This Article is part of the Tar Sands Reporting Project special report See the full report

An interview with Tsleil-Waututh elder Amy George

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Chief Dan George's pain

Her father, Chief Dan George, was only 5 when he was sent to St. Joseph's, which is now where St. Thomas Aquinas stands. Before going to school, his name was Geswanouth Slahoot, but at school he got the name 'George.'

"He had never worn shoes and he couldn’t speak English and he was so terrified.  I remember him saying when he was five as soon as you’d get into the schools if you had brothers and sisters they’d separate you immediately.  

"He’d be running to where his older brother was and say 'I will sleep with Henry.' And they’d bring him back to his own bed.  And he’d run from school through a trail into the bushes home.  If you didn’t put your kids in residential schools, they’d put your parents in jail. At one of the residential schools, they’d stick a needle in their tongue and they had to wear it, if they spoke their own language.  My father was forced to learn English.

"He would never mention it, but I can’t ever remember him putting his arm around me or sitting me on his lap or hugging me. He grew up with no love so he didn’t know how to give it. Towards the end of his life he’d kiss our cheek if I just sat beside him. If I was having a bad day I just sat beside him and that made me feel better..."

Last June, at the 2013 Healing Walk in Fort McMurray, Amy George had stopped at a tailing pond near the Syncrude facility with a small group of chiefs and elders, and she wept for a long time.  As cannons boomed to scare away wildlife, George stood facing the polluted body of water and I could only imagine what she was thinking and feeling.  Her grief was so moving it literally stopped the march and the demonstrators stood respectfully listening.

I asked her and she explained. "In the Eastern direction are the yellow people and in the South are ourselves, the red people, and in the West where I prayed are the black people. In the North are the white people.  They were getting someone to pray in each of the directions. I was asked to pray in the West and I have heard horror stories of people having ear infections,  eye infections,  throat infections,  stomach infections, and dying of cancer from breathing that poison day in and day out downstream of the tar sands.

"And when they asked me to pray in that direction, I sort of asked, 'Creator, are we not your grandchildren, too?  Why do we suffer?  Why do our populations keep diminishing and others thrive? Are we not your grandchildren, too?  I’m praying for all those who’ve died, I’m praying for their families, the ones who suffer because of these tar sands and breathing in poison day in and day out 24/7."

She went on, saying "I wonder if that was the right thing to question my Great Creator. I believe he is the maker of all things and in that moment I felt angry towards him. I saw despair, grief, hopelessness in people living near the tar sands.  I could see it in the eyes of the people who have family members, who have died or are dying. It was all contained in that moment.  It was sorrow for all living things.  

"Someone asked me during the walk, about the people living in Fort Chipewyan, why don’t they move?  Why do they stay there? I knew the answer to that question. My people have been here for 30,000 years. I remember when I told my father, 'Dad, they said they’re going to relocate the Indians and make this the biggest sea port in the world.' He said, 'that’s the only time I’d ever take up my gun if they try to move me. I’d sooner die than be relocated. I got so frightened that my dad was willing to stay here and die. Now, at my age I understand. I would fight till the end. I wouldn’t move.  Why did my ancestors fight with their lives for this land, and suffer all they suffered, if we just move?"

When she returned to British Columbia, George said she felt ecstatic to be home. "It felt so good in my heart to come here and see all this green and the little birds on the trees.  And then I had a nightmare that from the band office on the top of the hill, it was all grey, and everything -- all the greenery, all the people -- were dead.  The trees were all gone and it just looked like the tar sands."

Linda Solomon talks with Tsleil-Waututh elder, Amy Georgein the photograph below by Zack Embree

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