FEATURE: Picking up the pieces — Indian Residential School survivors reflect on moving beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”

Poetic detritus on the floor of a decaying chapel on the site of the McIntosh Indian Residential School, approximately 30 kilometres north of Vermilion Bay. Photos by Chris Marchand

These are the words that open the summary of the final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada(TRC). The report is a culmination of a six year study into the church run and government funded schools that existed in Canada for over 100 years.

Evocative scenes from within the ruins of the Roman Catholic Chapel at the McIntosh Indian Residential School site.

A long and troubled history plagues this country and those within it who were forced into residential schools witnessed it first hand. For some local residential school survivors the findings of the commission and its 94 recommendations are a clear sign that we can all move forward together.

“Sadly it’s taken this dark chapter of our history to wake up the nation to say ‘we have to do things differently,”said Garnet Angeconeb “I’m very hopeful that things will start to change, how we live and work together, how we relate to one another. I just can’t help but think this process is the catalyst for the change we all look for.”

The cemetery site at McIntosh Indian Residential School site.

Angeconeb is one of the many residential school survivors that still lives in Canada. Like many who spoke about their experiences to the TRC Angeconeb’s whole family was affected by residential schools. His father first attended one in 1927 and four of his five siblings were also placed in residential schools. He was a victim of abuse on many fronts, physically, sexually, spiritually and culturally. Angeconeb acknowledges his past and he says he does his best to heal himself so as not to pass on wounds to the next generation.

The forest does its best to consume the chapel on the site of the McIntosh Residential School. The school operated from 1924 to 1969 and was eventually destroyed by fire.

Roy Napish has worked with the commission over the last few years and was in Ottawa during the final hearings. He started his day at four in the morning and tended to a sacred fire on site. He recalls the people he has met and the stories he has heard. He says that in Ottawa he had people from all walks of life come up to him and speak with him. Tourists from other countries visiting for the FIFA Women’s World Cup approached him and asked him questions, many of showing their appreciation and support. Napish is himself a survivor and says speaking and creating a dialogue is important for the mending process.

A?memorial, constructed by Grand Council Treaty 3 in 2013, now stands on exact spot where the McIntosh Indian Residential School once stood before it was destroyed by fire in the late 1960s.

“There’s healing for the survivors,” said Napish. “This is just a start because I know locally and myself there’s a divide between the younger generation and the survivors or the elders because when we came back we just didn’t teach them anything, we lacked the parental skills, we didn’t receive the nurturing in schools and we came back we continued to have families but we didn’t really practice the right parental skills, the traditional parental skills, skills we had at one time. It was like the breaking of the family.”

The passage of time has taken its toll on the remnants of the McIntosh Residential School site.

One survivor who works to mend the generation gap is Dryden High School Teacher Leonard Skye.

When Skye was a child he was excited to attend school, his siblings had already gone and he wanted an education too. His desire to learn was soon stunted by the abuses and harsh rules. He was forced to remain quiet or face punishment.

Today Skye has his own classroom and is a respected teacher who listens to his students and encourages learning and discussions.

“It’s a big step for me to teach the younger generation, non-native and native, and sometimes I speak about my experiences in residential school and they listen. So I’ve come a long ways.”

 

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