parents as a kid. I have a responsibility to her to be the best human being I can be. We can break the cycle of residential schools by being proud, dignified parents.
One aspect of decolonization is relearning how to live honourable lives. We do not need to act “Indian” under the Indian Act. We need to reclaim our human agency. We need to reclaim our will to live good lives. After colonialism and the residential school legacy, self-government also means watching how we govern ourselves as individuals. Politics begin at home.
With the right upbringing, by letting go of the residential school syndrome, our daughter could live a great life. I love my family. I do not intend to judge them for how I was raised, nor community members who are not strong enough to attempt better parenting. When I look back at my life, I can see an improvement with my generation. I received an education and began a successful art career. I never drank or did drugs. Yet I admit, I too was haunted by residential schools through a self-destructive lifestyle. My partner Amanda and are strong people. Yet our daughter has the potential to be stronger. If our daughter is properly raised, free of the legacy of residential schools, she can potentially live a life that we could have possibly only dreamed of.
lessLIE (Leslie Sam) is a Cowichan and Penelakut artist, writer and father. He resides at Snaw-naw-as First Nation with his family.