STRATFORD – A crowd of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous allies from Huron and Perth counties clad in orange shirts gathered at Market Square in Stratford on Sept. 30 for a solidarity Walk to Remember to Falstaff Family Centre for the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The orange shirt is a symbol of what has been taken from Indigenous culture. When Phyllis Webstad (nee Jack) was six years old in 1973 she was taken to St. Joseph Mission Residential School. When she arrived her clothes were taken, including a beloved new orange shirt. She never saw that shirt again.
The event in Stratford was organized by The Talking Circle Perth Huron, led by Todd Torresan.
During a simultaneous ceremony arranged by the City of Stratford, Jason Henry, Chief at Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, spoke of the day as a very important step.
“Truth is about what happened and what is real. It is about having the ability to accept the reality of what people, both survivors – first, second, third and fourth generation survivors know as the truth,” he said. “A few short months ago in May, 215 little voices spoke up and they made an entire world pay attention that in Canada which many times is spoken of as the greatest country in the world has a shadowy past that we’ve overlooked.”
Henry said he likes to leave a challenge for everybody when he speaks.
“Orange Shirt Day is about a child losing an orange shirt when they went to school, but I challenge you to look deeper and see what else children lost when they went to school,” he said. “Orange shirts are only the surface of what Indigenous people have lost, so I challenge you to learn more about what was taken and to help stand with us to help us recover that.”
Winona Sands speaks her truth
After sharing a reading of Webstad’s Orange Shirt Story at Falstaff Family Centre, Winona Sands shared her own story.
“My Indian name is She Brings Good Things,” she said. “I am a survivor of the Sixties Scoop. I was taken from my community, my reserve of Walpole Island.”
She said she grew up with abuse and sexual assault from her family.
“I had the Indian smacked out of me every day at school,” she said. “It was tragic. I was a drug addict and an alcoholic.”
She knows that came from the abuse she received from the home she was in.
“They were alcoholics,” said Sands. “That’s where I learned to drink. I drank with them, partied with them and I’m not going to say they were bad parents. I love them. They were my parents. They were the ones that raised me.”
She is now dedicated to helping First Nation people in the north.
“My priority is working with the First Nation people up north and that’s where I was (this summer),” said Sands. “I was getting their stories and learning from them so I could take it to the government. I took their notes and I wrote down everything but I want to share with you what I saw.”
She said for confidentiality she could not use the names of people or reserves.
“I will never complain again that I do not have enough or that I don’t have a big enough house or that I don’t have enough friends,” said Sands. “I have enough of everything and the reason I say that is doing a census I’d go to people’s houses that don’t have running water.”
She would carry extra water with her so when she was at a home she could give people a bottle.
“The honey truck… that’s the poop truck,” said Sands. “The poop truck drove around town every day along with the water truck. While one guy is filling the house with water the other is taking it away because there is no sewage up there.”
Then she said the honey truck dumps its load in a lake because there is no sewage treatment on the reserves.
“Imagine living in a two-bedroom house with no running water, no septic and 15 people living in one house, two bedrooms, one bathroom,” said Sands. “That’s my experience this summer. Not on one reserve, but 15 reserves. I am grateful for what I have.”
A positive thing she saw up north was children playing.
“This is what you see up there – playing, dancing, bouncing around on the trampoline,” said Sands. “It was wonderful to see kids play.”
Then she spoke of another thing she found heartbreaking. Two weeks before she left it was time for the high school kids to leave home. There are schools on the reserves for the younger kids but nothing for high school kids.
“They are shipped (away),” she said. “So this one day in particular… I’m driving down the road and I see teenagers walking out of their house with a suitcase behind them, tears coming down their face. Moms and dads are following them to the road. Everybody is crying at the end of their driveways. I had to stop, pull over and cry because that just reminded me of residential school kids.”
When the children get to the city where they will be attending school they live with host parents, but Sands wonders if the host parents are making sure they keep their culture.
“Are they drinking? Are they drugging? Of course, they are because that is what their friends are doing and there are no parents there to look after them,” she said. “That is what I experienced this summer and this is what brought me to this… I had to come and tell this story because you guys need to know. My job is to report it.”
Torresan thanked Sands for her heartfelt words.
“Some of us didn’t even get to pack our suitcase,” he said. “We just got dropped off. We thought we were going for ice cream or a burger and we just got dropped off… I had both grandmothers, my great-grandmother, a lot of my family went through it.”
Author S.P. Joseph Lyons
shares his truth
Torresan introduced author S.P. Joseph Lyons as a Sixties Scoop baby and an intergenerational survivor of the residential school legacy who endured abuse through the child welfare system.
“I also went through all of that… We got tortured, a lot of death, a lot of misery, children never came back,” said Torresan. “We all see that. Every day we were told your parents are coming or your grandparents are coming. They would force us to go look in that window or to the basement to look and they knew nobody was coming. They just wanted to see us cry. We were getting abused – that was night and day. I went to the Mush Hole (Mohawk Institute Residential School). All we got was mush and it was dry.”
“I am Anishinaabe Algonquin,” said Lyons. “Truth, what does truth mean? What are we talking about here? We’re talking about the history of Turtle Island. The history of Indigenous people, what happened, how, when, why – all those details. I cannot speak for all of my people but I can tell my story of truth and what I went through and when you hear my story and you hear the story of other Indigenous people you are going to hear a lot of similarities, you are going to see a lot of parallels.”
He started his story pre-contact when Indigenous peoples lived in harmony and balance with the land and one another.
“We had elders to teach us, we had ceremonies, traditions, inheritances, laws,” said Lyons. “We were a matriarch society. Women were the boss. 25,000 plus years of women running the show – it went smoothly. 500 years of the patriarchy and we’ve almost destroyed the planet.”
The crowd laughed.
“When Columbus arrived his people were dying of scurvy,” he said. “We fed them. We nursed them back to health. We loaded their ships with all the supplies they would need to return home and we wished them well because that’s the kind of people we are.”
More and more people came and were welcomed.
“We said this land does not belong to us,” said Lyons. “It is land that we borrow from our children and our grandchildren. Please come, share the land with us.”
Eventually, that wasn’t good enough.
“All the land and all the resources were wanted and the Indigenous people were in the way,” he said. “I don’t tell you this stuff to point fingers or sew any seeds of guilt. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the history, the often ugly history of Turtle Island and it’s more about just educating you on the pieces of what happened so that you, as not guilty for it, can recognize it and help walk forward and dismantle these systems that are still in place to oppress Indigenous people… I’m not here to traumatize. I’m here to teach.”
Lyons’ grandfather was a residential school survivor.
“What does it mean to survive?” he asked. “The fact that he didn’t die. Does that mean he survived? The fact that he fell into alcohol, substance abuse – is that surviving? I think we take the term ‘survivor’ loosely.”
Lyons said his grandfather had to do unspeakable things in residential school and had unspeakable things happen to him.
“When he became a father he abused my father and my aunt terribly and his wife,” he said. “As a result, my father became a very abusive man, in and out of prison, couldn’t be a father or a husband and as a result foster care came in and took me, my brother and my sister away.”
Lyons never met his grandfather but found out later he turned into a pretty good guy towards the end of his life.
“We live in a society that likes to point the finger of judgement where ever possible – you did this horrible thing and I’m going to hold that over your head for the rest of your life rather than saying we all make mistakes, some large, some small but we are not necessarily the same person we were a year ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago,” said Lyons.
He encouraged people to look at what causes people to do horrific actions and how they could be healed.
“Ideally don’t we want a society filled with happy, contributing people rather than people locked in cages?” Asked Lyons.
His time in foster care was the most traumatic in his life.
“The hardest part was I had no voice,” said Lyons. “Anyone I told called me a liar. I told social workers. They didn’t report it… I was trapped in this awful place. Honestly, if I knew what suicide was back then I probably would have done it. It was that bad.
“Luckily I got adopted. I got freed from the foster care system.”
His adoptive parents were cultural anthropologists and they opened his mind to all sorts of ideas and views.
“They were going down the Pride road, the Black Lives Matter road, the Indigenous Lives Matter road long before they were movements and so I adopted their beliefs and their philosophies,” said Lyons.
However, he described himself as a crazy child.
“My whole world had just exploded and all the pieces were still floating around and now I’ve been adopted, I’m expected to go to school and follow the rules and listen and obey and I haven’t even figured out what has happened to me yet,” he said. “Of course, it was all my fault. I was the bad kid. I needed discipline. I needed medication and psychiatrists to fix me because I was the problem.”
At the time, his early childhood trauma was not taken into account as a cause of his behaviour.
“As a teenager… I blamed myself still for everything that happened,” said Lyons. “I went off the rails. Every imaginable vice, I did it. I was on the street for a while. I was involved in all sorts of crazy stuff because I didn’t care. I didn’t care about myself. I didn’t care about life. I didn’t want to be here so if I didn’t wake up tomorrow I didn’t care.”
He ended up in a group home. There were pros and cons to this.
“The cons are if you were a bit of a criminal, well you learned a whole lot more from these guys,” he said. “The pros though, were that I had a brotherhood, other kids that had been rejected by their family… That was the first time I had any real acceptance for who I was. I was good enough finally.”
When he was a teenager he met his wife; it didn’t last very long, although he left enough of an impression so four years later she was willing to give him a second chance.
“We have four… amazing kids and anyone who has kids knows that as soon as you have kids your life doesn’t matter anymore,” said Lyons. “I became the dad I always wanted. I’m affectionate. I’m involved… I try to stay cool with whatever matters to them.”
Through that, he was able to break family chains.
“My grandfather could not break the chains of the pain he went through, nor could my father but I did for my kids,” he said. “I didn’t want them to be in a home full of alcohol or full of abuse and end up in care as a lot of people do.”
His brother and sister were not as resilient and did not break the family chains.
“My brother fell into alcohol and drugs and took his own life six years ago,” said Lyons.
He said he is haunted with questions about what he could have done for his brother which he may have until he draws his last breath.
His sister had five children which she lost to the Children’s Aid Society.
“I stepped in as a kin provider, an uncle to try to help my nieces and nephews while they are in the system ready to be adopted away,” he said. “These are status eligible kids and… I brought them into my home and took care of them until we can have our circle process to plan for them so that they could return to the family. I wanted to break the chains not only for my own family, but I also wanted to break them for my nieces and nephews too … Broken people will often break people. So my grandfather was a broken person, broke my father. My father broke me. I had to heal myself.”
Lyons has done all the things he thought he had to as an adult; he got married, bought a house, got an education, a great job, but it did not make him happy.
“I was an account executive for a big firm,” he said. “(I) walked into my boss’s office one day and I said, ‘If you can’t tell me how what I’m doing right now matters in a year, I quit, or a hundred years, I quit.’ He said, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa – what do you want, more money?’ I said, ‘No, it’s not about money.’ ‘Want a company car?’ ‘No, it’s about mattering, purpose – what purpose does this have in 100 years?’ He couldn’t give me an answer so I just quit. I walked off and went home much to my wife’s chagrin.”
Just like that, he decided he was going to write books.
“I took all of my pain, my trauma in my life and I put it in a fantasy story,” said Lyons. “So I write my first book. I have an opportunity through narrative therapy to get some closure in areas I never could in life… I was able to take a traumatic event for me that you may not fully understand and paint it in a way that if you were to read it you would understand.”
He wrote the book, and he had to face the trauma that came with it.
“Now I want to burn my book, I want to hide in my basement, I never want to come out again and I don’t like anybody,” said Lyons.
He got through that phase and the book was well received. He wrote a whole series around the book.
“Spoiler alert, there is a book where the Indigenous people, called the Original People have their own planet, they were almost wiped out, they rose up and took the planet back,” said Lyons. “A little foreshadowing, I want to do that in a nicer way in the real world.”
A Mohawk Elder told Lyons he was the author he had been waiting for 20 years to meet. The Elder had been waiting for an Indigenous author who has been in the system to write a book for kids in the system.
“When an Elder asks you to do something, you do it. I didn’t want to… I don’t know anything about kid’s books,” he said.
He wrote Little Bear in Foster Care, the only book that is specifically for Indigenous children in care.
“The only way I could write this book successfully was to write it to myself when I was in care,” said Lyons. “This book was designed to give that hope back to our kids that are still stuck there.”
He read the book to the crowd and said it is the truth of many Indigenous people who have lived in the foster care system.
“Those pains, those struggles, those separations, loss of language, loss of culture – systemic racism still exists,” said Lyons. “Allies, we love our allies. You can speak into areas that we may not. You can amplify our voices in ways that we can’t. We need you. The fact that you are here in orange shirts says a lot to me. I feel all of you and I’m grateful for all of you.”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner