Montreal–In 1958, Marcel Petiquay was a joyful little boy of six when he was sent to Amos Indian Residential School, a Roman Catholic-run boarding school in Amos, Que.
Petiquay arrived with a small brown suitcase that his mother, Marie, had lovingly packed for him. In it were some of his clothes, his favourite toys-a car carved from wood and a little bow and arrow, all made by his father, Guillaume-along with a pair of moccasins sewn by his mother. “They put all their love for me in that suitcase,” said Petiquay, speaking in French through a translator. That suitcase was taken from him at the school, emptied of everything except his clothes and stored in a warehouse.
Petiquay would recall the image of his small suitcase many decades later in 2007 when, as an addictions counsellor, he had to unpack all the stories that he had heard from former students struggling from the impact of Indian residential schools.
His reflection on their stories and his own life led to Ma Petite Valise du Pensionnat (My Little Residential School Suitcase), a poem about loss and redemption resulting from his 12-year voyage at residential schools: one year in Amos and 11 years at Pointe Bleue, also run by the Roman Catholic church.
Ma Petite Valise du Pensionnat speaks of how Petiquay’s journey began with a suitcase filled with love from his parents and of how, when he left the schools, this suitcase became heavy with shame, self-loathing, suicidal thoughts and addictions.
Over the years, however, this same suitcase would be emptied of all negativity, and once again be filled with good things: sobriety, spirituality, a recovered sense of self-respect and love for all people.
On April 25, Petiquay offered a copy of Ma Petite Valise du Pensionnat as a gesture of healing and reconciliation at the Quebec national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). With him when he spoke was the Rev. Cynthia Patterson, a priest from the Anglican diocese of Quebec.
Petiquay carried a suitcase on whose outer cover he had literally written his poem. Patterson carried another suitcase, in which Petiquay’s poem, as well as other gestures of reconciliation from the Anglican Church of Canada and the diocese of Quebec, would be stored and presented to the TRC commissioners.
How Petiquay and Patterson ended up on the same stage is a story of how two different people from two different backgrounds decided that they spoke “the same language of the heart” and could work together for healing and reconciliation, explained Patterson.
Patterson first heard Petiquay recite Ma Petite Valise du Pensionnat at an event held in February by Projet Wampum, a healing and awareness initiative across different communities and regions in Quebec that is supported by the TRC, Health Canada, and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
Patterson, who co-ordinates the Anglican church’s suicide prevention program for the Council of the North, was so deeply moved by Petiquay’s poem that she sought him out for a possible project on reconciliation.
“Right away I could see so many healing journeys that could be done through a very simple but very moving workshop” that would revolve around the metaphor of a suitcase, said Patterson in an interview.
Petiquay’s story is one of “courage and the spiritual strength to continue and to share his journey,” said Patterson. “I could see it in use around suicide prevention work. I could see it in almost any setting. I could see it in our own spiritual healing. There’s the education and awareness [component] that we have the legal and moral obligation as church to do.”
Luckily, Petiquay came on board with the vision, and this May, Patterson said she will travel to his home community of Wemotaci, on the River St. Maurice, Que., to develop the workshops. The workshop will cover questions such as, “What did you have in the beginning? What were the strong things that you received from your family and community? What happened to you next? What was the brokenness in your life? Where are you at in your road to recovery?”
Petiquay said he wrote the poem not only for himself, but also for others struggling to come to terms with the horrors of what they had experienced at the schools. “I was truly inspired to write by something stronger than myself, by my Creator,” said Petiquay, who is a traditional spiritual leader sought out by other First Nations communities outside his own.
He suffered physical and sexual aggression at both schools, said Petiquay. And when he came home to his tiny community of Atikamekw Nation, he hardly recognized his parents and they, in turn, could hardly communicate with him. His parents had started drinking as a way of coping with their loss-all but two of their eight children had been sent to residential schools and came home speaking French, instead of the Atikamekw language.
When Petiquay left Pointe Bleue, he got his empty suitcase back. In it he put the accoutrements of his life as a residential school student-pencils and workbooks. But he also packed hatred and rebellion that he would carry until the age of 41 when, as a family man and husband, his wife, Luisa, issued him an ultimatum: be sober or leave.
Petiquay and Patterson were already exploring the idea for the workshop when the Anglican Church of Canada was preparing for its participation at the Quebec event. When Patterson mentioned her collaboration with Petiquay, organizers latched on to the idea of how Ma Petite Valise du Pensionnat could serve as one means of moving the journey toward healing and reconciliation forward.
And so it was that at the Grand Salon of Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Petiquay and Patterson brought the powerful story of Ma Petite Valise du Pensionnat and other offerings. Patterson, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, and Quebec Bishop Dennis Drainville presented copies of native language translations of former primate Michael Peers’ 1993 apology to aboriginal people, a brochure about the church’s suicide prevention program and from the church’s archives, a photograph of small native children carrying small suitcases that, like Petiquay, their parents had packed for them when they went to residential schools.
Petiquay, now 61 years old and 20 years sober, offered a copy of his poem and an aboriginal medicine bundle of cedar, sweet grass and tobacco. As he spoke, his children and his wife, Luisa, surrounded him.
“My suitcase is very light today,” he declared.
Here is Marcel’s poem:
My Little Residential School Suitcase
The first time I left for residential school,
my mother carefully prepared my
little suitcase. She took care to put in it everything
I would need. My clothes, some
toys I would never see again. I was
six years old on this first trip.
In my little suitcase, my mother had also put
all the love she had, without forgetting the love from my father.
There were also embraces,
tenderness, respect, for me
and for others, sharing, and many
other qualities she had taught me.
The trip lasted 12 years.
When I returned home, my
little suitcase was heavy. What my
mother had put in it was gone; love
embraces, all those beautiful things had
disappeared. They had been replaced
by hatred, self-rejection, abuses of all
kinds (alcohol, drugs, sexual abuse) by
violence, anger and suicidal thoughts.
That is what I carried for
a long time.
But I’ve been cleaning out this
suitcase. I put back everything my mother had put in it when I left the first time: love,
respect for myself and others, and a great
many other qualities.
Oh yes…added sobriety and
especially spirituality. My little
suitcase is very light. It is full
of good things I can
share with everyone
Marcel Petiquay (2007)
(Translated from French with permission of Marcel Petiquay, April 2013)