Survivors

Posted Mar 30, 2012 by 5 Comments

There it is again.  That oh-so-familiar feeling.

Deep sorrow. Powerful hope.  Mixed together, shaken up and giving me one heck of a compassion hangover.

I have once again added a new category to my worldview.  An injustice I never knew existed.  My understanding of the world has expanded.  And my low-grade fever of sadness has gone up a degree or two.

But with that comes a new understanding of the kingdom of God.  A new glimpse into what healing and restoration really means.

I can’t say I particularly enjoy getting “wrecked” like this all the time, but I’ll be honest… I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bearing Witness

The injustice I’m referring to is the Canadian Residential School system, a horrible period of First Nations history that continues to have concrete, devastating consequences today.

Although I’ve been researching residential schools for a while, it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to attend a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) meeting that my heart was truly broken for this issue.

At the event, I heard first-hand accounts of residential school survivors.  What I learned that day shocked me.  And I knew that it was only a very small tip of a very large iceberg…

———

The Quw'utsun' (Cowichan) Cultural Center, designed to resemble a First Nations Big House. This is where the two-day TRC event was held.

As I entered the meeting room for the TRC event, I was immediately struck by how somber the mood was.  People spoke in hushed tones.  The staff running the event kept referring to the counselors available to anyone who needed them.

There were undoubtedly a lot of emotional scars in that room.  And when I learned the history that led to this meeting, it wasn’t hard to see why.

A Clash of Cultures

It all began with a clash of cultures.

In the 1800’s, colonizers on the Northwest Coast began to view First Nations culture as barbaric. They interpreted their religious ceremonies as evil.  They thought that hunting and gathering (instead of farming) was a sign of backwardness.

And let’s face it. To a European civilization trying to expand and exploit the abundant natural resources of the land, these “uneducated Indians” were simply in the way.

Indians put up a fight when their land was taken away, they got in skirmishes with white farmers over traditional hunting grounds and they protested the destruction of their land through logging and mining… Not exactly a conducive environment for rapid colonial expansion.

First Nations children attending a residential school in Quebec in 1939. Photo from the Archives Deschatelets

So, in an attempt “to solve the Indian problem,” the Canadian government decided to partner with the Christian Church to assimilate and “civilize” aboriginal people.

Their solution was to create a system of compulsory residential schools that would take First Nations children out of their homes and educate them in the knowledge and culture of the “civilized” world.  If these kids were taught English and converted to Christianity, it was thought, they would no longer be a problem.

Starting in the mid-1800s, the government divided Canada up among the major Christian denominations (Catholic, Anglican, United and Methodist) and started building the schools.

The last one closed in 1984.

Despicable Things

And this is where the speakers at the TRC meeting come in.  If you meet a First Nations person in their 40’s or 50’s here, it’s a good bet they attended the residential schools as children.

Their stories, along with hundreds from others who have come forward over the past few years, paint a pretty grim picture of life in the schools.

Cleansing branches were hung from the doorway to wipe away sorrow as people left the TRC event.

Put simply, the schools were terrible places. Children, some as young as three, were taken from their families and forced to live in horrific conditions:  inadequate healthcare, inedible food, and many, many cases of physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse.

Each child was given a “Christian Name” (e.g. Norman, Elsie, Clara, John, etc.) and was punished for speaking his/her native tongue.  One of the TRC speakers put it well,  “I had to be what the Residential School wanted me to be. And that was white, not an Indian.”

As the TRC event went on, my shoulders drooped lower and lower.  I listened intently as one speaker after another talked about the truly nauseating and despicable things that were done to them at the schools.

Almost everyone who shared talked about being repeatedly sexually abused by their caretakers.  They talked about being beaten.  Some even shared ominous stories of children mysteriously disappearing and never being heard from again.

Legacy

But as the event went on, I learned that the real legacy of these terrible schools was not just the individual acts of abuse and exploitation that happened to kids who attended, as awful as those were.  The schools’ legacy also extends deep into the lives of the survivors’ children and grandchildren.

Residential school survivors entered into adulthood without having ever lived in a healthy family environment.  They had no idea what it meant to be a parent.  They had never been taught adequate problem solving skills and had no idea how to pass on traditional values to their children.

On top of it all, these survivors have grown up to become parents who have never dealt with the deep emotional scars of abuse. As a result, unemployment is normal. Alcoholism is rampant.  Suicide is frequent.

Dennis Nyce, one of the residential school survivors who shared his story at the TRC event (more on Dennis’ story coming soon).

Having such brokenness infused into a society would be bad enough if it happened to one generation.  But imagine if it happened to the next one. And the next. And the next…

Even though most residential schools closed their doors by the end of the 1970’s, the survivors and their families were set on a multi-generational spiral of injustice that continues to bear fruit to this very day.

A Glimpse of Hope

I could write page after page about the ongoing injustices that have their roots in the residential school system. But I won’t. That has already been done.

Instead, I want to share at least a glimpse into the hope that I took away from such a depressing event…

When I first arrived at the meeting, I wondered why those who attended residential schools used the term “survivor.”  It seemed a bit too intense.  When I hear the word “survivor,” I usually think of plane crashes or natural disasters.  Wouldn’t the words “victim” or “participant” be more appropriate?

But as the event went on, I realized that each of the people sharing their stories were there because they didn’t commit suicide. They didn’t lose their lives as result of alcohol, drugs or violence.

Traditional drummers from the Cowichan Nation share songs written specifically for the TRC.

These brave people somehow managed to live on and have families despite all of the horrors they had to endure as children.

They are survivors.

Another Meaning

But the word “survivor” carries another connotation worth mentioning.  A survivor is a fighter, a trooper. Someone unwilling to give in when the odds are stacked against them…

And as I think back on the things I heard these survivors say, I realize that the word couldn’t be more appropriate.

“You may have touched my body, you may have touched my mind, but you didn’t touch my spirit.”

“This is the time of healing.  This is the time of restoration.”

“We can and we will be strong again.”

These are not the words of a people who have simply given up.  They are the words of survivors.

——-

As I left the TRC meeting, I felt heavy.  All of the people I interact with here on Penelakut Island have been directly or indirectly affected by these terrible residential schools.

But I held on to one strong truth as I lay in my bed that night: the Penelakut are strong.  They are survivors.  And with initiatives like R.O.O.T.S. on their side, they can be whole again…

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Next Steps
    • Interested in learning more about the Canadian Residential School system? This article has some great FAQ’s and this website has a ton of great information.
    • One of the greatest injustices in the world is the apathy of those who have the power to act. Take some time to learn about the Canadian Residential Schools and share what you’ve learned with a friend. We have the ability to bear witness to the past for the healing of the present.
    • Pray for the residential school survivors and their families. They continue to daily face the consequences of broken families, broken communities and broken cultures. Pray that they would find healing.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Rob said... 

    Reply

    March 30th, 2012 at 11:41 am  

    How painful to read and try to absorb these words: “a multi-generational spiral of injustice that continues to bear fruit to this very day.”
    May these words be known instead: a multi-generational spiral of healing and justice that continues to bear fruit for generations to come.
    Thanks Barry.

  2. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    March 30th, 2012 at 11:59 am  

    Just when you think you’ve exhausted all the ways humans hurt each other…Don’t you wish you could have been there the day that coalition of church and state conspired to eradicate a people? What were they thinking? I never cease to be amazed at the evil concocted by mankind.

    Once again, thank you for bearing witness and may God make us vigilant for the rise of injustice around us.

  3. Tasha Simons said... 

    Reply

    March 30th, 2012 at 4:58 pm  

    Wow! What a powerful article. I love your emphasis on the fact that they are survivors. “You may have touched my body, you may have touched my mind, but you didn’t touch my spirit.” At the core of who we are… down in the deepest parts, we have a soul… the essence of our humanity. Perpetrators of abuse can’t touch that for we were made in the image of God and we belong to him. May the Lord bring healing in the deepest parts for the First Nation people. My soul aches for them. Thanks, Barry, for your willingness to enter into the pain and share their story. Your articles continue to inspire and challenge me (as well as so many others) to be willing to do the same. Tasha

  4. Patti said... 

    Reply

    March 30th, 2012 at 5:59 pm  

    Thank you so much for sharing the story of the boarding schools – they had such a tremendous impact in Canada and in the United States and yet so many people have not heard of them. It is amazing and important to hear these stories of survival since so much was lost forever because of this injustice.

    Great article, and being able to attend a Truth and Reconciliation Commission must have been such a privilege. Thanks Barry

  5. SouthernLady said... 

    Reply

    September 1st, 2012 at 10:40 pm  

    Global F.A.C.T. is having a radio show Sunday Sept. 2, 2012 3pm PTD, 6pm EDT, and 5pm central This will be a round table discussion with the purpose of outing the truth regarding the victims of the residential school genocide and the people behind it. Discussions will also include why Kevin Annett left the previous show, refusing to answer questions about certain evidence that has been brought forth. This round table discussion will include:

    1- Cheryl Squire – A Mohawk Elder of the Turtle Clan
    2- Lydia White Calf – Wife of a resident school survivor
    3- Gerald Whitehorsestanding – resident school survivor and an official Elder on the Cree Nation
    Band Council in Saskatchewan
    4- Heather Martin – Blogger: stopkevinannett.wordpress.com
    5- Greg Renoof – Blogger: genuinewitty.com

    http://www.blogtalkradio.com/globalfactradio

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