We present two accounts by Waswanipi Crees on their residential school experiences.
The Nation: Which residential school did you go to?
Lily Gull Sutherland: Shingwauk Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
For how many years?
I think nine years, when I started in Kindergarten to Grade 8. During high school we boarded in various homes in Sault.
Some are like family, where my sister Jackie and I lived, and to this day we keep in touch.
What was it like leaving your family?
Well, you must understand that it was very heartbreaking at the age of 6 when you were separated from your loved ones. It was very sad because the bond was broken and I couldn’t be with my beloved parents while I grew up during those years.
We saw them only 2 1/2 months of each year during residential school years. It was so awful. It broke my heart causing loneliness and despair at such a young age.
Was it hard for your parents?
Definitely. It was the worst day of the year. I could see it in their faces, it was very difficult for them. Even answering this question hurts to this day. I know the so-called system affected their lives. It did something to their hearts.
I remember at such a young age that they were trying to be accepting of this situation. I knew and understood that they did not want to let us go. I can still see the troubled faces of many parents to this day in my mind.
I can just see the hopeless situation when that Indian agent came to Waswanipi.
Do you think it affected your later life?
Of course it affected my life. Very much so. It affected my relationship with people. It was distressful from mental pain of hurtful memories.
I did not trust people because I was afraid I would be separated from my loved ones again. It affected my relationship in later life. I had believed and understood as a young girl before being taken away that there were good relationships all around, but that was broken. They changed my life.
How can people twist people’s minds like that?
To this day, I am still relearning about our traditions from our Elders. All that time lost to learn another lifestyle which was not yours to begin with.
If I sound bitter I am entitled to feel like that. It is because I did not want to be taken away.
What impacts have residential schools had on the community of Waswanipi?
It impacted on our parenting skills. We weren’t bringing up our children the way our parents brought us up.
My parents never hit me, but I remember getting strapped a few times in residential school. We grew up without our parents for long periods of time.
The old ways were forgotten and many of us were not aware of or forgot the spiritual and traditional ways. In school, this was instilled in our brains that we had heathen ways.
Can you imagine?!!
I believe alcohol and drugs were an escape to forget the torment of physical, sexual, mental, spiritual and emotional abuse during the time spent in residential schools.
This abuse in some people caused them to become abusive themselves. So there is plenty of healing to be done as individuals, as families, as a community and as a Nation. You have to believe the nine years had an impact on my life. Some of our people choose the traditional healing as I did.
During one of the interviews with Don Wilshire, I mention these things because he is writing a book about residential school students.
My sister stated to me one day that “the best way to break up a nation is to break up a family.” She understands how I feel.