Closer to Healing
I wrote my mom an email on Oct. 28 while I was Halifax, N.S. After a noting the scenery and good seafood, I wrote: “I’m learning a lot at the TRC sharing circles. It’s pretty heavy at times, emotionally, but it’s good and it’s inspiring to see the resiliency of the survivors.”
I was in Halifax attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Atlantic conference, where residential survivors in the region were invited to share their stories and memories of their time in the government-sponsored and church-run schools. The intent of the residential school system, as the now infamous phrase goes, was to “take the Indian out of the child.”
Residential school. The term holds a dark meaning to Aboriginal people.
Both of my parents went, my mom to St. Anne’s in Fort Albany while my dad was sent to St. Phillip’s in Fort George, located along the Quebec side of James Bay.
In retrospect, the effect it had on them and the communities are evident. In my early childhood, my parents partied a lot. I remember being put to bed while the sounds of music, voices and laughter reverberated throughout the house.
My parents didn’t talk about their experiences in the school much. I had to learn about it in school. When I inquired about it, they offered little detail about actually being in the school, only that they were forced to go.
I’ve heard and read many tragic and sad stories about residential schools since. While I felt prepared to a degree in the things I would hear, it’s a whole different thing to hear it in person.
The TRC organizers were prepared: tissue boxes were dispersed throughout the aisles of chairs where members of the public were invited to listen, and emotional support workers stood by, ready to counsel anyone overwhelmed by what they were hearing.
And they were put to use. As survivors went up and told their stories – of being taken from their homes, being separated from their siblings, and being a victim or witness to horrendous acts by the nuns and priests – many listeners needed the tissues or support workers.
There was a lot of sadness, anger and shame.
“Once we got to the school, I was put in a different part of the school from my sister. I never saw her for two years,” said one tearful Mi’kmaq woman. “I felt awful, that I wasn’t able to protect my little sister, and make sure she was OK.”
Some talked about the aftermath of going to the schools.
“I turned to alcohol,” one man said, sitting next to his adult son. “It affected me, my family, my kids. I wasn’t able to properly raise my children.”
“I didn’t really talk to anybody about it,” an Inuk from Labrador said. “It was an unspoken bond, I guess, with the other survivors.”
Hearing these stories, it got very heavy in that room. I considered leaving at times, to seek a reprieve from the tragic tales. But I would reason to myself that not only did these people survive these ordeals, they had the bravery to share it with the world. The least I could do was listen.
And it wasn’t all sadness and anger.
“They tried to take my culture, my sense of who I am,” said the Mi’kmaq tearful woman, her voice now strong and full of pride. “But I still here today, I speak my language, and am proud to be who I am.”
Perhaps one of the best lines came from an elderly Mi’kmaq, who spoke with a gentle voice. She was recalling a conversation she had with another survivor about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology in how Canada tried to destroy Aboriginal culture.
“And she said, ‘I accept the apology. I forgive them. I forgive everything that ever happened to me. I don’t wanna carry that garbage anymore. I’m happy with my life. I’m helping the survivors. That’s what I want to do and I’m happy.
‘My happiness is my revenge.’”
My mom replied to my email later that evening. “I am happy to hear that you are learning alot,” she wrote, “which will help you to understand me and also your dad, why we are the way we are.”
No one will ever fully understand what it was like in residential school, except those who went. We can only try to imagine ourselves in their position and wonder if we would have survived. My parents are still trying to heal from their experience, as am I from the intergenerational effects it has on me. After hearing stories firsthand from survivors, I feel like I’m a bit closer.