Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, Terrance Assiniboine appeared at the recent survivors’ hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings in Saskatoon to tell the audience how he came to be the man he is today. “It’s a hard thing to do—to sit up here and tell my story, but I know it is a good thing to let it all out,” he said. “In my heart, I know there’s a good man inside of me and I know there is something good in all of us, but in a way, they took that a way from me,” said the First Nation witness, on the brink of tears.
“They” were the teachers and staff at the residential school Assiniboine attended as a child. “They told me I was a savage. They said I smelled and was disgusting. They said everything in the book to humiliate me,” he said.
Assiniboine believes that such verbal abuse is the reason he found it hard for so long to look anyone in the eye, the reason he walked with his eyes on the ground. “I did not feel like a man, like the warrior I was supposed to be. I felt small, like the smallest person in the world; I felt guilt and embarrassment,” he told the TRC.
It was the wisdom of his indigenous culture that set Assiniboine on the road to healing. One day, an elder of his community gave him his First Nation name: Broad Wing Hawk. When he asked the elder why he had called him that, the man replied, “One day you will be strong and stand before your people. And you will spread your wings and surround them with your wings, and no one will ever hurt your people again. Your wings will be a shield.”
A deeply religious man in his native culture, Assiniboine said the church took away his religion and so he had none. “What the church did to me was wrong,” he said.
When, for example, Assiniboine fell asleep during church services, he was forced to spend long hours on his knees on a hard floor in a corner. “My knees were bloody and scraped and I was in pain. To this day my knees are bad. But I must stay strong.”
Howard Walker, another school survivor, spoke of having his new moccasins thrown in the garbage and his braids cut off. In addition to suffering sexual abuse, he lost hearing in one ear from repeated blows with a Bible for not knowing the Lord’s Prayer. Today, he is a proud pipe carrier and lodge keeper in his Cree community.