Mi'kmaw student honours residential school survivors at graduation ceremony

·5 min read
'I wanted to do it because I was going to be on stage and I wanted everybody to see it,' says Jewel Bernard. (Submitted by Jewel Bernard - image credit)
'I wanted to do it because I was going to be on stage and I wanted everybody to see it,' says Jewel Bernard. (Submitted by Jewel Bernard - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Jewel Bernard became the first person in her family to graduate from high school in June — and that isn't the only reason her graduation was special.

As she walked across the stage at Westisle Composite High School, Bernard — who is Mi'kmaw and grew up on Lennox Island — was wearing a bright orange sash to honour residential school survivors.

"I wanted to do it because I was going to be on stage and I wanted everybody to see it," said Bernard.

At her graduation ceremony, the 17-year-old read the poem I Lost My Talk by Mi'kmaw poet Rita Joe, a residential school survivor.

"To see my daughter up there and being able to say those words so strongly and proudly, it was very moving," said Misti Myers, Bernard's mother.

"I was in tears."

'Every child does matter'

Bernard's graduation was not the first time she's raised awareness about residential schools.

Around February, Bernard was assigned a research project for her global issues class. She started her paper just before the news of the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains adjacent to a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Following the discovery in Kamloops, two other First Nation communities in western Canada said they also found hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.

Bernard said hearing the news of the more than 1,000 unmarked graves that have been discovered was "sickening."

Nimbus Publishing
Nimbus Publishing

"I already had my interest on the intergenerational effects of the trauma [of residential schools]," said Bernard. "Then when all of these things came to light, I just gained more passion about it."

Bernard had relatives who were forced to attend residential schools.

"If my great-grandfather didn't escape, then I wouldn't be here," said Bernard. "He enlisted in the army so the residential schools could no longer take him back."

Myers said her grandfather did not often speak about his experience in residential school.

"He was a fluent Mi'kmaw speaker, but didn't teach his 18 children how to speak Mi'kmaw because he figured he was helping them to not have to go through some of the same things that he did."

Bernard said she did three presentations on the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools for her classmates.

"I really just wanted to show them that every child does matter.

"These things need to [come to] light," Bernard said. "When I was doing my presentations, people didn't even know at all that it was half as bad."

Facing racism at school

Bernard has witnessed and faced racism throughout her years in school.

Everybody from Lennox Island, we grew up kind of like a family. — Jewel Bernard

For most of high school, Bernard said she was one of few if not the only Mi'kmaw person in her classes.

"I was lucky because everybody from Lennox Island, we grew up kind of like a family. So when we went into high school, we kind of all had each other's backs," said Bernard.

But it wasn't always easy.

"It was really hard in middle school and high school because you'd be sitting in a class and sometimes you know when people are talking about you and your race," she said. "You don't want to speak out about that because who else in the class is going to feel how you feel?"

Speaking out

During her last year in high school, Bernard said she heard one of her peers say a racial slur to another student. She told school staff about the incident, which led to cultural sensitivity training being implemented for staff at Westisle.

Submitted by Jewel Bernard
Submitted by Jewel Bernard

"I was actually really surprised," said Bernard.

Due to past experiences, Bernard said she expected her school to do nothing in response to the incident. But she said it's still important for students to speak up about racism and social justice issues.

"To speak out about these types of things, you can't be afraid to do it, and if you're passionate about it, you're not afraid."

In the fall, Bernard will attend the University of Prince Edward Island, where she's planning to take diversity and social justice studies.

Searches elsewhere

In the wake of the preliminary discovery in Kamloops, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, which was in operation from 1899 to 1997.

Cowessess also used ground-penetrating radar to locate the grave sites earlier this month. It was not immediately clear if all the graves are connected to the residential school, which is located about 140 kilometres east of Regina.

Earlier this week, the Penelakut Tribe in B.C.'s Southern Gulf Islands announced that more than 160 "undocumented and unmarked" graves have been found in the area, which was also once home to the Kuper Island Residential School. The tribe did not say how the graves were found, whether children's remains are suspected of being buried there or whether ground-penetrating radar was used.

The Williams Lake First Nation, located in the Cariboo region of the Central Interior region of B.C., is also preparing to search the site of another former facility, St Joseph's Mission, which is located a few kilometres from the nation's community core and operated as a residential school between 1886 and 1981.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC's new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.

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