Clara Fergus shares her experiences of the Brandon Indian Residential School with the help of a support worker. Photo: André Forget
“My mom and dad didn’t tell us why they were putting us on the train. I thought they were coming with us,” said Clara Fergus, a Cree woman from northern Manitoba to a sharing circle on the morning of June 1, at the beginning of the final event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). “They put us on the train, and then we noticed they didn’t come with us.”
The train took Fergus all the way to the United Church of Canada-run Brandon Indian Residential School, where she would spend the rest of her childhood having her language, culture and identity stripped from her while suffering “all forms of abuse” at the hands of teachers and staff.
“Being away from your brothers and sisters, being away from your grandparents,” said Fergus. “It’s the love that we missed. The hugs. The nurturing…I can’t imagine…if I sent my kids there, and they had to go through that…”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has spent the last six years documenting stories like Fergus’s, stories of how the Indian residential school system was set up to enact what Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin recently called “an attempt at cultural genocide.”
Next to Fergus sat Westwind Evening, who also attended a residential school—the Catholic-run Lebret Indian Residential School, in the Qu’Appelle Valley. Her testimony, though, was not about her own experience in the school, but rather about the brutalizing effects that residential schools have had on her family over generations.
A creative writer, Evening shared her truth in the form of a short story, “Whispers in the Wind,” that details the experiences of a girl growing up in a family haunted by addictions and dysfunction stemming from her mother’s time in a residential school.
The narrative includes details of physical and sexual abuse inflicted on children by older generations deeply wounded by their own experiences, and emphasizes the brokenness that comes when parents do not know how to parent, and children feel more vulnerable at home than they do on the street.
It also shows how this abuse inclines the following generations to the same tragic behaviour.
“The thing about intergenerational impacts: of all seven of our siblings, we all struggled with addiction, every single one of us—including my mother, including my stepdad,” said Evening. Her mother, who died in 2006, never talked about her residential school experience.
But despite the sadness that infuses it, Evening’s story ends on a positive note, with reconciliation between siblings who have been estranged for decades.
The difficulty of having to learn how to be healthy and loving after being ripped from one’s family was a theme in Fergus’s story as well.
“A lot of us…we did not recognize what we went through,” said Fergus, “We held our hurts inside through addictions, alcoholism, drugs—there’s a lot of family dysfunction. We didn’t talk at all. It wasn’t until the '90s that we started talking about it.”
The TRC was created so that conversations like the ones Fergus had with her siblings would be brought into the national consciousness through circles such as this one, but many survivors have expressed concern about whether or not the wider Canadian community is listening.
Fergus ended her story with precisely this sort of concern.
“I went to Wal-Mart to get these pictures developed of the residential school,” she said, “and there was an immigrant there—or a new settler, I should say. I asked him how long he’s been in Canada, and he said, 'Twenty-two years.’ I showed him my pictures so he’d know about the residential school, and he says, ‘You got free education.’ I just had to shake my head. Sure, free education—but at what cost to us?”
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