Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Truth & Reconcilation - Listening to Survivors

This is the third in a series of blogs I'm writing on my experience attending the Truth & Reconciliation event in Victoria last weekend.  The Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Canada addresses the Indian Residential School system that existed between 1840 - 1996 (see their website for more information).  If you haven't read my introductory blog entry, you can read it here first.  Here is the second post on being a witness.

At the Truth and Reconciliation event, survivors were invited to share their lived experiences at residential school in one of three ways.  They could do so in a private, one-on-one session with a trained statement-taker.  Or, they could give a public statement, either in a sharing circle or a sharing panel.  The sharing circle was a bit more intimate and flexible, allowing survivors to sit facing one another and to interact, while the panel was more formal and drew larger crowds.  In total, 158 statements were taken in Victoria.

I'd like to share some quotes from the many statements I was privileged to hear last weekend, since (as I wrote about last time) I feel a responsibility to bear witness.  The limitation in doing this in written form is that you don't get to hear the emotion behind the statements.  The commissioners stressed that the conference was a "tear-friendly" zone, and that's a good thing, because everyone cried - those giving the statements, and those listening - everyone except the man who confessed he could no longer cry, which you'll read about below.  During every session, health support workers walked around, handing out kleenexes and collecting them in bags.  After the sessions, as you left the room, you were invited to wash your face in a tear-collecting canoe-shaped basin.  The pain the survivors carried and brought to the surface during these sharing circles and panels was palpable and immense.

Just as a warning, some of the quotes I will share below describe abuse and may be disturbing.  Also note that I have tried to quote the survivors as accurately as possible, using their wording and phrasing, but these are not exact quotes.

"At residential school, I kept asking, 'Why would my mother abandon me?  Why would she give me up?'  I got all this money from the legal settlement, but I'd rather have my mother back.  I'm 52 years old, and I'm still a lost little boy."

"When I started day school at age 5, all I could speak was Kwak'wala.  My teacher beat the language out of me.  When I was caught speaking Kwak'wala to my cousin, she made me bend over a desk in front of all the students, she pulled up my dress, and she spanked my bare bottom with a leather strap.  From then on I never wore dresses; I only ever wore pants to school.  If I was caught again, I was forced to write 'I must only speak English' on the chalkboard one hundred times, and the number doubled each time I was caught... To this day I can't speak Kwak'wala.  Sure, I can understand it, but when I try to speak it, it won't come."

"We were always thirsty at St. Michael's.  I remember drinking water from the back tank of the toilet...  I tried to run away once, with my friend.  We were found, brought back, and beaten...  I used to go down to the fence at the waterfront and look through.  I was waiting for my father to paddle up to the shore, to take me home.  He never came."

"I feel unworthy, being a survivor, knowing that most of my friends died, either at the school, or shortly after, because of addictions.  I was molested and raped, like the other boys at the school.  It took 15-20 years of work with a therapist to pry this out of me.  In the meantime, I was callous.  I beat my wife like all the other drunk Indians."

"I was attending public school in my community when I was taken, in the middle of class, and brought to residential school.  They targeted me because my father was a chief.  My mom didn't know what had happened.  She searched for me for three days.  My residential school was on Kuper Island.  We called it Alcatraz, because us kids couldn't hope to escape from an island...  I was sexually abused at that school from when I was ten years to twelve years young.  I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and I never know when I'll be triggered.  I'll walk with these scars forever."

"The day I was taken to residential school, I clung to my mother like glutchum - like a mussel on a rock.  It's the last time I saw her.  She died while I was there.  We weren't allowed to go to her funeral.  We weren't even allowed to cry.  The loneliness has never ever left me."

"It wasn't an education.  The only thing we learned was how to survive... Since Kuper Island Residential School, I can't cry.  I tried to cry when my daughter died, but all that came out was this unearthly sound.  Even now, even today, I can't cry.  For years, because of the abuse, I couldn't stand being touched, even by my granddaughters... but now, thanks to God, I can hug them... There were many ways I tried to deal with the pain.  By grade 9, I was into alcohol.  Now both my remaining sons are alcoholics.  I pray for them."

"There was a fence separating the girls from the boys.  One day I got caught trying to talk to my brother through the fence.  The teachers tied me up, hog-tied me, hands and feet, in a corner.  They accused me of flirting.  I kept repeating, 'That's my brother.'  That's when I learned to disappear into the woodwork, to hide, to blend in, just to survive."

"During my whole adult life, I knew something was wrong.  I'd fly off the handle.  Get drunk.  It wasn't until three years ago that I figured it out, when I was on the internet, and I saw the picture of a priest who worked at my residential school.  It all came rushing back to me, everything I'd pushed down... how two priests raped me on the table, in the kitchen, on a regular basis.  They took away my soul... The evil lives inside all of us who were there, not in our hearts, but deep in our bellies.  We get heavy."

"The teachers told me I was nothing but a worthless, useless, stinking Indian - they said that's why my parents dumped me there... Our protectors turned out to be our tormentors... A lot of things happened in those school bathrooms... I had to pretend like I was the only one it was happening to, even though I saw it in the eyes of the other kids, too.  I would be drugged with wine after dinner, and I'd wake up in the middle of the night in bed, without my underwear or pajama bottoms."

"The nuns and priests degraded us, made us feel like we were nothing... They didn't nourish us with love, affection or praise.  So I never learned how to do that for my kids.  I never expressed love or praise to them.  Now that I'm older, I know better.  Now I never leave home without telling them 'I love you.'"


Some people who gave statements were not themselves former students of residential schools, but were children or grandchildren of residential school students.  They were called "intergenerational survivors," and they shared how their parents' and grandparents' experiences had affected their families.  Here are a couple of examples:

"My parents attended residential school.  They bottled up all their pain.  It tore apart our family - they drank, and couldn't take care of us.  My siblings were apprehended and put in foster care.  Since our parents drank, we thought it was ok... I have so much remorse when it comes to my own children and how I treated them.  My granddaughter says she'll never drink.  I want to believe her.  I want to stop the cycle."

"My mother was taken to residential school at age 3.  She never told us any bad things about it - she said it worked for her.  But when I was young, she would regularly wait for me after school with a stick of some sort... when I'd re-gain consciousness, I'd be on my bed without my clothes on, covered in bruises." 


I won't say much today about these quotes, because they are a lot to digest, and I will comment further in my final post.  I will say that the way I saw these individuals changed so profoundly after I heard them share their experiences.  Their very acts of sharing were so courageous and vulnerable, not to mention the things they endured and the resilience they showed and the healing they continued to seek... every subsequent time I saw them at the conference, it was like seeing a hero.  It's amazing what changes when you learn someone's deepest suffering.

In a few days, I'll write about the apologies and expressions of reconciliation I witnessed.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for these good and deep blogs. I just found you accidentally googling trc, and so happy I did. i was at the saskatoon trc, and every one of these blogs expresses what I thought and felt but could never ever say like you do. So thank you very very much. I used some of it in speaking to my church and Presbytery here in Montreal, told them about your blog. with great effect. Then I found out you are my niece's Agnes guitar teacher! and work with Wendy! and they like you a lot even though you are a Christian! which makes me even more grateful to you. Thank you for being Beth Malena. I thank God for you. Jill Foster.

Beth said...

Thanks so much for the encouragement, Jill! Small world. This will sound weird, but it's entirely sincere: your niece is one of the most fascinating and endearing children I have ever had the privilege of getting to know! And I have the utmost respect and love for Wendy - she's a hero of mine.

I said...

I literally just found this blog doing a google search for a Sociology class at Kwanlten...and I'm so grateful/blown away by what I just read. I know someone who was in residential school...and I know how ashamed she is of being Native, and the deep hatred she has for herself because of her schooling. It seems like every single child who did not die was left without a soul, and who pays the price for that? Everyone. The pain filters through the generations and touches us all.