Like many, I have read and seen a wealth of stories on the tragedies that resulted from more than half a century of forcing helpless native children into harsh residential schools — now out in the open after years of denial and concealment. What could possibly be new? Yet hearing from survivors directly, unedited and in public, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sessions in Vancouver has been overwhelming for this grizzled observer.
One by one, with great dignity, they slowly mount the stairs, position themselves before the microphone, and recount their heart-rending experiences, often in tears, before hundreds of rapt members of the public. And these are just a handful of painful recollections from the estimated 150,000 native children locked up over the years in those dreadful schools. Every one of them would also have a story. Not all were tragic. Some children came out okay. But basically, what took place represents such a collective shame for this country and its churches as to defy comprehension.
At the same time, it’s important to point out that there has been just as much healing and hope as heartbreak. The resiliency shown by both survivors and the overall native community and their determination to move forward are truly inspiring.
It’s a difficult event for the media to cover, since hearings have been going on across Canada since 2010. Finding fresh angles isn’t easy. But for myself, no longer facing daily deadlines, the experience has been profound. Thursday, for instance, was a real roller-coaster ride of emotion — tears, laughter, tears, and a bit more humour towards the end.
Tears, first, from Agnes Edwards, as she told of wanting to do away with herself when she was seven, after a nun “touched me where she wasn’t supposed to. To this day, I can’t sleep in the dark.”
But then the buoyant Ms. Edwards began to smile. She remembered coming across a herd of cows, while they were out for a walk. “The nun told those cows to blink. And they all blinked.” She laughed. “I always loved that.” There was more laughter over the time she was spared the strap, because the nun’s beads and robe got all tangled up. And yes, the time they made some crude moonshine out of pineapple juice, sugar and yeast, stolen from the pantry. “When the sister came to check on us, she could smell it. She found the jug. But we didn’t get expelled. We had to stay there,” Ms. Edwards chuckled.
As many have before her, however, she went on to tearfully apologize to her children for being a poor parent. “I was strict. I didn’t know how to hug them.” After she got up to leave, her husband Rollie leaned into the mike. “She turned out to be a great grandmother,” he said.
It was my turn to cry as l listened to the unbearably sad story of Deborah Johnson, who recounted the terrible day when her mother let go of her hand and left her behind for the first time. She was five years old.
Her brand-new dress and shoes were tossed into a bin, her beautiful, waist-length hair cut off. When she tried to run after her mother, the way was blocked. She managed only a glimpse of her in the parking lot. She saw her mother’s head thrown back. The impact was devastating.
“My five-year old mind thought she was laughing at leaving me,” said Ms. Johnson, weeping. “Hate is such a strong word, but I hated my mother for a long time, for bringing me there….I cried all the time. I couldn’t stop.”
Finally, just before her mother died, Ms. Johnson strove to heal their long breach. Only then did she learn the truth. “My mother told me her heart broke that day, having to bring all her kids there. (Ms. Johnson also had three brothers at the school.) My mother said: ‘I wasn’t laughing. I was crying.’”
Ms. Johnson was overcome with the realization of what she had lost by hating her mother all those years. “We talked for three days. She just wanted me to move forward.” The school also cost her a normal relationship with her siblings and the ability to be a good parent. “I hope one day I will be a grandma and do better,” she said, wiping her eyes.
Later, I took in Mitch Miyagawa’s light-hearted but affecting family documentary, A Sorry State. His Japanese-Canadian father was apologized to for his internment. His aboriginal step-mother was apologized to for her residential school childhood. His Chinese-Canadian step-father was apologized to for the head tax.
“I have the most apologized-to family in Canada, maybe the entire world,” quips Mr. Miyagawa in the film, which examines how each of his three “parents” reacted to their apology. Download it here: http://ww3.tvo.org/video/184814/sorry-state
A nice ending to an emotional day.
A further upbeat note is this lovely story by the Globe’s Andrea Woo on the legendary Fred Sasakamoose, residential school survivor and the first full-blooded Indian to play in the NHL.