The Residential School Syndrome. This, with the words “Wounds We Never Deserved,” was the theme of the four-day Cree Regional Healing Conference in Waskaganish in early March. The conference began with the opening prayer and a welcome to the 50 plus attendants.
Setting the tone of the proceedings, Abraham Bearskin of Chisasibi was first to testify. “I come to share… to share with my own healing and dealing with my own pain over the years.”
He continued, and spoke with true honesty of his life in and after residential school. He shared painful memories of abuse.
A revealing video also gave people a chance to learn about the tragic history of residential schools. This biographical video portrays the mastermind behind the establishment of the school system. In the late 1800’s Duncan Campbell Scott was the top ranking civil servant for Indian policy in Canada. Amongst his many cruel and harsh acts, his policies resulted in the deaths of many children to tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. He was also responsible for the imprisonment of First Nations people who persisted in practicing religious ceremonies. Through a series of amendments to the Indian Act, he outlawed the hiring of lawyers and the pursuit of land claims cases.
Ironically, Campbell Scott was a prolific poet who wrote extensively about Natives and their relationship to nature. His poetry predicted the ‘vanishing race’, meanwhile his policies firmly intended their extinction.
In 1920, he proclaimed, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. That is my whole point. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.” (See resource box on page 3 for video info).
Several workshops and Healing Circles dealt with such problems as family violence, sexual abuse, abandonment and neglect and grief. Other sessions offered one-on-one counselling and addressed the many problems and lessons that came out of the residential school experience.
These continued late into the night throughout the entire conference.
A highly anticipated speaker on the agenda, Donna Bomberry, of the Cayuga Nation, and a representative of the Anglican Church of Canada, extended an apology on behalf of the church. She also showed a video of the Primate delivering an apology to the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ontario in August of 1993. She brought with her printed copies (reprinted on the following page) of the original formal apology as well as the ensuing acceptance by the Native convocation.
But a majority of the participants of this conference were not so quick to forgive, and gave their reasons why.
George Diamond responded to the apology: “We lost our rights to many things… We lost our right to speak our Cree language. We lost our right to communicate because we didn’t understand your language, instead we were punished for speaking ours. We lost the right to express ourselves, even when we were right we were wrong. We lost our pride. We lost our dignity. We lost our freedom.”
He continued, “I cannot accept this apology… It will take time for us to accept this, just look at how many years we suffered and had to carry this pain… Each individual will either accept or reject this apology—it will be their decision alone.”
Annie Iserhoff of Nemaska forgave the church: ‘I speak for myself. I accept the apology because without forgiveness we can’t be healed. If we hold a grudge against someone there’s no peace within us.’
Others spoke up and questioned the apparent last minute change to the printed copy of the text — different type was used for the words, “offer our apology,” from the rest of the text. Another wondered why a Native woman, rather than a higher official, was sent on the church’s behalf to deliver the apology.
But the healing theme of the conference overshadowed the minor controversy over the apology. And the conference, the first for many, was considered by all a first important step in the healing journey.
The conference closed with a prayer circle and a traditional song of thanks to the Creator.