Residential School Workshop Reflection — Second Blogpost

Jul. 5, 2017

Over the weekend I debated with myself over whether I should write my blog post on Derrick Hastings, Bob Sharpe or Shona and Richard Mostyn. All four left a lasting impression on me, as have all the inspiring individuals we’ve met on our journey thus far.

As of yesterday I added Harold Gatensby — an elder living on the outskirts of a half torn down residential school formerly called Chooutla in Carcross — to the list of individuals I could write about as an influence to me. The list got even longer after this mornings residential school workshop at the college.

I am in awe of Elder Bessie Cooley, Ingrid Isaac and Joanne Henry. The resilience they demonstrated in their participation of the workshops is astounding to me. Their willingness to reopen the wounds they’ve spent their whole lives struggling to mend in order for us to understand the injustices that have been done onto them makes the hair on my arms stand up.

It would be impossible for me to recreate in writing the atmosphere in that classroom today. As we went around the table introducing ourselves we all had similar comments, we know of and about residential schools, but not as much as we should, and we’re looking forward to this opportunity to learn more. At that point in the session I don’t think anyone anticipated the way they would feel three hours later. Bessie, Ingrid and Joanne shared their stories and provoked an empathy I think most of us were lacking prior to the session.

Throughout those three hours, the current circumstances for which many Indigenous Canadians endure began to make complete sense to me. It all came full circle, and I felt the injustices of the past weigh heavily on the shoulders of my ancestors. The implementation of residential schools concretized the systemic violence and racism that remains to this day. Although the last residential school closed over two decades ago, the lifeless system still greatly influences generations today and tomorrow. Pain still permeates the air we share.

I listened to the women speak of the pain they endured as children and into their adult lives — from having their culture stripped from them at an age where they couldn’t comprehend the severity of what was happening, to not being able to protect their siblings from mental and physical abuses, to leaving the schools and feeling a complete disconnect; not only from their culture but from their parents, many of whom turned to drinking and drugging far before their children returned home.

The vicious cycle comes full circle when babies are born into forgotten families. As I listened to the women speak, I thought back to my first blog post and regretted the fact I wrote about how uncomfortable I felt when approached with hostility by two intoxicated men on National Indigenous Peoples Day. I feel like I understand that hostility so much more now than I did when I first got here. Like Ingrid said, children weren’t taught how to problem solve at residential schools, they were taught to shut their mouths. They had no means of releasing the pain they felt. In most cases, alcohol became the only coping mechanism — allowing for any sort of release. I know now that hostility is a result of an unforgettable intergenerational heartbreak. With that being said I don’t consider my first blog post a failure, I think it goes to show how much I’ve learned by the half way mark of the course, and I’m proud of my current understanding of this social issue after today.

The residue of the residential school system is apparent in so much more than Indigenous culture alone. It’s resulted in a long-standing lack of care. It’s apparent in the influx of missing and murdered women, the percentage of Indigenous inmates in the prison system, the lack of education on Indigenous Canadian history in grade school and elementary across Canada. By allowing us to visualize the ongoing impacts of these injustices through their accounts, Bessie, Ingrid and Joanne displayed what elder Harold Gatensby meant when he said the longest journey you’ll ever take is from your head to your heart. It takes so much strength to put the pain of the past aside in order to reiterate and relive a neglected history.

The TRC “…calls upon the federal government to provide funding for existing and new Aboriginal healing centres to address the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual harms caused by residential schools…” Rachel pointed out in our sharing circle after the session how astonishing it is that Bessie, Ingrid and Joanne are able to share and allow us to feel — through spoken word — only a small portion of the pain they’ve endured throughout their lives, then to offer support while we absorb their pain indirectly. We’re not the ones who deserve to be comforted; yet they stand behind us with their hands on our shoulders. I can’t explain what that felt like. It’s indescribable.

What I’ll remember most about today is how much this workshop impacted the class as a whole. Bessie, Ingrid and Joanne taught us reconciliation requires an education. It requires us to allow ourselves to be accountable for the past — accountable to the information we’ve heard, accountable to share that information with others.

Visual Metaphor

Even when things appear to be eternally broken, you have to believe and hope for a better future.

The grounds of a residential school in Carcross, Yukon. Formerly known as Chooutla School.

The workshop put our past into perspective. Most were either in shock or in tears by the end of the session. Regardless, Ingrid suggested we end on a positive note. The way our class ended can be applied to our history as well. The remnants of the Chooutla Residential School in Carcross are centred in this shot. For me, the remnants represent the destruction of Indigenous culture — the injustices of the past — but the mountains, they represent the possibility of reconciliation. They represent the hope Bessie, Ingrid and Joanne have for the future.

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