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The traumatic legacy of Indian residential schools

 Edmonton Street News (Canada) 30 July 2019

The Canadian residential schools system was designed to assimilate Aboriginal children into westernised society. Many of them suffered psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Some fifteen years since the last school was closed, victims are still in search of justice. The Edmonton Street Society is committed to help Canada’s forgotten children. (1438 Words) - By Allan Sheppard

EdmontonStreetNews_Indian residential schoolst

A survivor protests outside the Vatican. The Pope has yet to make a formal apology to the victims of the Canadian residential school system. Photo credit REUTERS/Chris Wattie

"The area that I propose to talk about tonight is extremely sensitive. It is sourced in nothing but pain and anguish; it has had an absolutely devastating impact on whole generations of people.

"I approach the work remembering the teachings of my granny and of my mother, who raised me: to be respectful, to be a good listener, to be helpful, and I try and apply those principles in the work that I do as an adjudicator.

"The rewarding thing about doing adjudication is, for the most part, at the end of a hearing, what I hear from claimants is, "I feel better for having told my story to you." Now, they feel better for getting it out, but it doesn't make their life any better.

"Claimants have sometimes waited 20, 30, 50, 60, 70 years to tell their stories. And so they've lived with hurt. They've lived with anger. They've lived with pain for that amount of time. It's a pain that doesn't dissipate. It's a pain that tends to build upon itself over time."

The first travesty

"Just being taken away from your home, that is the first travesty. Everything builds from there. Regardless of whether anything bad or constructive or good happened at a residential school, there is still that first sin, I'll call it, of taking kids away from parents.

What we explore through the residential school process is: How has that experience, being taken away from their family-how has the abuse that people have suffered at residential schools-affected their lives? We go through this list: How are you at relating to other people? How has this affected your ability to tell your spouse you love him? How has this affected your ability to hold your children? How has this affected your ability to tell your children you love them? How do you cope with nightmares? What do you do when someone reminds you of a priest, or a nun, or an employee? Usually what we end up talking about is people who feel anger, rage. Often I hear, 'I wish that so-and-so was here; I'd kill him.' That's real.

"I hear about how people drink, about how drugs have entered their lives. About how they would rather wake up in the morning and start drinking than have to think about or be reminded of the abuse or to think about how they can't relate to those closest to them, those who care about them most.

"So we look at all these consequential harms. According to the model you get X-number of points [for each harm]. It's a points system. And there's this horrible reverse/inverse relationship where the more points you get-i.e., the more screwed up your life is, the more damage that has been done-the more money you get. And in the grand scheme of things it is not a lot of money; we're talking, on average, about 100, 150 thousand dollars, maybe.

That's for a lifetime that has been damaged and wrecked, and that is for the lifetimes of others that have been exposed to or have been in the same house as survivors. So we do a damage that goes beyond individuals. It really reaches out to families. It reaches out to communities. It reaches out over generations, which isn't surprising: The residential school has been around for over a hundred years."

Three hard questions

"What I've learned in six years is there are three great commonalties. It doesn't matter what the story, the degree of abuse, how a claimant has managed to survive or persevere, they want to know three things."

1. Why?

"The first question always is: Why? And it's not necessarily Why was I abused? It is, "Why was I taken away from my family?" Who gave the government that right? And often what chokes claimants up the most is, they'll recount how their parents were just powerless; the Indian agent or a supervisor gave them no choice."

2. Are you listening?

"The second thing everybody wants to know is: Are you listening? Do you hear me? And that is pointed directly to the adjudicator in the room. Because unless the adjudicator in the room hears and respects your story, then you're nowhere. So being able to reframe and convey the story is absolutely critical."

3. Are you sorry?

"The third thing that just about every claimant on some level needs is to hear the word sorry. Now that's not for me, as an adjudicator, to say sorry; but we have sometimes representatives from the church and always a representative of Canada in the room. And very often, that representative-it might be a lawyer who's been at it for 20 or 30 years, long in the tooth and perhaps just as jaded as everybody else in the room-will give a heartfelt apology. And that, maybe more than just hearing the story perhaps goes as far, if not farther, than anything that I as and adjudicator might do on the day. That's the power of an apology. Because, you know, to apologize effectively, you've got to look somebody in the eye. You've got to be empathetic. And you've got to mean it. And to mean it, you have to have heard the story. You have to embrace that individual and their harms to some degree. So, you know, the hearing experience is powerful, and the goal is to ensure that it's helpful."

Treatment: A cone of silence

"Another part of the residential school hearing process has to do with treatment, past treatment and future treatment. The hearing books are thick, and a good chunk of that has to do with doctors that they've seen, psychiatrists, or if they've been in corrections; sort of the daily log of their lives. You can have a hearing book four inches thick and only have one or two pages where a doctor, or a psychiatrist, or somebody in corrections has had the foresight to ask, Have you been in residential school? Have your parents been in residential school? Have you come in contact with somebody who's gone to residential school? And when the question is asked, the floodgates open, the gates into that person and explanations as to why the individual is (perhaps) the way they are-mistrustful, addicted to alcohol, unable to communicate-because in residential school they were hit over the head with a clapper every time they tried to speak their own damn language. Or they were told,

If you tell anybody about this abuse, we're gonna get you. Or just because the whole damn residential school experience, in general, was a pedophile's dream come true. There's a cone of silence there. People didn't talk for 30, 40, 50, 60 years. Because that cone of silence doesn't stop at the gates of residential school. It stays with them.

"The challenge is daunting. It's going to take a concerted effort. Whether it's a group of newspaper people, a group of psychiatrists, a group of police, a group of judges, doctors, how do we start [with them] or with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to focus the minds, the talents, and the resources of others to start asking that first critical question: Have you been to residential school? Do you know somebody who has? Have you been contact with, have you been raised by? You're not necessarily asking, Have you been abused by? Because you're not going to get an answer to that. But just knowing whether somebody, either directly or on the periphery, has exposure: It's like radiation. It gives you a pretty good immediate sense of what the future actions should be, or could be.

"Unless the question is asked, the cork stays in the bottle, and we're not getting the full story. It's like mapping a genome: you need the entire sequence in order to understand it. If we can equate this thing to a hundred-year disease, you've got to know the full mapping of the thing, so that you can battle it, so you can deal with it, so you can get some cures out there for it.

"I think that's why it's important to talk about it, even thought it makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

"But we need to talk about it in the right way. This isn't some drive-by accident where you can express morbid curiosity in the thing and move on. It's got to be based in those principles that our mushums and kookums (grandfathers and grandmothers) moms and dads, taught us about being respectful, about wanting to be helpful, and using our talents as best we can."


Originally published by Edmonton Street News  ©

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