Sask. advocates call for more support for residential school survivors

·4 min read
The Marieval Indian Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997 in the area where the Cowessess First Nation is now located. On Thursday, the First Nation said what are believed to by 751 unmarked graves had been found at the site. (CBC - image credit)
The Marieval Indian Residential School operated from 1899 to 1997 in the area where the Cowessess First Nation is now located. On Thursday, the First Nation said what are believed to by 751 unmarked graves had been found at the site. (CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

When JoLee Sasakamoose heard Thursday's announcement that what are believed to by 751 unmarked graves have been found in Saskatchewan, her body went into a trauma response, she says.

"I felt like I had been punched in the stomach," she said.

She began to cry uncontrollably.

Sasakamoose said on Treaty 4 territory, long-term counselling is needed to address the pain people feel over what happened at Marieval Residential School, which stood at what is now Cowessess First Nation, about 140 kilometres east of Regina.

She works as a research director at Regina's Wellness Wheel Medical Clinic, but is stepping down to launch a mental health and addictions service in the city in the fall.

The Maskiki Muskwa Medicine Bear Healing Lodge will provide counselling services, she says. It will also provide information about chronic disease prevention, traditional birthing and parenting and peer support services for elder care.

The service is still in the process of getting its name finalized, Sasakamoose said, and is not ready to take any clients yet.

Submitted by JoLee Sasakamoose
Submitted by JoLee Sasakamoose

In the meantime she is helping connect people traumatized by the news from Cowessess with counselling services.

She has connected people with medical doctors, elders and psychiatrists. She said there are support hotline numbers available as well, but sometimes people want to speak with someone else locally.

"There's this trauma that's surfacing all over," she said.

Sasakamoose said people who are using the clinic's pharmacy and services are now coming in, displaying signs of trauma and in need of help finding additional supports.

She said elders are feeling sick and re-traumatized, as are second-generation survivors.

Submitted by JoLee Sasakamoose
Submitted by JoLee Sasakamoose

Sasakamoose said a lot of people ask what they can do. She suggests people should just try to learn what they can, and educate themselves regarding the inequalities Indigenous people face.

"Learn that we don't have the same rights. Understand why we're always advocating as Indigenous people.… Think about things like why we have to ask for just as much," she said.

Sasakamoose said people should also try to get to know and build relationships with Indigenous people, and that change will only happen through relationships.

Recent announcements contribute to demand: advocate

Jason Mercredi, director of Saskatoon's Prairie Harm Reduction, said after Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation reported what are believed to be 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School late last month, he saw an influx of people requesting additional help.

That's continued through June, and Mercredi expects the influx of requests to increase again in the wake of Thursday's news from Cowessess First Nation.

Many of the people coming in are people his harm reduction agency has never worked with before, he said.

"And they've relapsed and they're disclosing a lot of pretty intense sexual abuse that occurred at the residential schools," he said.

"A number of them said they didn't partake in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because they weren't ready at that time, but now, this has brought up a whole new series of memories that they witnessed."

Mercredi said for people living in poverty or those with addictions, it's not easy to access a phone or computer in order to seek out the services they require or call the support hotlines.

He said more in-person services are needed to help people in those kinds of situations and to be able to provide culturally appropriate care to them.

Mercredi called for more funding rom provincial and municipal governments for Indigenous organizations across Saskatchewan, to help them respond immediately to what he says is a crisis situation.

"We're done being told we're in people's thoughts. We need some concrete steps and concrete funding for these organizations and for these communities," he said.

For those who may be reliving trauma but are unable to find the support they need, Mercredi suggests contacting a local friendship centre for help.

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

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

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