They were known by their numbers at residential schools and to this day, Evelyn Omand, now in her 60s, still remembers hers: 38, 39, 43, and 45. She had gone to four different residential schools.
“When I think about those numbers, I realized that to them I wasn’t a human being,” said Evelyn, who was taken to a residential school when she was 12. “I always tell people I did four years in residential schools. My only crime was that my mom died when I was seven, and my dad went to a sanatorium.”
On a rainy day June 18, in the women’s sharing circle at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s national event in Winnipeg, Evelyn joined 16 other residential school survivors who spoke, between anguished sobs, about the pain they have carried for decades. TRC Commissioners Justice Murray Sinclair and Marie Wilson sat with them on the circle as people listened and cameras rolled to document their stories.
“I endured a lot of pain. To this day I have anxiety problems. I’m claustrophobic,” said Mary, who attended Fort Frances Indian Residential School in Ontario from 1961 to 1970. Upon arrival “they scrubbed me raw, they cut my hair,” she recounted. “I had to sleep like I was on a cross because I had so many blisters.”
She had been too young to join other students in class, she said, and so the nuns would put her in a locker during the day. She had also been sexually abused by two priests, and students, said Mary. “To this day I don’t know what I am. I am not white. I am not Indian. I’m a lost soul,” said Mary, who wept and had to be comforted by health support workers present at the circle.
Madeline Spence, who attended a residential school in Sturgeon Landing, Sask., said that while she was not abused and was allowed to speak her Cree language, she had still been lonesome. “I was born into a loving family. My Dad used to hold me on his knee and he used to say I was his little white girl,” she said. But she couldn’t understand why he let her go to residential school for two years. “He said he loved me and he sent me away. It still hurts,” she said. “I never asked him why.”
Barbara Eaton, who attended Tk’emlups Indian Residential School in B.C., worked as a nurse for 33 years and has helped many survivors through their pain She said that she initially thought she had her act together. But when she received her Common Experience Payment as part of the residential schools settlement agreement in 2007, and everything was laid out in black and white that she had been a residential school student, the memories that she had held back for so long came rushing in.
Her granny had done her hair in braids and packed a brown suitcase that day she went to the school. They had waited in the school parlour and when “a man or a woman in a black robe,” came to pick her up, she remembered her granny telling her to be a good girl. That day, they made her strip down to her underwear and gave her a new set of clothes. Then they cut off her braids. “What was my granny going to say?,” Eaton said, weeping.
Omand said she considers herself lucky because even though she attended residential school, her parents had given her “a good start in life.” She remembers her mother “holding me on her lap as she sat on the floor.” She became a caregiver, and with the help of elders in her community, grew up to be a “very strong woman,” who could say” “I would never again allow anyone to say to me, ‘sit down and shut up.'”
Omand urged the TRC to “go slow” and not rush survivors into moving on. The rains that have slowed down many activities lined up for the event at The Forks, are a reminder “that we have many tears to shed before we get to reconciliation,” she said.
Before the women shared their stories they were each given a stone painted by local schoolchildren and were urged to hold on to it for strength. Traditional spiritual supports such as smudge, eagle feathers and water that had been blessed with prayers were also offered to them and to members of the audience who stood as witnesses to their testimonies.
In the middle sat a Bentwood box carved by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston. Steamed and bent from a single piece of red cedar, the Bentwood Box was commissioned by the TRC as a “lasting tribute” to all Indian Residential School survivors, including Marston’s grandmother. The box – which will contain “gestures of reconciliation” – was opened to symbolize an invitation for survivors and anyone affected by the schools to share their stories.
Pieces of yellow cloth were also laid out on the floor for anyone to put an offering – whether a letter, a tear-soaked tissue, a poem – that would be “sent up to the Creator” through the sacred fire that will burn until the end of the event on Sat., June 19. Ashes from the fire will be stored and taken to the next TRC national event scheduled June 11, 2011 in Inuvik, Northwest Territories.