For years, survivors of the residential schools did not speak about their childhood experiences. Many factors contributed to their silence. The shame and stigma associated with violent and sexual abuse stopped many from speaking out. Moreover, many survivors could not find the words to describe their painful experiences in the Indian Residential Schools.
Laurel Wood, a community activist and artist working in the Ontario town of Sioux Lookout, described an encounter with a business associate who, upon meeting her, asked, “Don’t you think they should just get over it and stop asking for handouts? . . . People really suffered in Europe during the wars and look what they’ve been able to do. They just need to pick themselves up and get on with it.” Wood remembers being “completely taken aback.” She wondered, “How could I begin to describe the legacy of hopelessness and pain that followed a systematic attack on all
people of our country, for hundreds of years? Where could I begin to summarize the unresolved and ongoing problems that First Nations people face on a daily basis?”
Wood was one of many who were not able to “just get over it.” Garnet Angeconeb is an Anishinaabe elder and a survivor of the Pelican Lake Indian Residential School. As part of his work with the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Angeconeb discussed his long and painful journey and the positive effects of breaking the code of silence surrounding the residential school experience:
In my childhood . . . I was ripped away from my loving family. This caused a lot of painful confusion. Once inside the Indian Residential School system, I was afraid. I was lost. I was so lonesome. I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I was abused: physically, culturally, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and yes, sexually.
After leaving the residential school, I became very angry. I was bitter. I was mad at myself. I was mad at my parents. I was mad at the government and at the churches. I was angry at my Creator. I was mad at the world. At the time there was an unwritten code of silence. Nobody talked about their negative experiences and bad memories of the residential school. . . . [Many years later in] 1992, I sat face-to-face with the man who had abused me, a man who had caused so much misery in my life and in my community. I challenged him to own up to his actions. . . . After the face-to-face meeting had ended in total denial, I felt so alone again.
I also experienced denial from some members of my family and community. There was silence from the government. The church didn’t know how to respond to my allegation of abuse. Sadly, there was silence from my own leaders. I know now that the issue was likely too overwhelming—too painful—for them to deal with . . .
In the fall of 1993, the Ontario Provincial Police had launched a full investigation into the allegations of abuse. . . . The man continued to deny all charges. Initially, he pleaded ‘not guilty’ to all charges. . . . Between the police investigation and the legal wrangling, my life had turned for the worse. I was drinking a lot. My marriage was failing. I was angry. It seemed that life had become unbearable. I had dragged my family into a living hell . . .
[Finally] in January 1996, our abuser was convicted. He was sentenced to four years in prison. . . . In the fall of 2001, I made overtures to church officials. I had one goal in mind—that was to meet my abuser to begin dialogue that would hopefully lead to the spirit of forgiveness. I thought if nothing else, I wanted to shake his hand.
Such was not to be. I was told that he had passed away the year before. The news hit hard. I felt sad. I asked myself—how do I forgive someone who has passed away? So in the spring of 2002, at a healing gathering, I found the courage to speak to the spirit of my abuser. In front of my immediate family and other witnesses, I spoke words of forgiveness. At that moment, I felt a heavy burden had been lifted. Somehow I felt my spirit was at ease. It is in setting ourselves free from our burdens—whatever they may be—that we must engage in good conversation. As citizens of this country, we must be engaged in meaningful dialogue. We can no longer be afraid to talk to each other. We shouldn’t have to settle our differences in the courts. We can no longer speak to each other through the media.
Darlene Auger, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Regional Liaison for Alberta, explained the importance of speaking about and sharing the Indian Residential Schools experience in the following way:
It is healing when you begin to talk about it because it becomes real, and you put it out in front of you and you can look at it. You separate yourself, you begin to separate yourself from it. You are not your pain. You are a beautiful, wonderful spirit, beautiful, wonderful human being that has had a really bad experience perhaps, a really painful experience. But it is not what you are all about. And so, to talk about it, to share it, and even more, to record it, to create a permanent record of it, so that the future generations can hear it, can see you, that’s even more profound.