Mr. Marshall’s Choice


March 20/17 |
by Rev Gordon Taylor

Contrary to some politicians, I don’t think Meryl Streep is an overrated actor.  Her portrayal of a mother forced to choose between her elementary-school aged son and daughter at the gates of the concentration camp is burned into my memory. How does a parent choose one to live and one to die?  Remember, if she refused to choose, the commandant would order both children to be murdered.  Afterward, how do you live with the knowledge of your action?  The mother survived the war, but lived the rest of her life in a dysfunctional, traumatized state. That terrible, damned-whatever-you-do dilemma has come to be called “Sophie’s Choice.”  We grind our teeth at the villain who forced this cruel option.

Can we recognize that the Government of Canada, through its Indian agents, RCMP, and Church representatives foisted a cruel and terrible choice upon First Nations parents? 

Albert Marshall hated his parents for sending him to the Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, [residential] school. Many years later, he asked his brother what the family reaction had been to his being sent to school. He didn’t answer me for a while, a long time. He says, “Nobody said anything for days,” because my father was crying every day. Finally my father told the family, “I failed as a father. I couldn’t protect my child, but I just couldn’t because you know what the Mounties, the priest, the Indian agents told me? They told me, if I don’t, if I resist too much then they would take the other younger, younger brother and younger, younger children.” Then he says, “It was not a choice. I could not say, take them or take the three of them. But I couldn’t say nothing and I know I have to live with that.” (The Survivors Speak, p. 16).

Can we imagine how we would feel to have our children taken from us by “the authorities,” against our will, not for their safety, not because we were incompetent parents, to go to a school far away, but  to educate out of the children the culture and influence of their “savage” relations (to “kill the Indian in the child“)?  What would we have done, faced with jail, cancelled benefits, or the seizing of younger children?

When she was four or five, Lynda Pahpasay McDonald was taken by plane from her parents’ home on Sydney Lake, Ontario. “I looked outside, my mom was, you know, flailing her arms, and, and I, and she must have been crying, and I see my dad grabbing her, and, I was wondering why, why my mom was, you know, she was struggling. She told me many years later what happened, and she explained to me why we had to be sent away to, to residential school.

… And she told me, like, she was so hurt, and, and I used to ask her, “Why did you let us go, like, why didn’t you stop them, you know? Why didn’t you, you know, come and get us?” And she told me, “We couldn’t, because they told us if we tried to do anything, like, get you guys back, we’d be thrown into jail.” So, they didn’t want to end up in jail, ’cause they still had babies at, at the cabin.” (The Survivors Speak, p. 16)

The circumstances here are not exactly the same as Sophie’s Choice.  But they are not exactly different either.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people … went out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
  Mark 1:4-5


The Survivors Speak A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015.  Available online.

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