Thursday, April 26, 2012

Telling true stories at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Leona Canute Jones was inspired to tell her truth at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  Regional Event in Victoria in hopes it will help her children and grandchildren have better lives
I went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regional event in Victoria recently, and was extremely moved by the people I met, the things I heard and saw, and the camaraderie I felt between all those present, native and non-native. The Commissioners noted the size of the non-native crowd (apparently about 1,000 of us), the biggest white crowd so far at one of these events, and said how much they appreciated the support and desire to listen on the part of the greater community. I felt, quite frankly, honoured to be there and to witness and be welcomed to such an intimate sharing, and to see cultural events and learn from the exhibits as well.
One of the people I met there was Leona Canute Jones (you'll see her above surrounded by her grandchildren and children) and I learned that she was speaking at the sharing panel to tell her own story of what it has been like to be an "intergenerational survivor", that is, the child or grandchild, even great-grandchild of a residential school student, or 'survivor". It was particularly poignant to me to realize anew that the impact of the dysfunction, low self esteem, and anger felt by students at the residential schools goes on...generation after generation. It is widely known, so this category of "intergenerational survivor" is part of the TRC vocabulary. It is estimated there are 287,350 intergenerational survivors in Canada. 
So, I listened to Leona talk about how her parents' experiences in residential school marked them, drove them to alcohol and contributed hugely to the problems Leona and her siblings and relatives face, and have faced, all through life. The quiet courage of Leona and others who told their stories, not sparing themselves from admitting they are part of the cycle of abuse and drug and alcohol addiction, is amazing and moves me every time I think about it. Thank you, Leona and all those who told their truths, difficult as that is...we hope it will start the healing process for you and for all of us.
One of my former students in the Aboriginal Employment Training Program in Cowichan, where I taught for nine years, who has become my friend and is in touch often, also agreed to tell me again the horrific stories of her experiences at Kuper Island Residential School in the 60s. These memories included the suicide of her 10-year-old cousin, who couldn't face life after being beaten yet again by the teachers, those very people who were supposed to protect and guide him. My friend also remembers when two boys at the school tried desperately to escape and set out in the water, only to be "captured" and severely punished later. Others died trying to leave. It is hard to believe, I know, but it is undeniably true. How could things have gone so horribly wrong for so many children...and those entrusted with their care???
It is a part of our history we all need to hear and remember and pledge to never let happen again. It reminds me of the power of story, and here is one of my favourite quotes about the need for our stories, as quoted from Barry Lopez's book Crow and Weasel,
"The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive; that is why we put these stories in each others' memory. That is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good story-tellers. Never forget these obligations."
Thank you to all of you who are not forgetting your obligations, who are having the strength to give your stories away where they are needed. We all need to hear them.

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