Supporting survivors and telling truths

Crees were well represented at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) National Event in Montreal. They weren’t just on the stand, speaking to the Commission, or in the Survivors’ Sharing Circle. They were also there to support their friends, family and other community members who made the long journey to participate in the four-day event.

John Kitchen, of Waswanipi, survived 10 years in residential school: two years in Brantford, and eight years in La Tuque. For a long time, he was unable to speak about it.

“I hid this thing for so many years in my heart,” he said. “Not telling my wife, not telling my children, my brothers or my parents or my family what happened to me. The past two or three years now, I’ve been opening myself to telling them what happened and what I went through. I took steps to solve and help myself – I cannot help anybody if I can’t help myself.”

To Kitchen, residential-school survivor silence is dangerous because it was one reason why many passed on the abuse they suffered to their families. “I see this conference as a big step toward healing. This is one thing we can do, to understand all our hurt– the abuse, physical, sexual, mental. We did these things that happened to us to our children and our wives.”

Mistissini’s Casey MacLeod, who works for the Cree Department of Justice, attended the event to support his mother, who is a survivor of the La Tuque school. “I was actually one of the few people out of all of my friends and even my cousins who was taught about residential schools at home,” he said. “I’m not sure how old I was – maybe 10 or 11? – when my father first mentioned it to me, about what had happened and that my mother had gone through residential schools.”

MacLeod credits his parents for teaching him history with a focus on Aboriginal peoples and cultures. He connects the silence around residential schools with Aboriginal peoples having their histories taken away from them.

“I think [younger generations] are more open to talking about residential schools,” he said. “They’re ready to listen, and ready to learn. I know my children are. They’ve all been raised with that awareness. It affects them the same way it affected me when I learned about it: a lot of anger and hurt to know that someone who they love, my mother, went through that system.”

Jessie House works on the Photo Collection Archives at Chisasibi Heritage Cultural Centre. She is a daughter of residential school survivors who didn’t speak about their experiences when she was growing up. She said it’s very important for the public to hear and know the stories of what students endured. But House worries that some survivors don’t want to talk because they learned in residential school to keep silent and may think the public wouldn’t take their stories seriously.

“It’s part of the healing process,” House said. “It’s better to share their stories. Only the survivors think that their stories aren’t going to be taken seriously.”

House says her husband has pushed his mother to tell her story, but that she was resistant. “That’s the way she thinks, the way she was taught. But it’ll help the future generation if the people who attended residential schools get healed.”

Ghislain Picard, AFN Regional Chief for Quebec and Labrador, associated the impact of the TRC to grassroots Aboriginal-rights movements such as Idle No More.

“This is where we need our people to be strong, to be solid on their own two feet,” said Picard. “This is an undertaking that doesn’t belong to the leaders – it belongs to the people. This is what the Idle No More movement is expressing: let’s take charge of our lives, and let’s demonstrate to Canadians and the governments that this is what needs to happen. The survivors are so much a part of that history, and we need those people to accompany us.”

Kitchen cautions that healing doesn’t come only as a result of the telling of truths, but also from moving through the emotions those truths bring out, ideally to a place where one can forgive.

“One thing you have as a Native, an Aboriginal, a member of the Cree Nation,” said Kitchen, “is forgiveness. That’s one thing I did – I forgave myself, and I asked for forgiveness to the people I hurt with the things I did. I also asked forgiveness for the people who did things to me. When we forgive, we have all these things come into our lives: love and respect. And helping. You help yourself first, and then you can help others.”