John Pierre was a child when life with his parents and siblings splintered. It was never restored. “We’ve never come together as a family,” he said of the lasting influence of the Indian residential school he attended in the 1950s. “Inside, I’m still crying. I’m still a child.”
Raw emotion was evident as former students shared their experiences at the federal Truth and Reconciliation hearings in Kamloops Wednesday.
“It was such a lonely time,” said Mary Percival of being taken away from her parents at age seven.
“I cried for my mom and dad to tuck me in at night. It was very heart-wrenching. My mother became an alcoholic after we were removed.”
Peter Alec was three years old in 1964.
“I wanted my mom and dad to come and get me but they never did,” he said.
“I felt so empty because I lost so much. I never bonded with my mom and dad. I had no feelings when my mom and dad passed away because I didn’t know them.”
For many of those parents, they knew what awaited their children in residential school as they had also been forced into those classes long before.
“My mother told me to do as I was told and I wouldn’t get into trouble. I did as I was told and we know what happened,” said one woman.
Sexual abuse was a constant thread among many of the survivors. It was at the hands of teachers, clergy or other students.
In one case, a woman recounted how she was initially strapped by a nun for wetting her bed.
“And then she did things she wasn’t supposed to. She started touching me.”
Punishment was severe for speaking traditional languages although many didn’t know English. Speaking out of turn brought the strap.
Food was often in short supply and even worse quality. Education was often limited to religion.
“I was ashamed to be an Indian. I thought, ‘How do you change the colour of your skin?’” said a woman who is now 58 years old.
Eventually, the students reached a certain age and left school, but the trauma remained, particularly when they began to have their own families.
“The way I was treated at residential school was the way I treated my kids. I physically abused them. They got in the way of my drinking. I didn’t want the responsibility,” said one woman.
For many, being separated from their own parents at a young age left them with few examples to draw on as they raised children.
“I never told them I loved them and I couldn’t hug them. We were like army sergeants to our kids,” said a mother of five.
“That’s the way we were taught to be. I will be sorry for the rest of my life.”
And that cycle engulfed the next generation.
“I saw my son screaming at his kids and I told him to stop. He said, ‘Why, you did that to me?’”
For another woman, her experiences warped her relationships with men.
“If I was beaten, if I was molested, it was normal to me,” she said.
But as the survivors spoke Wednesday, most were surrounded by spouses and children. The arrival of grandchildren was often the turning point to a brighter future.
“It made me realize I have a heart. I’m not a tin person,” said Leona McKay.
“I have to learn to get over the anger and fears and to be the difference I want to see in the world. It’s time to stop depending on others to make us better. We have to help ourselves.”
Questions still remain as to how governments and churches allowed injustice to occur to children. For some, bonds with religion are broken forever.
But for Alanna Manuel, responsibility must run deeper.
“All of the rest of Canada did not protest for our human rights. No one said, ‘Don’t abuse those children.’ Canada needs to take ownership,” she said. “Canada, you let this happen for hundreds of years and you better fix it. I want you to leave here knowing this isn’t an Indian problem, it’s a Canadian problem.”
Speaker after speaker stressed that their experiences no longer dictate who they are.
“We can tell the stories but my past is my past. I don’t live there anymore. Let’s move forward,” said Ginger Alec.
Members of Vernon’s Trinity United Church observed the proceedings.
“It’s about the wider community acknowledging wider responsibility,” said Rev. Jeff Seaton.
Schools were operated by the United and Catholic churches as well as other denominations.
“I hope people will reflect on the power of religion to do great damage and the power to provide transformation,” said Seaton.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is travelling across the country to learn about what happened at residential schools and to inform all Canadians about the legacy of those institutions.
“I have heard that people will never forget, but we have to stop walking into our future backwards,” said Murray Sinclair, commission chairperson. “The country must understand that its sense of self must have balance with our sense of self.”
The commission will ultimately file a final report, but Sinclair believes that’s only the beginning of the process. He urged everyone in the Tk’emlups Indian Band hall to remain involved.
“You are the ones who will have to pick up the challenge of reconciliation. Reconciliation is about healing and coming to terms with what has happened and to move forward,” he said.