Karen Prince believes the news of hundreds of Indigenous children’s bodies discovered recently in both B.C and Saskatchewan could trigger a mental health crisis in First Nations communities because she knows how greatly her late husband suffered for years from his time in a residential school.
“Before we got married my husband had issues with anger and with drugs and alcohol, and I had no idea what was going on,” Prince, a resident of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation said.
“And one day he finally told me, ‘I’m a residential school survivor,’ and then I knew where his pain was coming from.”
Prince said her husband James Allen Prince, who passed away in 2017, told her of physical and sexual abuse he endured while in a residential school in Kenora as a child, but also about how hungry he and others were all the time because they were never given enough to eat.
“Anytime he would see an orange peel he would tell me not to throw it out, because when he was in residential school they used to hide the orange peels because that helped them to survive,” Prince said.
“He told me ‘we took off the orange peels and hid them so we could eat them later, but if they found that we had them we were punished, they would beat us.’”
And because of the way he was treated as a child, Prince said her husband found it almost impossible to show affection.
“This is why my husband couldn’t say ‘I love you.’ He had a hard time to say that because they were always told what they could and could not say, and told they could not share their feelings.”
Prince said that for years her husband dealt with “triggers” in his life that would bring up memories of his time at a residential school.
“There are these triggers for so many survivors, and it can be something small like that orange peel or something big like this news now about these graves and these poor children.”
And as the horrific news continues to come out about unmarked graves found near former residential schools in Canada, Prince now said she hopes there are resources available in First Nations communities to help those who may be triggered.
Prince works as the community health representative at the Brokenhead Medical Clinic, a full-service medical centre and pharmacy in the community, and said they offer mental health supports for those looking for help or to talk to someone.
She said she hopes that those who may be struggling reach out for help.
In the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation, about 100 km north of Brandon, Chief Normal Bone says he has those same fears about people in his community dealing with mental health issues, because of the horrific news of the graves.
“You see all the stories and the history of the residential schools and that is what is contributing so greatly to all this anger we see, and we have to find ways to respond to that,” Bone said.
He said the community does deal with issues of violence and addictions and believes much of those issues stem from the residential school system’s effects.
He also wonders if mental health issues could be triggered in some survivors who tried to tell people about the horrors they witnessed in the system but were often ignored.
“For so long it seemed like no one wanted to listen or even tried to listen, but now that we have found evidence, I hope this just wakes everyone up.
“People can’t deny this anymore, they have to listen.”
An Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week in Canada for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience or the experience of someone they know. The crisis line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
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Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun