A couple of years ago I worked alongside a passionate youth from the Paqtnkek, Mi’kmaq, First Nation Community, in Nova Scotia, Canada. She wanted to make a video about family violence and the healing process taking place in her community. I had already witnessed that community’s incredible strength through the amazing women and their passionate youth group, and I was eager to continue working with them in any way I could. They brought me into their homes and showed me their determination to make life better for their families and to overcome the pain that they have been subjected for generations.
I have known about residential schools since I was in high school after watching the CBC movie, Where the Spirit Lives, but that was the extend of my knowledge. It was just a movie, and I could turn it off and go about my business because it was something that happened a long time ago. I was unaware of my ignorance and how my country kept me in this state for a long time by excluding it from our history books– Canada’s greatest shame.
In the 19th century, the Canadian government believed it was responsible for educating and caring for aboriginal people in Canada. It thought their best chance for success was to learn English and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. Ideally, they would pass their adopted lifestyle on to their children, and native traditions would diminish, or be completely abolished in a few generations.
The Canadian government developed a policy called “aggressive assimilation” to be taught at church-run, government-funded industrial schools, later called residential schools. The government felt children were easier to mold than adults, and the concept of a boarding school was the best way to prepare them for life in mainstream society.
Residential schools were federally run, under the Department of Indian Affairs. Attendance was mandatory. Agents were employed by the government to ensure all native children attended.
Residential schools were established with the assumption that aboriginal culture was unable to adapt to a rapidly modernizing society. It was believed that native children could be successful if they assimilated into mainstream Canadian society by adopting Christianity and speaking English or French. Students were discouraged from speaking their first language or practising native traditions. If they were caught, they would experience severe punishment.
Throughout the years, students lived in substandard conditions and endured physical and emotional abuse. There have also been convictions of sexual abuse. Students at residential schools rarely had opportunities to see examples of normal family life. Most were in school 10 months a year, away from their parents; some stayed all year round. All correspondence from the children was written in English, which many parents couldn’t read. Brothers and sisters at the same school rarely saw each other, as all activities were segregated by gender. (CBC, Jan. 7,2014)
On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential School System.
As I listened, part of me felt relieved for all those poor children, families and communities who were broken by this inhuman act of assimilation and cultural genocide, yet the other part of me felt that the apology just wasn’t enough.
Older now and even more empathetic than in my younger years, I didn’t want to offend anyone by asking the wrong questions or using the wrong terminology when addressing the issues First Nation’s and Aboriginal people were faced with.
At the time I was in a leadership class at our local university. I clicked with a wonderful young mother from the Paqtnkek community and we became partners for one of our class projects. I loved her energy and I felt very comfortable around her so I finally built up enough courage to ask her, “What is it like to be First Nation?”
She was so sweet and understanding, especially picking up on how I didn’t want to offend anyone in our currently vast politically correct cultural environment. Sitting back she said, “Ask me anything, what do you want to know?”
It was an opportunity I took advantage of, every question I have ever wanted to know about her culture, I asked. From “What did she prefer to be called, Aboriginal or First Nation,” to, “what did she and her family really think about the apology from Stephen Harper?” Without any judgement she answered all of them and helped me feel closer to the Mi’kmaq peoples’ heritage.
A few years later my friend was murdered in a domestic violent attack and I became more enthralled in working with violence prevention. I was asked to teach the Paqtnkek Youth Council digital storytelling on bullying. I began working with the forward thinking women who were determined to end violence in their community and the constant threat of their children being taken into foster care. I learned about the Millennium Scoop, and how more children were being taken from their homes and put into government care than at the height of the Residential School system.
My heart broke; I was angry that people and our government just stood by and let this happen. I was ashamed and frustrated that people turned a blind eye to the pain going on in their own back yards. I also felt guilt over not being able to do more, and I recognized that it was not that long ago when I was ignorant to the issues the Mi’kmaq people faced.
When I began the video project with this young woman who wanted to understand family violence in her community, I met Emmett Peters and his wife Judy. They both came forward to talk about family violence and their own personal struggles. They had both been through a tremendous amount of adversity, to become survivors and strong influential community members.
(Judy and Emmett with Daughter Annika)
I will never forget the impact that Emmett Peters had on me during our interview. Emmett had only started revealing that year to his friends and family about what had happened to him at the residential schools.
“In 1977 I looked in the mirror and there was an Indian staring back at me and I didn’t know what that was. So I started hitch hiking to South Dakota, 25,000 Miles up and 25,000 miles back. I went to learn how to pray the Indian way.”
I was brought up in Indian Residential day school so they took away most of my language, and I went through all kinds of abuse. All the abuse that goes with living in Indian Residential schools. They made you feel really bad. Most of my adult life I never felt comfortable because they told you that you were no good and they beat you. You just never felt good about being Indian.
When I quit drinking I didn’t know anything about my own culture. The Residential school turned the whole nation against itself. Over 90% of the people feel ashamed of who they are because of the Residential schools. You can see the impact through high suicide rates, alcohol and drugs, Diabetes: everything negative.
Before the Residential schools, our culture was always Nation first not First Nation like you hear today. It was more selfless, so when the Residential schools came in what they did is they broke that bond between parent and child and they replaced it with sexual abuse, physical abuse, and mental abuse. Imagine when you are small and you are taken away from your parents and you are sexually, physically and mentally abused; you lose that bond and they broke that trust.
My wife’s parents were very cold. My father in law doesn’t remember going in and he doesn’t remember leaving. He was 16 years old when he left. They went through a lot of abuse and my wife waited over twenty years for her dad to tell her that he loved her before he died. That love and affection wasn’t there and they made us ashamed of who we are.”
Emmett went on to explain to me how when you are taught only these things and not how to love or be loved, then you go out into the world and re-enact what you have learned. If nobody had taught you differently than it becomes all that you know and live by.
As Emmett opened up I hung on his every word. I felt honoured to be in the presence of a man who was taught to survive, to be tough, to not show pain, yet he was trusting me, a non-native woman, with his experience.
Emmett became passionate about learning the old ways of praying through various traditions, including Sun dancing and sweats. He wanted to reverse the residential schools’ impact, and the shame associated with celebrating their culture.
“When you spiral down from alcohol you bring 30 or 40 people with you, but when you spiral up you also bring 30 or 40 people with you. So we are trying to reverse what is going on. If you ever get the chance to come out to a sweat you will see what I am talking about, man, there is so much love there.”
Emmett Peters transitioned to light after losing his battle with Cancer on December 28th, 2014.
I feel so honoured to have had the opportunity to meet and interview Emmett, and to learn from his stories and experiences. I now take every opportunity to educate my generation on the impact of residential schools on the First Nation’s and Aboriginal People, and I tell them Emmett’s story.
Emmett was a Traditional Elder and worked in both the federal and provincial correctional facilities. He was also an Outreach Elder for the Seven Sparks Program at the Halifax Friendship Centre. The impact of his life-long work as a spiritual leader has had an enormous reach throughout Mi’kma’ki and beyond. (Curry, 2014)