Today was Le Brut’s last working day. Gaetan Fournier, dreaded forklift driver and redneck, scourge of anyone even a little brown, Le Brut to his redneck groupies at work, has finally retired, after almost half a century of forklift driving. I am actually going to miss him, yeah.
Folks like Gaetan are in a minority now, thank the Lord. There was a time when even the US was playing catch-up with Canada in racism, no kidding. Considering how rabidly racist the US is even today, that is saying a lot. But let me hasten to add that today racism in Canada is not a rule but an exception, and at least not as ‘physical’ as in America. Yes, you shall be slighted, folks shall smirk at you and even deride you, but at least you won’t get shot at or punched in the face. In America, if you are a black man, you can get filled with plumbum just walking out the front door on your way to work, by none other than a cop.
This might come as a surprise to most, given how soft and cuddly Canada looks to the outside world today, but some of the most brutal acts of racism anywhere in the world, rivaling even Nazi Germany, were willfully committed here in Canada till as late as the 1980s, in cavernous, dungeon-like institutions that came to be known simply as residential schools
that had been set up by the government for aboriginal children.
There are residential schools everywhere, commonly known as boarding schools. I passed out of one, La Martiniere for Boys, Lucknow, northern India. It was a terrifying and sadistic joint filled with predators and it gives me nightmares even today. No one had put a gun on my head (or rather, on my father’s head) and made me join that hell-hole though. The break-up of my parents and a new job that my father took in the middle of the Indian wilderness, forced the situation on him.
While my pop still had alternatives, members of another demographic that was also known as Indians, didn’t – the Native Indians of Canada. They had no choice in the matter. Being sent to boarding school was law.
In the 1860s, Canada enacted a law, the Gradual Civilization Act, a very demeaning title that was meant to do just that – demean. This piece of legislation placed on record the inherent racial and cultural superiority of the British and other Europeans and required the Native Indians (known here nowadays as the members of the First Nations) to cease jumping around bonfires half-naked, chanting gobbledygook and embrace the western European way of life, by becoming English-speakers and Christians.
Then came the Indian Act of 1876, which made attendance of day school, industrial school or residential school, compulsory for First Nations children, from the age of six. That’s right – six years old, a time when a child needs his mother the most. For native families living in the vast remote regions of Northern BC, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, residential schools in nearby towns and cities were the only option. Children were torn away from their parents en masse. First Nations parents across the land were simply devastated and I cannot even imagine how I would feel if this had been done to my son.
By the 1930s, there were 80 residential schools housing thousands of children who had been cruelly snatched from their homes, for the purpose of killing the Indian within them and ‘assimilating’ them into the modern civilized western society, not as equals but as farmhands and menial workers such as waiters, janitors and porters.
The residential schools were terrifying places for a child. If a child spoke up in his native tongue, he got twenty lashes. The food served to the kids was not only inadequate in quantity but had worms in it. On weekends, the little tots scrounged around the grounds and ate berries, leaves and even grass, to fill their stomachs. Hunger was a constant companion. The only occasions when they were treated well were when high government officials visited. They were then bathed and turned out in freshly pressed uniforms and made to smile and sing Christian hymns, for inspection.
Residential school children, their ‘prison’ in the background, c.1931
Residential school class photo. Turned out for inspection.
The last federally operated residential school closed in 1996, but not before over 4000 little children had died from severe beatings, malnutrition and sexual assault by the white Christian prefects and supervisors, who still walk among us, untouched, free citizens, now leading wholesome retired lives, taking Caribbean cruises, playing bingo on the deck, collecting hefty government pensions that have been paid for with my taxes.
Today, things are very different though. Most folks that you bump into here are tolerant and in fact love the diversity. Most employers are equal opportunity workplaces. Where I work, one sure way to have your butt kicked out is by displaying any form of racism.
But unfortunately racism still exists. You cannot eradicate a mindset that flourishes, in spite of lofty pronouncements. Recently, the Indian Express, a newspaper based in New Delhi, reported an Indian dalit (low caste) girl being severely beaten only because light travels in straight lines and stops when it encounters opaque objects, like human bodies, casting a shadow. The girl was thrashed because her shadow fell on an upper caste man.
Racism is out there everywhere, like it or not, chafing at the bit, barely reined in by the law. And so it is, here in Canada as well.
There are a few racists I’ve crossed paths with since coming to Canada, some real slick and silky. They keep their true feelings well hidden, unless they are among their own. They’ll be easygoing with you, seemingly engaging and friendly and have you fooled. “Archie, need any help, gimme a call, hear?” It’ll take a while for you to realize that they have no intentions of helping you and before you know, you’ll be an expert at watching your back. And then something will happen, some small passing remark that tells you how they really see you and your kind. These are more often well-educated guys with university degrees, bigotry deeply ingrained in them. After some time, you stop being hypersensitive to the comments that they pass.
Others are the barely literate, frothing-in-the-mouth type, the ones that are known here in North America, as rednecks. Like Gaetan Fournier, the guy I spoke about in para-1. If you greet these guys in the corridor, they’ll look the other way or just grunt. They are never alone, but always in wolf packs of two or three other similarly oriented folk. Alone, they won’t bother you, just walk by you, their faces sullen. In a pack, they are vicious. Not overtly threatening, but snappy. As you pass them, they’ll sneer behind you and say something really nasty that will be just within your hearing range.
If you go up to these guys for some help, sure, they’ll ‘help’ – by deliberately misleading you. The one thing I learned is this – never try to reach out and be friendly with them. These guys are like Islamic fanatics. They do not understand warmth and friendliness. You try to be chummy and they’ll be even more vicious with you. They are predators. They hate what you stand for. They despise your DNA.
Or so I thought……….
As a predator, Gaetan was in a class of his own. The guy’s neck really was red. Close to 67 now, he joined work when the Vietnam War was at it’s peak, business was booming and you didn’t even need a high school diploma to get work. Yeah, war for North America was good for business, as it still is.
Gaetan could barely write, drove a forklift around at the loading docks. When he spoke, he growled and bitched about everything, while his jaws seemed like they were biting, chewing, spitting, all at the same time. Fridays, if you were at the loading docks, you’d get a whiff of whisky on his breath. All in all, he was a filthy, uncouth, lumbering mass of belching bad breath.
One time I was at the loo. Alone. Gaetan was on one side and Kurt, one of his cohorts, on the other. Hubert, the other sidekick in the trio, wasn’t around. The two began talking loudly, both facing me, deliberately spraying me with saliva while they exchanged all sorts of profanities in French about folks who come to Canada just to find a pot to piss in. My fingers trembled as I tried to tuck my richard back in and get the zipper on after I was done.
I forced myself to calm down and left, went to the paint shop washroom and washed my face there. I could have put in a dialog report. The two would probably have got suspended. The company had zero tolerance for this sort of behavior. But I knew that complaining would only make matters worse. They would be back after the suspension, even more vicious than before. They could get at me in millions of different ways. This would be La Martiniere for Boys all over again.
I am an agnostic but things have happened in my life that have made me wonder sometimes. Like one Sunday, at the grocery store, IGA………
The IGA is one of these massive sprawling joints. Organized chaos. I was done filling my shopping cart and on my way to the check-out. I was crossing the aisle that had toys on the shelves, when I noticed this little girl wondering around, lips trembling, a panicky look on her pretty face. I bent down and asked her,”êtes-vous bien? Puis-je vous aider?”(Are you OK?, Can I help you?).
“Mon grand-père” was all that she blurted out. Flazen-haired, she looked like an angel. I realized she was lost. I took her by the hand and led her to the store manager’s office. On the way, I stuffed a bag of cookies and a juice box from my cart in her tiny hands. I explained to the store manager that she was looking for her grandfather.
A half hour ticked by and at last, the repeated announcements over the PA system worked. The frenetic grandfather came charging into the manager’s office, looking like he was about to lose it. He had been having a smoke outside and hadn’t heard the announcements the first couple of times.
It was Gaetan. When he heard I’d brought her in and generally kept her occupied while reassuring her that her granddad was on his way and everything would be just fine, his face softened. I saw a Gaetan I’d never seen before. He swung her onto his shoulders, turned to leave and stopped. “Mèrci” he mumbled and left.
The next time I was in the loo, Gaetan and his sidekicks strolled in. While Gaetan held back, the other two came up to the urinals right next and proceeded to unzip and let loose.
“Le laisse seul.” The words came in the form of a grunt, from behind, in that typical Quebecois drawl. They meant – ‘Leave him alone’. The two goons paused, zipped up and moved over to a far corner to pee.
There were no wisecracks this time. Just four human beings peeing themselves silly. They were silent all the while and even their pissing wasn’t as noisy as before. Gaetan gave me a glance as he stepped off the urinal and nodded, as though to say,” You take care now,” and they were gone.
He looked good, sans the sneer.