Sharing Their Stories

One of the most difficult sessions taking place at the Truth and Reconciliation commission was the Sharing Circle. Sitting down and listening to elders speak about what they went through in the residential schools. Rebecca Williams and Barney Williams were two members of the TRC survivor committee who acted as moderators for the other speakers. Barney started by thanking the creator for giving him and the survivors the strength to speak and for everyone for attending.

One of the first speakers, Norman Mianscum spoke about how the majority of his family had ended up in the schools. “In all they were 28 nieces and nephews that grew up not knowing their language and culture because my siblings who had attended the schools were to ashamed to teach it to them”. At the bequest of father, Norman became the caretaker of all the children because he like his parents didn’t drink. He helped his mother take care of those who needed it, being a teenager in the 70’s and 80’s he was tramatized by everything he saw. It was only when he came to Quebec when was he was 24 to find himself and begin the slow journey to healing himself.

Norman’s story as difficult as it was a common theme during the sharing circles, the way survivors talked about the abuse made it hard to imagine that kind of evil happening to children. Connie Shingus who went to a school in Saskatchewan, talked about being separated from her sisters due to age. She talked about the sexual abuse how a lot of the girls including her were targets of the staff. When she arrived at the TRC she wasn’t sure she would want to speak about what went on in the school and how it had destroyed her family. “ I wasn’t planning to be here in this circle, I here because I want so badly for it to stop running my life. I live that shunned unwanted feeling daily, I’m lost, my family is broken up and I came in hopes of finding pictures so that I was see the truth of what happened to me.”

Connie echoed what a lot of survivors feel and what the schools were successful is accomplishing was not only killing the Indian in the child but also destroying their self worth, trust and putting fear in it’s place. Elisabeth spoke next, she talked about the separation from her parents and how she didn’t understand why she and her cousins were in the school? Why were they beaten because they spoke their own language and why was their hair cut?

Naturally the sexual abuse was the hardest to listen to, one survivor had talked about how she had been raped at the age of 12 by the bishop who was visiting the school at that time and how she had gotten pregnant from that rape. When the child was born she was told that the child had died. The rapes continued once month for 6 years while she stayed at the school. She talked about her difficulty share her experiences with her children and how it would be years before she could talk about it.

One of the many services the TRC provided were health care workers for the survivors and their families as well as for the guests, many of which were wiping away tears. Another service was a smudging room, where people could go to be alone with their thoughts or just to talk to someone. The survivors also had access to daily sweat lodges which took place at the botanical gardens, a shuttle was provided to take them to and from 4 times a day. The TRC made sure to organize the event around the survivors and their families. To make sure that the process was as comfortable as possible. The House of Friendship provided many of the volunteers and many of the events will posted on the TRC website.

Irkar Beljaars

 mohawk_voice (Twitter)

It Matter’s to Me By Irkar Beljaars

One of the events the TRC was a town hall discussion about residential schools, a chance for the public to speak about how they felt. The event was moderated by long time CBC news anchor Dennis Trudeau who took questions in both English and French and it wasn’t long before people were up on their feet sharing their stories. Trudeau was quick to ask follow up questions in hopes of finding solutions to the problems facing a lot of survivors. Solomon Wawatie a residential school survivor asked about how reconciliation took two people but the truth has not come out. “The truth is not being entirely told from my perspective, there are five elements that are considered genocide, one of them is outright killing, killing the spirit, residential schools, sterilization, and starvation. What happened in Canada is genocide and until the Canadian Government and clergy acknowledge that there will be no reconciliation!”

One of the statements came from Stuart Myiow Jr from Kahnawake talked about crimes committed against the Indigenous people, crimes like kidnapping, and forcible confinement. “We have to understand that people form within a government , people from a religion caused great pain and suffering, Stephen Harper apologized said that it was wrong!” He went on to talk about crimes committed by people within the highest levels of government and the highest levels of the Catholic church and because Harper said he was sorry that these people who committed these horrendous crimes would not be charged. He said that just because there has been forgiveness does not mean people who committed these crimes then there must be justice.

Trudeau asked the question if there was significant movement towards reconciliation? To which Myiow said no! Myiow Sr then entered into the conversation, spoke of his love of hunting and how the distruction of the forests affected his life. Myiow Sr went has far as to say the Harper should be shot. Trudeau quickly stepped saying that violence doesn’t beget violence and that there needs to be a better way to bring reconciliation to Canada. Trudeau then asked former Conservative MP David McDonald who seated nearby about his thoughts on what had been said by the first few people. MacDonald serves as special advisor to the United Church Committee on Indigenous Justice and Residential Schools. Mcdonald found himself surprisingly in agreement with a lot of what was said.

The one thing that hasn’t mentioned here that I believe needs to be said if we think governments have done a pretty terrible job, I would say that we’ve all done a terrible job in regards to public attitudes.” Mcdonald would go on to add that when issues happened in First Nations communities like Attawapiskat, the Canadian public didn’t understand beyond the superficial and often blamed the victim themselves. He acknowledged the gulf between First Nations and Canadians and asked if there were bridges that could be built?

Lee Grayfeather a MicMac residential school survivor, had this to say. “When Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologizes to us and then the very next cuts out over 8 million in grants to women and children and to this day does nothing else.” Irene a survivor and elders coordinator, talked about how she worked to build her family back up after spending 6 years in the schools. “ We can stand here and blame everyone in our lives but where is the reconciliation, an elder told me, the more things happen to you, the stronger you become”. Irene Barbeau a residential school survivor of two schools has been working with survivors for over 30 years long before any agreement was signed. “We recognized that we needed to heal ourselves ans since nobody was going to do for us, we decided to take the bull by the horns and heal ourselves.” She talked about she could finally reconcile with her own life and how it could be accomplished for others. “What I had to do was forgive someone, but everyone that was there was now dead so I forgave the system”

The last person to comment was CBC’s Sheila Rogers. “I want to thank everyone for speaking from the heart and that I hear you. I feel very uncomfortable but when is growth not uncomfortable?” She also suggested that Aboriginal people should be Aboriginal teachers and for making for making her uncomfortable.

Irkar Beljaars

mohawk_voice (Twitter)

Two Row Wampum and Reconciliation

The discussion on the Two Row Wampum a treaty between the the Mohawk and Dutch was one of the highlights of last Thursdays events. It began with a few words from moderator Ellen Gabriel who talked about the importance of Mohawk treaty rights and how the government could learn from the the Mohawk about good governance. Tom Porter a Mohawk teacher from Kahnawake who brought some of his students to the TRC opened with a greeting in the traditional language. “The Reason we do this greeting is so that you can hear and see things clearly, that you can have an open mind about the discussion.”

In her discription of the the Two Row wampum Gabriel spoke of how the rivers never crossed, I sign of respect that neither culture would disturb the other as was written. She talked about when the British arrived in upstate New York they made treaties with Mohawk. “This is about peaceful coexistance the original peace treaty with one of the original democracies” Gabriel then went on to introduce John Cree a Mohawk Elder from the Bear clan of Kanesatake. who started by talking about the creation of the two row wampum.

It brought us the great laws that were very easy to follow but now not so much and when the Dutch came we made sure that we would respect each others culture” Cree went to add that the the land belong to the women of the community, that like women the land provided for the people. The next panelist introduced by Ellen Gabriel was Tom Porter a chief of the Bear clan in Kahnawake. Tom echoed the words of Gabriel and Cree. “Before the whites arrived, we had a system of government, we had a set of laws and unlike the ancient Greeks our women were equal and we didn’t have slaves.

He quickly moved to the subject of the residential schools, native children suffered severe abuse at the hands of the church’s who ran them. “We were told that we had to change our names to christian ones” He spoke of the schools in the United States, Australia and New Zealand where similar abuses happened. “We have a duty to share the stories of the residential schools with younger generations to insure that we learn and understand why it happened? We to insure that we teach the culture, songs and stories so that we can maintain who we are” Tom’s message was that of pride, pride in who we are as so that we can undo the damage to our communities and our culture. He referred to his students sitting in the front row that they had their names and spoke their languages and that they were now teaching the older ones that knowledge.

The final panelist was Skawennati Fragnito who talked about why she had been invited to speak about she had been born in exile. “I have a Mohawk mother and a white father and two Mohawk grandparents but I am not on the registry in my community because my mother married my father” She compared the Indian act to one of the omnibus bills currently passing through parlinement, she talked about how native women lost their right by marrying white men while native men did not have that problem.

And that was how it was designed to work, a forced assimilation for the women who married outside their race lost their voices within their communities. It was a very effective piece of legislation. “Who we were came through the women in the community, the children lost their rights as well. It split up families and caused a lot of pain” In 1985 the Indian act was ammended to include those who were originally with rights got them back. Unfortunately the damage was already done because a lot of those children were not welcomed back into the community because of their white liniage. “I don’t want to be called a survivor, I don’t want to be a victim I want us to thrive. We had a strong culture in the great law of peace, we are sharing this land and we have break that cycle of father and son.”

She concluded by saying that we all have to come together in order to thrive. Ellen finished with speaking about the children and how of all the subjects spoken very little is said about the two spirited people that the LGBT community needs to be recognized as well. That the band councils were just an extension of the government, that we needed to acknowledge the societal problems facing the people in our communities and urban areas.

Irkar W Beljaars

 mohawk_voice (Twitter)