Sharing stories of trauma, survival and courage, three Indigenous elders relayed stories on the impacts of residential schools in Canada at the All Nations Sharing Circle on Wednesday.
It was a powerful experience having the opportunity to speak about their experiences, said Rolling River First Nation Member Thelma Amyotte-Noctor. She appreciated having a safe space to talk about the institutions’ impact on her family members.
“They didn’t feel safe enough to talk about it and I think there was a lot of shame attached to it, but it was not their doing,” she said.
Amyotte-Noctor spoke to her family’s experiences at residential school and the lingering trauma the institutions left spanning generations. While she did not attend a residential school, she saw firsthand the impact they had on her parents and siblings.
Hailing from Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) Maata Evaluardjuk-Palmer spoke to her experience at the Churchill Residential School. Her father also attended a residential school.
As a survivor, she grew up in a very restricted and claustrophobic environment, where permission was always needed for even the most minor of actions and activities.
“To come to this type of space to share and to be part of, it’s very welcoming. I feel good to share here,” Evaluardjuk-Palmer said.
The forced removal of children deeply affected Indigenous families and communities, with the traumas spanning out across generations, she said. Her dad was angry after his time at residential school, and this emotion was only heightened after his children were taken.
“They took his children. They never, ever came back as the children that he had. Even though they came home, they were different,” Evaluardjuk-Palmer said. “My dad was really, really badly affected by the church taking his children. Because his two boys, the oldest boys, he wanted to train them to be hunters like him. But he couldn’t because they were taken.”
Her oldest sister was in residential school from the time she was five until her graduation. From five to 10 years of age, her sister was unable to ever visit home. After that experience, her sister never felt comfortable coming home.
Her sister rarely spoke of her experiences at residential school, Evaluardjuk-Palmer said, so she feels compelled to share her stories.
Amyotte-Noctor hopes those that attended the talk gained a better understanding of what happened to children, families and communities when young people were forced to attend residential schools and removed from their communities. The trauma created by the institutions impacted countless nation members, and many were left feeling disconnected from their culture.
Now, there is an active push to reclaim the culture and traditions that were lost.
She showcased the work taking place to reclaim knowledge that was lost or hidden due to residential schools, citing how her grandchildren are encouraged to dance in powwows and learning about the history of their families.
“They’re small steps but the young people can take them,” Amyotte-Noctor said.
Evaluardjuk-Palmer added it means a lot to see the younger generations understanding the history of their people, and how the horrific legacy of residential schools impacted their grandparents and parents.
“People are listening now. They want to create an environment where people like us can share. To make it comfortable for us,” Evaluardjuk-Palmer said.
These conversations were not always possible, she said.
In 1990, the head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Phil Fontaine, made national news speaking out about the abuse he experienced at residential schools. He was one of the first people to openly speak about the horrific sexual abuse he experienced at a residential school. It marked the first time a national spotlight was shone on the schools. At the time, he called for an official inquiry into residential school abuse.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada officially implemented the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, in 2007. One of the elements of the agreement was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to facilitate reconciliation between former students, their families, their communities and all Canadians.
The commission released its final report with 94 calls to action in June 2015. Six years later, the majority of these calls have yet to be fully implemented.
While progress is being made towards reconciliation, it is a challenging subject because so many people have died since Fontaine first spoke, Evaluardjuk-Palmer said.
The discussions surrounding residential schools have only been fuelled by the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops residential school, and countless more across the country since the original discovery in June.
“For those of us who survived. People are finally listening,” Evaluardjuk-Palmer said. “There’s evidence to show what they said was true. People want to hear what we have to share.”
It is healing being able to share these stories, and marks the mending of wounds because the real truth has come out.
“We know that there were awful things that happened,” Evaluardjuk-Palmer said.
Sioux Valley Dakota Nation residential school survivor Lorraine Pompana attended three residential schools: Brandon, Portage la Prairie and Dauphin.
The first school she attended was the most traumatic because she was a little girl ripped away from her culture and thrust into a new alien world. At the time, she did not speak English. Now she no longer speaks Dakota.
“I lost my Dakota language, and to this day I don’t speak it,” Pompana said. “I still understand many words, but it’s difficult for me to do an entire sentence.”
She had many bad experiences at the school, and survivors share these traumatic experiences. Pompana said she will always feel the effects of these encounters because she can never erase the memories from her mind.
She grows more optimistic each day now, because Indigenous people’s experiences are being heard and honoured across the country.
“We’re getting more encouraged to find our voices,” Pompana said. “We’re all coming together and we’re finding each other as support.”
It has been encouraging to see the way the country rally around residential survivors this year. She added she is proud of Brandon, a city she has lived in since 1962, for ensuring space was made available to help in healing and share stories to create awareness in the city.
These events mark a step toward healing and understanding. She hopes these activities lead to ideas and recommendations on how to move forward with reconciliation.
“The big part is to continue with our healing journey,” Pompana said.
For those affected by the recent discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24-7 at 1-866-925-4419.
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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun