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An interview with Tsleil-Waututh elder Amy George

Tsleil-Waututh elder Amy George with grandson, Seth (left) and granddaughter, Rachel (right). Photo by Zack Embree

It was just a few days before British Columbia’s Truth and Reconciliation Week when I went to visit Amy George, a 71-year-old Tsleil-Waututh elder, who is the daughter of Chief Dan George, and the mother of Rueben George, the band's leader in an ongoing to fight to stop Kinder Morgan's pipeline expansion proposal from going through. The project is also known as the Trans Mountain pipeline. Having been  impressed by George at the 2013 Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, I was  curious to learn more about her and the occasion of Truth and Reconciliation week seemed a prime time to do that.

George was serious and direct.  Despite the fact that she walks with a limp due to an injured leg, she seemed younger than her years.  Preparing to be photographed, she looked striking in a black dress, her salt and pepper-coloured hair touching her shoulders. She told me she's a pipe carrier, a sun dancer and a spirit dancer.  When asked to describe the significance of these roles, she looked me in the eye and said, “Holy.”

I asked Amy George if she would be participating in British Columbia Truth and Reconciliation Week herself, and she said that Kinder Morgan is a  corporate sponsor of the event and that corrupts the entire effort and she won't have anything to do with it. 

"It's bullshit," she said. She said she wholeheartedly supports the residential school survivors, but that she doesn't understand why Kinder Morgan is supporting the reconciliation effort, even as it's destroying First Nations' land and livelihood through its oil sands pipelines. 

It's the hardest month of the year for George. September is always depressing. It brings back bad memories rooted in experiences from years long ago, from the formative years of childhood.

“It’s the change in the air and the smell and the coolness. And, in my body, I’m remembering the fear I had as a child and the hurt and the pain of leaving my mom," George said and reiterated that she wouldn't be participating in next week's events, not only because of Kinder Morgan, but but also because  of the horror she experienced.

"How can you reconcile that level of cruelty?" she asked.

I asked George if it would ever be possible for her to forgive the Canadian government.

But she said that it wouldn't be. "The government said we’re sorry for what happened to you.  They didn’t say we’re sorry we built these schools so you would die.  Every apology they make, I say, 'that’s bullshit.'

"I wonder why I’m still here," she mused. Other residential school survivors have committed suicide, had their lives ruined by alcoholism or drugs.  "They're just totally lost people," she said.  "Some of the elders on the reserve can’t even mention that they were in residential school. I used to be the same. I had my whole childhood blocked out it was like a gray area, my whole childhood."

Then she went into counselling.  Her counsellor said, "We’re going to take a peek at your residential school issue, because if you try to look at it all at once it could do you more harm than good. So, we’re going to just glance.

"I said to her,  'Why the hell am I telling you? How could you ever understand what I went through?' And she said, 'I’m a second generation Holocaust survivor and I know exactly how you feel.' And then we both cried.

George said she will never forget that moment.

"We just looked at each other and couldn’t believe it. She said you have all the same characteristics as a Holocaust survivor."

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