Stories, tears, being heard and hopes of healing and reconciliation
Chairs surround the hall forming several large circles; boxes of Kleenex and small brown bags with the edges rolled down dot the area. People sit quietly and listen. That’s why they are here, to listen.
Doreen McKenzie (c) shares her story of the Timber Bay Children’s Home experience
In the centre of the room are two separate tables. At one table are Marie Wilson, commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Tom Roberts, master of ceremonies for the TRC Community Hearing at the Jonas Roberts Memorial Community Centre (JRMCC) on the LLRIB territory, and himself a residential school survivor. The table opposite is reserved for residential school survivors who tell the stories of their experience of residential school.
The Rainbow Buffalo Singers Drum Group pay tribute to each survivor who speaks during the public forum.
Each of the three mornings of the Hearings began with a Pipe Ceremony, a prayer and opening remarks by Wilson.
Survivors of the residential school system, some for the first time, have an opportunity to tell their story of what the school was like and the effects being forced to attend the schools have had on them throughout their lives.
While each survivor’s story is unique, common themes wove throughout the storytelling – memories of the day they were taken away to the “residence,” the baths given by strangers, having their hair cut off, struggles with self-esteem, shame, addictions, the loss of language and culture, loss of parenting skills and the loss of love. Several people talked about being called names, such as heathens and savages, but never hearing the word love, never being shown any love.
“It’s hard to speak, but we must speak so others can listen and learn,” said Jonas Bird, a Lac La Ronge Indian Band (LLRIB) elder and residential school survivor.
Bird told his story of being born “special in the Aboriginal world.” He had six fingers on each hand. An elder from his community said he would go far and help his people in his lifetime. At seven, Bird was taken from the family trapline at Wapawekka to the residential school in Prince Albert, where he was looked on differently because of his hands. Not knowing the language, culture or customs, Bird was taken to a hospital. He remembers someone putting something over his nose, which is the last thing he remembers before waking with his hands bandaged. His sixth finger on each hand had been removed. Bird spent three months in hospital as gangrene set into the wounds and he came close to losing both hands, but asked they not be removed.
Bird spoke about his years working for the federal and Saskatchewan governments and his accomplishments across the north.
“I work with my hands today,” he said, holding his hands in front of him and gently folding them.
Rebecca (Becky) McKenzie spoke about her experience, the experience of being ridiculed and shunned and not respected in the community.
Lillian Charles talked about the separation in her family between her siblings, caused by the residential school experience, which still exists. “I love my family … If you can’t give me back my family, there is nothing you can do for me,” she said.
Hilary Cook spoke of the loss of parenting skills for First Nations people resulting from the residential school experience and system.
Paul Sylvestre, of the Birch Narrows Dene Nation, made his second appearance at a Community Hearing. He spoke of crying uncontrollably through his first presentation earlier this spring in Prince Albert.
Sylvestre spoke about being taken from his home by boat to school, but of enjoying much about the experience, particularly sporting opportunities. He was also an alter boy for the church, which he said he enjoyed until one day, when a priest asked him to reach in his pocket and take out some matches. There were no matches, but he was forced to masturbate the priest for the first of many times over the following years.
Sylvestre rebelled and was finally dismissed from the school. He was taken by boat in October in shirtsleeves to Ile-a-la-Crosse, where he knew no one and was dropped off on the dock. He befriended a local boy and slept the night under a tarp. The next day he approached a conservation officer heading to Buffalo Narrows, who gave him a ride. The conservation officer gave him a sandwich, and Sylvestre said, as he spoke he can still taste that sandwich, it tasted so good.
Sylvestre said he struggled over the years but when he thought about the residential school system, he said he remembered thinking, “that can’t be right,” and has found peace living in the bush over the years.
Joan Olsen, who grew up on Sturgeon Lake First Nation not knowing she was a Lac La Ronge Indian Band member, talked through many tears about the loss of language and parenting skills and lack of love as a result of the residential school experience. She struggled over the years with self-esteem issues. She spoke of regreting not teaching her children to speak their language, Cree. Olsen went on to university. She spoke about liking to help people, which she does now as a social worker and she talked about reclaiming her self esteem. “I’ve learned to love me, to love Joan.”
Jennifer Cook talked about the relationship with her father, a residential school survivor and war veteran, and how she found understanding and compassion for her father. She also spoke about the importance of traditional spirituality and how she has become what she referred to as a “cultural activist.”
Tanner Cook also spoke about being the child of a residential school survivor and his determination, at 12-years-of-age, to see his younger brother receive the love and care he needed growing up.
Doreen McKenzie spoke about the abuse at the residential school in her experience of the Timber Bay Children’s Home. She described the thick strap used on the children for discipline when they were caught speaking their language, and many other occasions. She spoke of running away and getting home to La Ronge just before she turned 16. She was returned to the school, but her mother and aunt came to the school on her 16th birthday and took her home to La Ronge. The one good thing about the school experience was the finding of her aunt, her father’s sister, whom she spoke about being part of their lives for many years after.
“Yes, we heard stories of abuse, of hardship and of loneliness and of loss, but we also heard tremendous stories of resilience and strength,” Wilson said in her wrap up comments on the first day of the Hearings.
Chief Tammy Cook-Searson, also a residential school survivor, encouraged survivors to find support, including counselling, sharing her own experience of finding some healing through counselling, to deal with the affects of their experience. Affirming the affects of the school system, Cook-Searson also said, “We are not there any more. We are here. We survived. We need to build a better world for our children and grandchildren.”
The people leave and the brown paper bags full of tear-filled Kleenex are collected. The bags will be taken to the National Event in Saskatoon to be joined with others from across the province for a ceremony intended on healing.
Valerie G. Barnes-Connell