By Katherine Nixon with Justin Boehringer
Artwork by Heidi Cho
“I still remember the smell of the cold metal inside the float plane. It took me far away from home and I was never the same after that”. There was a long silence. In a broken voice, the speaker went on, “They took my culture, they took my language, they took me from my family, my people, the animals, my land, everything I knew and loved.” In a sharing circle of other residential school survivors, this man spoke his truth for the first time in a room filled with family members, health supports and the public.
“There is not a human being on this planet that does not yearn for the deep reconciliation of the human spirit” – Chief Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation
Residential Schools were government- sponsored institutions run by churches with the primary purpose to integrate or assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream Christian, Euro-Canadian culture. It is estimated that 150,000 children were brought to residential schools, and 6,000 died as a result. Children were isolated, their culture disparaged, and removed from their homes, parents, and siblings. The school separated them by gender; many times the children were pulled apart from their siblings and friends. They were forced to speak English and punished for speaking their native tongue, even when writing letters to their family. The agenda to “kill the Indian in the child” and to colonize every aspect of their being began from the very moment they stepped foot into the schools.
Residential schools violated the children by cutting their hair, taking away a very crucial part of their identity. Traditional clothes were also taken, the children were given uniforms and new colonial names. The children of residential schools had their whole identity stolen by colonialism. They were forced to observe Christian practices while being told that their own traditional practices were savage and that their family was going to hell. Children were subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, causing decades of intergenerational trauma that is still seen today.
Truth and Reconciliation was a buzz phrase created by the government as a measuring stick for their attitude toward Indigenous people. We see the government constantly vocalize their apologies; but when it comes to reconciliation, actions speak much louder than words. While Justin Trudeau has Indigenous art and headdresses hanging in the background of his speeches next to the Canadian flag, the government is currently embattled in a lawsuit for denying survivors of residential schools reparation money as they only attended during the day. Known as Day Scholars, First Nations, Métis and Inuit who were forced, as children, to attend these schools say they suffered atrocities similar to those who went full-time. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, has paid more than a total of $5-billion to residential school survivors. Claiming it was “never that Canada never intended to ‘eradicate Aboriginal languages, culture, identity, or spiritual practices’” through the institutions. Denying experiences and harm caused by the colonial government and cherry picking who they deem worthy of their meaningless apologies. In this so-called “era” of reconciliation, it is quite troubling that Indigenous people are still being told their experiences weren’t valid or real and that a colonial government is going to dictate if their experiences at a residential school were traumatic or not.
Now, Indigenous lead organizations across Canada are actively leading initiatives to help heal their communities post-cultural genocide.
Spear-headed by Jo-Anne Gottfriedson, who was sexually abused by a priest as a child during her time at Kamloops Indian Residential School, Justice For Day Scholars is an initiative that is helping Day Scholars to be acknowledged as survivors and to validate their experiences, by moving forward to try and heal by getting some compensation and recognition. They want Canada to provide a large enough settlement for the bands where that money is put in trust. Then the bands decide what specific programs it needs to help their community. Over 100 bands have joined the lawsuit, and it is set to go to trial in April 2019.
In British Columbia, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society has provided services to survivors for over 20 years. Originally focused on assisting with litigation processes for residential school survivors, the IRSSS has expanded to provide education services to Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks alike. The IRSSS is governed by a board of direct or intergenerational survivors from six regions of BC, and is supported by a staff of 20 professionals and 17 Elders who provide Cultural Support, most of whom are either Indian Residential School Survivors or Intergenerational Survivors. They provide culturally appropriate counselling and traditional healing done by a team of 17 Elders, as well as having a hotline for Residential School Survivors to call 24/7 and offer counselling services.
Chanie Wenjack, misnamed by residential school teachers as Charlie Wenjack, was an Anishinaabe boy born January 19, 1954 in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve. In 1963, at the age of nine, Chanie was sent to the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential school in Kenora, Ontario. In 1966, at 12 years old, Chanie ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey in an attempt to reunite with his family, 600 kilometers away. Nine other students ran away the same day, but were all captured within 24 hours. Chanie’s body was found beside the railway tracks on October 22, 1966, a week after he escaped the school. He had succumbed to starvation and exposure. He had nothing but a little glass jar with several matches in his coat pocket. He fell victim to Canada’s legacy of colonization of Indigenous people; this was the end for Chanie but a birth to a legacy of healing.
Justin Boehringer, the Education Associate, who is a member of the Skeetchestn Indian Band of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation at the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack organization, said that the foundation is an Indigenous-led non-profit organization whose main purpose is to educate about the true intergenerational trauma caused by the schools. They use Chanie’s story as a way to show what has taken place to the children of the First Nations. When asked about how Canadians are doing in terms of Reconciliation today, Justin said, “I always like to say in terms of Reconciliation, Canadians are doing much better than yesterday but not as good as tomorrow. We’ve come a long way but have so much further to go. Right now, too many people see reconciliation as something that is optional or just a trend; in fact, it is every Canadian’s responsibility. It needs to become something that is normalized and not just an event. So, to get where reconciliation is a part of everyday life, we still have a long way to go.” He was then asked, “How can we create reconciliation?” and responded, “The Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s definition of Reconciliation is: ‘Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.’ In order for that to happen there has to be an awareness of the past, an acknowledgment of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.” He listed some examples of what real Reconciliation looks like:
i) Honouring Treaties
ii) Acknowledging and letting go of the negative perceptions and stereotypes
iii) Acknowledging the past and ensuring that history never repeats
v) Learning about Indigenous history
vi) Recognition and support of the deep connections Indigenous Peoples have to the land
vii) Supporting the reclamation of identity, language, culture and nationhood
Chanie’s story is representative of the story of thousands of other residential school victims. His death in 1966 sparked national attention and the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools, prompting ethical and moral questioning of the institutions’ culturally oppressive and abusive environments. Wenjack became a symbol of resistance to the power of Colonization in Canada.
In conclusion, Justin’s message to others is
to realize that we can move forward in the right direction from this story by
understanding that, although this is just one story of one boy at one school,
it is representative of thousands of Indigenous children and each of their own
unique stories. Learning about Chanie’s story is a great first step towards
reconciliation that can inspire people to learn and do more. They ask people to
not stop there; let Chanie’s story open your heart to more learning and action.
The right direction is different for every person because everyone is at a
different spot on their learning journey. The organization is always open to
educate and encourages others to look into the tools they provide to help
create the change they wish to see.
Justin Boehringer is a member of the Skeetchestn Indian Band of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation. After having completed the Indigenous Teacher Education Program (NITEP), he worked as a teacher in the Surrey School District in BC teaching English Language Learners and taking on the role of Aboriginal Advocate teacher. He is now an Education Associate at The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund as an Education Associate.
Katherine Nixon is the unassuming attendant of St James highschool by day, but in her spare time is a hell raising humanitarian. She has spent a lot of her life volunteering and advocating for human and non-human animal rights. Her work includes organizing solidarity events, creating relief packages for Refugees, winter-survival kits for Guelph’s homeless, and spending time volunteering at Hope House.
My name is Bitty. I am two-spirit and I make art. I have maternal Coast Salish roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed Irish, French and Euro ancestry. The art I contributed about Matriarch Camp is a piece I drew to fundraise to sustain camp and out of a deep respect and gratitude to Ma’amtagila grandmother Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas and the young matriarchs, warrior womxn and salmon protectors who hold the space that is Matriarch Camp.