The Brother of All Men #1, written by Zac Thompson (Ka-Zar: Lord of the Savage Land, I Breathed a Body) with art by Eoin Marron, colours by Mark Englert, and lettering by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou is the first issue in an exploration of one of Canada’s more lesser-known cults. Before Roch Thériault took the name Moïse and founded the Ant Hill Kids, Edward Arthur Wilson took on the identity of Brother XII (or Brother 12) and led a group of spiritualists on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
This is less a review as much as it is a reflection centred very specifically on a single line on a single page.
Beyond the cult aspect of The Brother of All Men lies a commentary on the nature of Canada, our history of bloodshed, and how that history ties into our national identity. Much of it lingers on the First World War, a war which had been done for 10 years when the story starts and one which much of Canadian identity is built on, a fact which anyone who has taken grade 10 Canadian History knows. Anyone who has sat in one of those classes would be all too familiar with the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the words of Brigadier-General Arthur Edward Ross, “In those few minutes, I witnessed the birth of a nation.” Canadian mythmaking is not limited only to uplifting the things that have happened, for decades, if not centuries it has been critically important that Canada portray itself as the United States’ nice, polite upstairs neighbour. The kind of neighbour who has only done good and has no skeletons in the closet.
Thompson describes Canada as “a nation defined by annihilation,” a fact which is true not only for Vimy Ridge and the Battle of the Somme, where 80% of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment lost their lives on the first day of battle, but in the things we’ve historically refused to talk about and the bodies we’ve swept under the carpet, or buried in our railways, or in mass graves at places we dared to call schools.
Since the Summer of 2021, when the potential graves of 215 First Nations children who had been stolen from their families in the pursuit of “civilizing” them were found by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, the residential school system has been more in the minds of Canadians than it perhaps ever has been, and it has garnered the attention of the world in ways it hadn’t previously. From 1894 to 1947, Indigenous children (in Canada, there are three groups of federally recognized Indigenous people; First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) were by law required to attend schools created by the Canadian government in partnership with Christian churches in an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society. In reality, residential schools existed long before they were made mandatory and continued to exist long after the mandate ceased. From 1831 to 1996, residential schools were federally funded; in those 165 years, an estimate of 150,000 Indigenous children passed through the schools, at time of publishing the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation lists 4,120 children on their memorial website.
At the schools, students were removed from their families, forced to speak either English or French, given new names, and entirely cut off from their cultures. Abuse was widespread; children were physically assaulted and sexually abused by staff, many of whom were priests and nuns. Tuberculosis and Influenza ran rampant due to overcrowding and a lack of proper sanitation, as well as funding being tied to enrollment numbers leading to already sick children being brought into the schools to boost numbers. Forced labour presented as skills training was often relied on to maintain the facilities and government scientists performed nutritional experiments that kept the control groups intentionally undernourished. Between 1942 and 1952, six residential schools across the country played host to tuberculosis vaccine trials which used First Nations children as test subjects against their will; something which has led to continues mistrust of vaccination amongst First Nations people, as was documented in Yukon by APTN during the early days of the Covid-19 Pandemic.
In 1966, Chanie Wenjack, a 12 year old Ojibwe boy from Marten Falls First Nation in Northwestern Ontario ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School after having boarded there for three years. He and two other boys, brothers named Ralph and Jackie MacDonald had made it to Redditt, Ontario before splitting up. The brother stayed with their uncle Charley Kelly and Chanie continued on in an effort to make his way back home to Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve by following the Canadian National Railway mainline. Seven days later, on October 23, he made it to Farlane, Ontario and collapsed after 36 hours of walking. Wenjack was wearing only a windbreaker and the temperature had dropped to −6 °C. A coroner’s inquest found that he had died of exposure and hunger. He was 549 km away from home.
Ian Adams reported on Wenjack’s death for Maclean’s in an article titled The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack (the original 1967 article misnames Chanie as “Charlie.”) In his article, Adams wrote:
It’s not so unusual that Indian children run away from the residential schools they are sent to. They do it all the time, and they lose their toes and their fingers to frostbite. Sometimes they lose a leg or an arm trying to climb aboard freight trains. Occasionally, one of them dies. And perhaps because they are Indians, no one seems to care very much.
A coroner’s inquest was held on November 17, 1966, the jury, which was composed of five local residents, all non-Indigenous determined that “the Indian education system causes tremendous emotional and adjustment problems for these children.”
Wenjack was far from the only victim of residential schools, just as residential schools were far from the only way in which Indigenous people have been mistreated by Canada as whole. According to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be missing or murdered compared to their non-Indigenous counterpoint. Per Statistics Canada, between 2015 and 2020, Indigenous women represented 5% of the population of Canada and comprise of nearly 25% of all murdered women over that period of time.
Dating as far back as 1976, members of the Saskatoon Police Service have had a practice of arresting Indigenous people, typically men, for alleged drunkenness and disorderly behaviour and driving them to the outskirts of the city on winter nights. The practice was known as “starlight tours.” The practice was discovered in January 2000 when Darrell Night was able to call a Taxi from a nearby power station. In September 2001, two constables involved in the incident, Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, were convicted of unlawful confinement and sentenced to eight months in prison. No officers have ever been convicted for having caused the freezing deaths. There are three known victims, Neil Stonechild in 1990, and Rodeny Naistus and Lawrence Wegner in 2000. In 2016, Addison Herman, a then 18 year old student discovered that information about the tours was deleted from the Saskatoon Police Commision’s Wikipedia page using a computer with an IP address registered with the commission.
There is far more to Canada’s bloody history, to the annihilation that we’ve built ourselves on than I could unpack here. We’ve glorified that which allows us to set ourselves up as a shining example of gallant heroics or tragic loss, shoving the darkest parts of our history as far back as possible. Some things however, are too big to ignore and the truth doesn’t stay buried forever. There’s a second part to that quote from The Brother of All Men that I mentioned earlier that struck me, “And yet, Guy saw a country with a smug sense of pride. One more fascinated by the radio than the fact its cities were buttressed by the bones of the dead.”