The stories from Indian Residential School survivors and their families come to participants of the TRC event like a waterfall—a battering of testimonies from a heartbreaking, tragic national history, the effects of which are clearly present in the troubled, wounded lives of Aboriginal peoples today. Many survivors shared graphic, wrenching tales of both the physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuses they suffered in their past at the schools, and their lives now as they wrestle with drugs, brutalities, hopelessness and depression. Many speak of a “lateral violence” between one another, caused by so many years of hurt. They talk of feeling rejected and abandoned by a system that failed them. “We are tired of the lies and the hurt,” said Keith S., whose parents were both taken to residential schools. “It’s time to tell the stories about the old ways.” He challenged all Aboriginal peoples to walk with pride.
There is common theme to the stories told at this event. At such a vulnerable age, children were taken, often referred to as abducted, into the residential schools, and then at age 16 their term ended, or as many say, they were evicted. The testimonies speak to deep-rooted feelings of being unwanted, unloved and rejected. That pain has been carried forward through generations, with devastating consequences.
Audrey D., now 60 years old, is a fourth generation survivor of residential schools. “We still feel the affects after 100 years,” she said. “I came out of school with so much anger and rage. I wanted to hurt someone for all the abuses.” But she had no way of expressing herself, had no one to help her. Her parents, grandparents and great grandparents had all undergone the same experiences and were paralyzed with the same issues. “Because of the trauma I suffered in school, I was not a good parent. In the schools there was no love, no touching, no support. I didn’t know how to love my children.”
These stories have a powerful impact on all who hear them. In the dim lights of the conference call, swollen, puffy eyes are met with the kind hugs of volunteers. Wearing bright red vests, the TRC volunteers travel among the audience carrying boxes of tissue and brown paper bags. The bags collect used tissues and are then gathered up so the tears of all those present may be burned in the daily Sacred Fire. It’s a powerful gesture toward healing.
And that is why we are here. To remember, to forgive and ultimately to heal. Audrey dedicated herself to the journey of healing. It was many years of pain going back into what she experienced but her mother’s wise advice stuck with her: “If we forgive, the healing will begin.” It took many years to rebuild her family but she hopes she is now a testament to others. Audrey is one of many who spoke of a long, difficult battle to sobriety and wholeness, though she sees the cycle of dysfunction so clearly in others. “We need to invest in our own healing by forgiving the church, forgiving the abusers.” And yet, as so many have already stated, “The hardest thing for a survivor to do is to forgive.”
The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives is a busy place at this event, with former students of Birtle School (Manitoba) and Cecilia Jeffrey School (Kenora, Ontario) looking through photos, sharing their memories and reuniting with one another. Families come to look at pictures of their relatives.
The entire event has a feel to it of one enormous family reunion. Old friends find one another amidst the swarm of people and their joy is a welcome change to a mood that is often heavy and sad. Many commissioners tell their stories only after lengthy acknowledgements to their family and friends that are there to support them. One man lamented that there should be more friends in attendance, but too many have died from substance abuse, poverty and life on the streets.
Chief Bobby Joseph, a survivor who spent 11 years in the residential school system, believes education into the truth of what happened is one of the most crucial components to true reconciliation. “Please carry this message with you,” he said to the thousands of people gathered. “Share it with your family, friends and colleagues. The time has come for reconciliation in Canada. We need to live together, help each other, hold each other up.”
Survivor Terry Lusty wrote a poem about his experience related to eight years at a residential school in Winnipeg.
A Survivor’s Prayer
Creator help me, ease my pain
Do not let my prayers be in vain
Raise me gently to your clouds on high
Comfort us survivors ’til the day we die.
It’s been no easy matter to forgive and forget
Those who wronged us in their religious net
Still, many of us put it behind and forgave
In our quest for closure, our sanity to save.
We have travelled so long, so very far
Bearing the memories, healing our scars
We lived with the trauma all of these years
It truly is difficult to stifle these tears.
We lose control, let emotions take flight
Any time, any place, be it day or night
No matter how resilient our people may be
Only you, Creator, can set us free.
So Creator, help us, ease our pain
Do not allow our prayers to be in vain
Raise us gently to your world on high
Comfort us survivors ’til the day we die.
Hiy – hiy! (Thank you!)
Read more about Terry Lusty in the Edmonton Sun.
The seventh and final Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event in Edmonton continues until Sunday, March 30.
For questions or comments about the TRC event, contact Barb Summers, Associate Secretary for Communications.