'Your culture will keep you alive'

Present generation continues to cope with legacy of residential school abuses

Sylvie Paillard / Kamloops Daily News
September 18, 2013 01:00 AM

Kamloops Aboriginal Friendship Society drummers, from left, Jenna John, Lisa Machell, Rene Narcisse, Jacinta Oyella, Vicki Michaud and Pauline Saxy open the truth and reconciliation gathering Wednesday at the Irving K. Barber Centre at TRU.

The destructive path created by Indian residential schools reaches through Kamloops and across Canada to this day.

Anyone with a shred of doubt need only spend one hour at a truth and reconciliation hearing to get a dose of reality.

Students and locals had a chance to do just that on Wednesday when Thompson Rivers University held its own truth and reconciliation gathering in honour of the federal commission's hearing in Vancouver this week.

The event opened with a video of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's visit to Kamloops last May.

"(Residential schoolchildren) were told that they were savages," said Murray Sinclair, commission chairman, in the video.

"They were told that they were heathens. They were told that they were inferior. They were told that their culture, their language were irrelevant and were the work of devils.

"And out of all of that they felt denigrated. They felt humiliated. They felt a sense of shame of who they were."

This treatment lasted for generations. The last school closed in the 1990s and the impact of that system goes on and on. The stories have to be told as "the only way to find answers" to the despair, addiction and suicide rates among aboriginals, said Sinclair.

Justin Young, an adult TRU bachelor of social work student originally from a reserve northwest of Manitoba, was desperate to understand.

Young braved his nearly overwhelming emotions with eagle feather in hand to talk to the crowd of more than 100 that had gathered at TRU's Irving K. Barber Centre.

"I didn't go to residential schools . . . but I had to live with people that were suffering from pain and agony out of those situations that they went through, not knowing that way of loving your child, of having the community that I hear about from our elders - the love that our people had before."

Young brought the crowd to tears with his agonizing story of growing up on a reserve rife with drugs and alcohol, of abuse at the hands of foster parents, of his mother's death when he was 12, of the abandonment of his white, racist dad who called his son's own people "good-for-nothing Indians."

Through his own tears, Young also explained his bafflement at his circumstances and desperation to find peace.

"I always felt so ashamed of being who the hell I am and saying 'Why the hell do I have to go through this?'"

Young moved to Kamloops at his friend's behest when he was 20 years old and continued to struggle through life. Although he appeared successful by attending TRU and working, he was also an alcoholic. It wasn't until his daughter was born that he decided he "had to become a father or give up."

He reached out for help and connected with two TRU programs - Career Orientation and Personal Empowerment and Men's Education and Career Alternatives (COPE/MECA).

Eventually, he was so transformed he wanted to share his experience with his home community. When he was invited back with a complimentary plane ticket, he chose to walk instead.

His "walk to heal" lasted from May 30, 2010 to Jan. 17, 2011.

"I'll never stop healing," he told the crowd. "But today I can be the man and have the family that I always wanted and no one can take that away from me."

Jimmie Jack, a TRU aboriginal services elder, followed Young with his 75-year experience at the hands of the Canadian government.

He said he was lucky to have been raised by his grandmother, who taught him his people's language, culture and rituals for becoming strong.

"I always knew who I am and that I can accomplish any job I undertake," he said.

He was told that he must remember his culture both by his grandmother and by spirits of elders during his four-day vision quest at age 12.

Soon Jack was taken to residential school and quickly reached the conclusion that caring for the children was not a top priority there.

"They don't like you. They pretend to love you but you're standing in their way. What we walk on is what they want to take away from us," he said.

He was made to work as a farm hand and was punished if cows went unmilked by 4 a.m. He was also punished for smiling at other students.

"They didn't want us getting friendly with each other because then we could get strong. If you're individuals they got control."

Through the ordeal, said Jack, he almost forgot his grandmother's teachings.

He spent years drinking to forget that past, abandoning his wife and children because they got in the way of that.

He eventually came back to himself and his culture, quitting drinking 35 years ago. Today he advises the younger generations to return to their culture.

"Your culture will keep you alive," he said. "Walk tall and strong. I'll keep talking like this even if they have to bring me in in a stretcher."

© Kamloops Daily News

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