Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Navigating Stories


Reading stories from residential school survivors made me feel uncomfortable about my own story.  The survivors’ stories are heartbreaking and filled with unbearable pain and sorrow. 

I have also been following stories on Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, and these too made me uncomfortable.  On October 4th a documentary film on the Hospital screened in Edmonton. Again, the shocking treatment of Indigenous people who were admitted to the Indian hospital, sometimes for years, is equally horrific.
 
These stories must be told and they must be heard.  It is an important Canadian historical legacy.  Furthermore, both the telling and the listening to these stories are critical for the truth and reconciliation process.
 
So why am I feeling uncomfortable?  Because my personal experience was very unalike most of the stories I’ve heard or read about. My story was never told because I feel it is not something that people want to hear.


Holy Angels Residence 
Recently I posted a residential school picture on facebook. It portrayed a celebration of sorts; I was sitting with three of my brothers at the dinning room table with other children. Three nuns were standing in the background.  Someone posted in the comments, “ID like to kill them nuns and burn that place down.”   This is not someone who went here or any other residential school.  This person never asked me about my experience, he just assumed it was bad.     How do we heal when there is so much anger from people who didn’t experience residential school or are not willing to listen to all the stories?

It is interesting that even in the same family, experiences of accounts can be vastly different.  This is certainly the case in my own family. 

I am one of the youngest of 16 children.  We were raised in abject poverty. We had no running water or electricity.  Although the hamlet where we lived was a “dry town, meaning that alcohol was not allowed, this didn’t mean it didn’t exist there.  In fact, there was alcohol in our home because my parents were bootleggers.  They made and sold home-brew and shipped in liquor by plane, this to supplement their income from trapping and seasonal work in order to feed the lot of us.  As a child I witnessed violence in my home due to alcohol abuse.
 
To complicate matters, when I was a toddler, I was stricken with a serious illness and I almost died.  I was sent to Charles Camsell Hospital frequently. 

Many Indigenous people from the area where I grew up also lived in poverty, and were sent to Holy Angels Residence.  Some of them also were admitted to Charles Camsell Hospital, like me.  

I am hesitant to tell my story because I know some people would dismiss it on the basis that I am so colonized that I am not even aware of how colonized I am.  Or because I am brainwashed.  In any event how can I say, after all the horrific stories about Indian Residential Schools, by the way, I don't think it was so bad,in my experience. It sounds callous and empty.  

My experience in residential school from the first day was a good experience. There, I said it! 

I will always remember the afternoon my older sister Dora said, Do you want to go to school? I said, Yes, with a big smile. Ok,” she said, Go get into your snowsuit.” We walked to residential school. It was getting dark and the snow sparkled like diamonds. It was in December, and I had just returned from Charles Camsell Hospital, having missed the first part of the school year.  I wasn’t scared because my sister was a cook at the Holy Angels - I was excited! I took quickly to learning and only spent one week in grade one before I was moved into grade two. 

Holy Angeles Residence, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta
I particularly loved reading and spent many hours in the study hall.  I didn’t mind work, like polishing the hardwood floors and the wooden banisters, because I was used to doing housework at home.  In a large family like ours we all had to pitch in to help.  I also learned beading, embroidery and how to darn socks and mitts.  There was also playtime. The older girls never picked on me. Once a week we had movie night.  Because we lived in town we got to go home for the weekend and when we returned Sunday afternoon, that evening we would watch a movie. All the other boys and girls came to our room to watch the movie.  Occasionally we played bingo.   I remember going camping too; we were allowed to run into the hills for hours until we were called for dinner. 

A number of the priest spoke Denesuline (Chipewyan) and Cree. Also, Sister Brady, a Metis nun spoke Cree.  We sometimes laughed behind their backs at how they sounded when they spoke our language. It must be said here that neither the nuns nor the priests ever mistreated me, physically or emotionally.  In fact, I corresponded regularly with one of the priests until his death in 2003.  He even visited my home in Ottawa several times and met my husband and son.

Indeed, I still have many fond memories of being at Holy Angel Residence. 

That said, I also remember fights between girls in the schoolyard.  I remember students running away and being brought back in tears.  I remember that one time an older girl slugged a nun.  I remember whispers about a certain “brother” who would fix bikes for the boys. So yeah, for sure there were critical concerns during my time at Holy Angels.

Like I mentioned earlier I split my time between Holy Angels and Charles Camsell Hospital.  I always looked forward to going to the hospital, the pain from numerous operations notwithstanding.  I would find money in my folded clothes on the bed, left by Sister Nadeau for canteen treats while I was at the hospital.  I didn’t worry about falling behind in my studies because I attended classes there.  I was in the hospital so often I developed personal relationships with the nurses and doctors, which I maintained through correspondence when I was back at Holy Angels.  I was encouraged to have pen pals and the nuns took my letters to be posted in town. 

Indeed my story is different, maybe it was because the era was the late sixties and seventies, and times and attitudes were changing.  I don’t know why my experience was different, was I the only one with these good memories?

The story of residential schools is a challenging and complicated one.  We don't serve the truth if we don’t tell the whole truth, and reconciliation can't be based on half-truths.  My story doesn’t take anything from those students who suffered abuse, or who died to be placed in unmarked graves.  The fact that I was lucky to meet people who were caring does not contradict the truth of those who were abusive, or the misguided policy that sought to kill the Indian in Indian children. 

Even with the extended times away from my family, I never forgot who I was. I never forgot my first language, Denesuline.  I never forgot the smell of drying pelts, drying meat, and the taste of caribou.  I never forgot our songs, our culture, and my ancestors. I never blamed anyone for anything that happened to me as a child. And, I am most proud of the fact that alcohol or drugs never became a narrative in my story.  I am proud to be breaking the cycle of destruction.

How you tell your story, how you interpret these past events becomes you. The more you tell your story the more you strengthen that image of yourself.  Your story IS you. I don’t want to, and I shouldn't have to, feel shame because my story is different.

I may be a product of residential school, but I am not a "survivor"of residential school. 



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