By Rennie Nahanee
Special to The B.C. Catholic
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Canada) has paved the way for the untold stories of former Indian Residential School students to become part of history. Their treatment, both good and bad, is being documented by statement takers of the TRC and will be stored in a research centre archive yet to be built.
In the future these stories, along with photographs and other related documents, will become available to all Canadians. This is contingent on getting permission from the former students to release their stories of their student days in boarding school, and respecting regulations about releasing personal information from the archives.
The students feel a need to tell their stories to someone in a position of authority. They want to do this in a safe cultural environment with a clinical counsellor present, to help with the emotional stress of talking about something so personal that they've never told anyone else before.
The truth about what happened to some of these students may never be revealed because their experiences as children were so painful. Some were subjected to sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or mental abuse, which in some known cases happened repeatedly over a number of years.
I have witnessed former students talking publicly about their childhood residential school experience as though it had occurred yesterday, and these were people in their late 60s and early 70s. Some, when they were as young as 5, were far away from home and didn't know whom to trust or whom to talk to. They were separated from their siblings and they couldn't call anybody.
The native school children were completely dependent on the Christian teaching personnel employed at these institutions, benefiting from their goodness or suffering from their badness. Punishment for speaking their language would be swift, and in front of other students as a warning of the consequence of breaking the rules.
The tender compassion or brutal punishment the former Indian Residential School students received until they were released from the boarding schools by age 15 would have a profound effect on their lives, their children's lives, and the life of their community, effects which continue to this day.
The traumatic effect of the boarding schools didn't end when they went home. Their lives were further complicated by their alienation as they returned to their communities lacking knowledge about their language, customs, and culture, which they had learned in school were bad.
Many of those who suffered rejection or criticism from some of their own people as well as some of the non-native people living around them turned to alcohol as a way to forget, and a way to survive, once again on their own.
Suicide and alcoholism took their toll as an awful legacy of the boarding schools, and yet some rose above this to become good working citizens in their communities and in the non-native world.
The former residential school students eventually became parents with unresolved childhood issues, issues which surfaced and were laden upon their children, who didn't know anything about these schools because nobody talked about boarding school experiences.
These inter-generational children now had their own problems to deal with. They were taken away from their reserve homes by B.C. government social workers to live in non-native homes because their own parents didn't know how to raise children properly.
With the stories of the former residential school students now being told across the country, reconciliation between parent and child has been taking place as the inter-generational children learn why their parents behaved as they did.
Hopefully, as all Canadians learn about this untold history, there will be reconciliation for the aboriginal people of this land. Hopefully there will be reconciliation with the Church.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's mandate has been to bring out the untold truth about a dark part of Canada's history regarding native people. This has made a difference in the former students' lives by making people aware of what they went through as children in the Indian Residential School system.
For some former students, healing has taken place; for others that is a path that they must journey on, but this time not alone.
It is necessary that all Canadians become aware of this shared history. All have a responsibility to do their part in making reconciliation between all the peoples of Canada, including the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit, happen in our lifetime.
Rennie Nahanee is the First Nations Ministry Coordinator for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.