The People Versus The Minister of Nothing

This week the Toronto Star reported the story of the death and burial of Charlie Hunter, which is also the story of his parents’ thirty-seven year effort to have their son’s remains returned to their community of Peawanuck for burial.

At five years of age, Charlie Hunter was taken from his family and institutionalized hundreds of miles away at St Anne’s Indian Residential School, in Fort Albany. (You may recall this particular school from a notorious October 21, 1996 Globe and Mail article, the focus of which was an electric chair kept in the school’s basement for disciplinary purposes.) On October 22, 1974, he left the school property to skate with two other students, one of whom, Joseph Koostachin, fell through the ice. Charlie tried to rescue him, but fell into the water himself and drowned. He was buried in Moosonee, according to his parents without their consultation concerning the funeral arrangements. At their own cost, Mike and Pauline Hunter flew the five hundred kilometres from Peawanuk to Moosonee (there are no connecting roads, and flights must be chartered and at considerable cost) for the service.

Charlie’s brother, Brian, petitioned the current Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the Honourable Mr. John Duncan, to pay the costs of relocating Charlie’s remains. The Minister replied in writing as follows:

I am deeply moved by the tragic circumstances of your brother’s death while attending Residential School, and your parents’ grief at the loss of their child. […] The Department is unable to provide funding to resolve this painful situation …

Charlie’s sister, Joyce, is quoted in the Toronto Star article saying that her parents “want to be able to walk over to his grave and talk with him, lay wreaths at his plot or simply to be able to cry. This is about reuniting a family, even in death.”

Charlie Hunter was, like many indigenous children, forcibly removed from family and community by a state which assumed for itself broad legal powers as well as the specific responsibilities of fiduciary and in loco parentis duties: and yet, officials who granted themselves such authority over matters of life and death refused in many instances to meet the basic standards of ordinary human decency. The means to take Charlie from his home were amply provided, but when it came time to bring him home there was not a shred of political will. And the same holds true as you read these words. Within hours, the National Residential School Survivors Society and gracious readers of the Toronto Star together accomplished what for decades the successive Ministers of Nothing could not. They deposited $9,898 into a trust fund to have a boy’s remains returned to his home and his people.

I am going to choose to focus here on those compassionate people of Canada, and not on the silver-tongued politicians. Upon such common folk, and upon them alone, our hope depends. We all know, my friends, what failures governments and politicians are. Is it not so? All across this world the people are casting away their local parasite class, and best of luck to them, and to you also.

Update: Friday, August 19, 2011 “Charlie Hunter’s finally home with his family” (Toronto Star).

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