For this issue we look at how we can heal ourselves from the effects of residential school. The Nation interviewed some residential school survivors who attended different institutions in Quebec and Ontario.
From Chisasibi, Irene House: We have to begin with the history of the residential school effects. We have to look at our past experiences and we have to go through that first. It’s part of knowing who we are as individuals. If we don’t look back, elders say it will always affect the next generation, even if they didn’t experience it themselves. That’s why we need to go back and learn the history. That’s where we need to begin, in order to heal.
Charles Esau from Waskaganish: With my own personal view of healing from the residential school I began by exploring my own upbringing. The early childhood stage when I started to learn certain behaviors, my selfesteem was low. I had to learn to coexist in a dormitory setting where other people could be bullies or bullied. The harsh disciplines used on us, I kind of passed that behavior on to my children. I saw that I was very angry and didn’t express my emotions in a proper way. My anger got into rage where I hurt someone. Sometimes I wanted to hurt myself. By going into substance abuse and drinking the pain away, I would get violent. I brought that into my marriage.
Right now I’m patching those areas in my life by quitting drugs and booze.
I realized I did a lot of damage in that area. So to begin the healing process we need to look at where it all began, there’s always the seed of anger, where it came from. A lot of times we use that emotion to get our way in our lives. When we do that we hurt other people. When I came out of that I was very vindictive, I didn’t know what I was doing because I was unable to look at the part of my life where I was really hurt. That’s the part of my life where I have to re-learn and re-discover and uncover the blocked areas in my life then I am able to move and become better at what I do as a role model in my family, as a father and a helper to my own children. That’s the part of the healing I would look at as a residential school survivor.
Nellie House of Chisasibi: As individuals we need to look at that part of our lives where we know it’s very painful. I believe if we don’t look back at the pain from the residential school effects we’re always going to be stuck. If we confront it, we’re facing the truth and the reality of it. The other thing too is you don’t have to tell the whole world, you can confide in a trusted friend or to the Creator. We need to express and confront that in order for us to move ahead in our lives. But that’s all in the individual level. One person may not be where I am or someone else may be ahead. We’re all different and we have different ways of doing things. It is through spiritual and love where we will find the answers, and through compassion, through acceptance. We can also learn forgiveness if we only forgive others. That’s where you’ll find self love within you and the freedom to be whoever you want to be. I know it’s a very delicate and sensitive issue and wherever there’s fear, there’s no room for love. It takes a while to go on that journey. We need to work with this issue with love, truth and honesty.
Waswanipi’s Lily Sutherland: An individual has to be able to help or heal themselves before they can assist their families, community or nation. The people have to look at themselves first and how balanced they are before deciding to help their people. Many people are at different stages on their healing path and it’s a lifetime process. As the saying goes, ‘You have to know where you come from before you can go ahead.’ We have to relearn our old ways of respecting, sharing, and loving ourselves as Cree people. We are more materialistic and that’s totally opposite to being spiritual. We need to rebalance our lives and take care of our spirit. We require action from the C.R.A. to have a residential-school conference for the Cree region. If there is a conference, a report should be submitted to the Annual General Assembly.
Norman Cheezo of Eastmain: The first thing you have to do is admit that you have been abused. The reason why people abuse drugs and alcohol is because they want to forget the residential school abuse. I used to get strapped a lot back then, even just to speak my own language. I was something of a rebel. One time our teacher showed us a picture of a white guy and told us, This is your father, one of the people in the early days of confederation.’ That moment I burst with laughter. I thought our fathers should look Native, not with long beards. I was sent to the principal’s office and got a strap. Most people today still can’t admit the abuse. They’re still lost.
Myself, I started by going to the bush for two years. I think what gave me strength was just to be there where my forefathers lived off the land. So when you began the healing process, there are three steps you have to take. First are your body, then your mind and your spirit. Those three have to be in harmony in order to get well. Then I went to the sweat lodge to purify my spirit. The sweat lodge is a very powerful tool.
Today people are still afraid of the old taboos where people used to curse each other. They’re afraid this will all come back. They don’t know that if you live in harmony the way the Creator wanted you to do then nothing can harm you. So before you can heal other people, you must first heal yourself. If you want change, you must change from within. Then you go to the family; if you can heal the family. You then go to the community. The Cree way is the way; our language, our culture, we must know where we come from to walk on the right path.
Whapmagoostui’s Matthew Mukash: Every person is affected differently from another person in cases of abuse. People need to come out and
talk about the impact. There’s also people who benefited from the residential schools as far as education goes. Some of them are really advanced in the Cree ways. Then there are those who need to come out and talk about how they looked at or faced abuse.
It’s very important to take that first step to heal and to accept the negative impact, but there’s always a solution for that. If you don’t try to heal yourself the people close to you will be affected also. Some people who went to the residential schools, even if they don’t drink or take drugs, become violent. They’re emotional. Those kinds of things affect your immediate family and the people around you.
There’s something called the welcome ceremony. I think all of the 10 communities should be integrated into that. It’s important that they feel respected and have a sense of welcome back to the community.
It’s important for everyone to know about this residential school issue. What it was and how it affected the whole Cree nation. What happened was, there was a policy to control children’s lives, and one of the ways they found was to educate children the way they saw fit. And at the same time the schools were taking away the Cree values and not allowing the use of their Cree language.
It’s important for everybody to understand the residential school system, why it happened and how it impacted the Cree society. This would be part of knowing where we can go in order to heal because all of us are affected by the residential school impact even if we don’t know it.