More than 100 people crowded into a classroom in MacLaggan Hall on University of New Brunswick campus in Fredericton on Feb. 9th, 2016, for an Indian Residential School Conference organized by Darian Brown with support from UNB’s School of Nursing, the UNB Student Union, Gignoo Transition House and personal donations from community members.
The poignant event featured three speakers on different topics related to the residential school experience: the context, the survivor’s testimony and the residual effects of forced institutionalization. Many audience members were moved to tears.
Grand Chief of the Wolastoq Grand Council Ron Tremblay, started off and closed the evening with prayers. A number of attendees joined in with Gail Paul to sing and drum “The Longest Walk.” The event also featured a raffle draw for prizes, including a drum-making kit.
Context for the discussion
Amanda Reid, an MA Student in the Nursing Program studying Indigenous health, gave a brief history of the establishment of Indian Residential Schools (IRS), the impacts of which have been perpetuated from the survivors on. Children were targeted to be assimilated and separated from their families, to be “civilized.” The ramifications of the legal imposition of sending children to IRS were abysmal on families. Some families thought the children would get tools to survive in the Western world and these were occasionally the only “educational” option for. To justify the use of schools, reports from the sixties also made pessimistic findings on child welfare in Indigenous communities without any knowledge about the context of Indigenous ways in Canada.
After six years of work, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission resulted in a number of suggestions, not the least of which was the establishment of a missing children project to find grave sites for the lost youngsters. Over 150,000 children went to IRS, and some 4,000 died, mostly from unknown causes although some from diseases. Illnesses were rampant in the schools because of factors like stress; the underfunding of IRS led to poor infrastructure, nutrition, and overcrowding in schools. It is estimated that 50% of children did not live to benefit from the education that they received.
Read reminded attendees that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations dealt with issues like child welfare, education, language, culture, etc. One of these recommendations aimed to acknowledge traditional ways of healing, such as a course offered at UNB’s Nursing Program. There are positive signs of change such as the fact that some universities are implementing mandatory classes in Indigenous studies and the government has launched an inquiry into the murdered and missing aboriginal women. In closing, Amanda Read stated: “I’ll continue to proudly wear my jingle dress.”
A survivor speaks
From Esgenoopetitj First Nation (Burnt Church), IRS Survivor Katherine Lambert, courageously shared her personal experience next. She is a mother of five children and grandmother of three. This was her first time disclosing her past to such a large group.
In 1965, at the age of seven years old, Lambert went to Shubenacadie IRS, two years before the school closed. Three of her siblings also went, she was the youngest of three girls, and had one younger brother. Lambert recalled that an Indian agent came to her reserve to collect the children in his car. Lambert remembered not wanting to go and running away to hide in the woods behind her house. She recollects being scared and not knowing what to do.
Lambert commented the common misrepresentations about why children were being taken away from families – for being “bad parents,” drinking or drugs– but says this was not always the case. After her own experience in IRS, she believes children might have been better off with alcoholic parents, for example, than having lived through their ordeals.
Lambert described her experience at the IRS as “culture shock” since she didn’t understand what was happening. The non-native people had control and she was afraid because she was not able to speak her language and would be punished for using it. Her worst experience was upon arriving when the first thing done was soaking the children’s heads for lice and cutting their hair. Her clothes were taken away and she was showered and dressed in a uniform. This was a trauma but, when thinking back, Lambert realizes that this was part and parcel of the institutionalization.
Siblings were not allowed to talk to each other because of the separation of genders. There were many other bad experiences and a lot of abuse from the nuns, who dealt with the girls. All the children had to eat the daily porridge, with a “treat” of Corn Flakes on Sunday. The food was not healthy; they never received fruit, meat or other proteins, except for bologna slices on Sunday and the occasional oranges or apples when they were in season. Snacks were square shaped hard biscuits that, to Lambert, looked like dog biscuits. Those who didn’t eat were forced to eat, and if they vomited they would be made to swallow it back.
There were also plenty of punishments around bathrooms; the institution locked the bathrooms after 7pm at night. When children had accidents they would be punished; Lambert remembers soiled bedding displayed to humiliate the child. This type of torture has long-term effects on the bladder. Children were also left outside until a certain hour, no matter how cold it was. The schools were breeding grounds for low self-esteem, according to Lambert.
At the schools, there was not place for kindness and no solace for the children, “no hugs,” as Lambert clarified for the public. Children were not allowed to go home at Christmas. Lambert was also placed in foster care for the summer while the school was closed. Her own foster parents were nice, but that was not always the case.
Many people have reported stories of sexual abuse by the priests at night. In Lambert’s understanding, men especially experienced that. She recalled hearing steps at night, when everyone would pretend to be asleep. In her own school, one of the priests would take girls out of the dorms to his office, and the children would come back teary-eyed. Lambert commented: “you knew something was going on.”
Lambert added that the difficulties did not end at the IRS doors. Going home to the Reserve was difficult because of the long-term trauma of those who had long stays away. Children no longer felt welcome and were ostracized because “it was like they were white.” According to Lambert, many men ended up leaving the community because they didn’t feel comfortable any more.
Lambert went to an off-reserve school in grade six where she was marginalized, suffering racism and insults. Lambert affirmed that today there “hasn’t been a big change” since Indigenous people are still considered “second class citizens,” have substandard housing and few job opportunities. There are many negative stereotypes around Indigenous people who are thought to live the “high life” since they have some government assistance. Lambert indicated that Indigenous people “pay dearly” and invited non-Native audience members to live in her shoes to experience the current situation.
Elder Alma Brook was in attendance; her brother, who is now 80, also went to Shubenacadie IRS. Brooks worked with survivors and says that Lambert’s story is very similar to other survivors’ stories. Lambert also acknowledged recognizing her story in those of the other survivors, a long time after the experience and explains that most individuals didn’t share this information because of the shame associated with the experiences they had lived.
For Lambert, the effects of the IRS are intergenerational. There is no way to just “get over it,” as many often hear, because of the lengthy healing process that is necessary to rise above the abuse and continue to live. Members of the audience mentioned residual problems in the long term like addiction, trauma, and sexual abuse (for which there exists no word in the Mi’kmaq language). Lambert stated that many people normalized abuse in their childhood and didn’t know how to deal with it so they turned to dependency. People who suffered abuse might not have known how to be parents, for example, but many interveners are now helping to reconcile some of these problems.
Lambert declared that Indigenous peoples need “respect,” “to be treated as equals,” and to be provided with the same services as other communities. She identified a big issue at present as mental health; many communities don’t have access to psychologists and the necessary infrastructure to deal with problems. The services received are often subpar. An audience member added that wait lists are long and Indigenous people are not prioritized.
Daughter of a survivor addresses long-term residual trauma
The third and final speaker was Gail Paul, a Registered Nurse who works at a hospital outside of Woodstock and is a Dakota Sioux from Southern Saskatchewan. Paul’s mother was at an IRS from the age of 2 to 16. Paul outlined some of the effects her mother’s trauma had on her as the daughter and the effect it has had on her own family, since she is a mother of four.
Paul was part of what is commonly known as the “Sixties Scoop;” as a baby, she was sent to live with a foster family of farmers. She chuckled that her first language was German. When she returned to her mother, who was an alcoholic, Paul stated she witnessed things “kids should never see,” especially in Regina. Her childhood coping mechanisms became a question of survival: drugs, alcohol. Because she was a “bad kid,” her mother would often threaten to send Paul to “boarding school” but identifying her mother’s experience in the IRS as this “boarding school” did not happen for Paul until much later.
It was only when she was sent back to live with her grandmother that Paul learned about the ceremonies of her Indigenous culture and how to create an emotional bond; the IRS had taken that away from her. Paul admitted not talking to great length to her mother about her IRS experiences because of their sometimes conflictual relationship. Paul’s mother was one of the individuals who sued the government for having been put in the IRS and, despite the settlement her mother received, Paul asserted that “there is no dollar value for the hurt and the pain.”
After such a difficult start, Paul admitted that making a new life for herself was a very arduous job, akin for her to clearing a new path where each stone is a traumatic experience that has to be relived and survived again. However, according to Paul, “the load gets lighter” as she discusses her experiences, much like it does for the survivors.
Amanda Read shared a quote from Jim Dumont, an Anishnaabe elder, who says that “to speak from the truth is to speak from the heart.” Without truth, justice and healing, there can be no reconciliation, which is hearing and acknowledging the truth. This Conference was definitely a great step in listening to people speak from the heart in New Brunswick and the audience was very appreciative.
Sophie M. Lavoie is a member of the NB Media Co-op’s editorial board and is a regular contributor on arts and culture for the NB Media Co-op.