Verna Flanders was just six years old when she was sent to residential school.
The young girl, whose mother had died in childbirth, was being cared for by her aunt and uncle.
“But I came into the wrong hands when I was six,” Flanders told attendees at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission this week.
As TRC commissioners Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild listened, Flanders described the sense of sheer isolation and loneliness that she felt as a boarding student at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay.
For 10 years, she missed out on typical childhood experiences, like knowing what it was like to celebrate a birthday, or going home to see her family for Christmas. She grew up without parents, spending a decade of her life, as she remembers it, “behind brick walls”. And when she left the school at 16, there was no one there to meet her.
“I felt so alone,” she said, through tears. “I had no one.”
As Flanders shared her story, her sons sat on either side of her, reaching over at times to place a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Now I can say to myself that I’m not alone,” she told audience members, many of them shedding tears themselves. “I have my children.”
Flanders’ story was just one of the many heart-wrenching tales that residential school survivors have shared as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s national event in Vancouver this week.
In their testimonies to the commission, some speakers have described memories of sexual or physical abuse. Others have spoken about the emotional trauma they faced as young aboriginal children who were required to attend the schools.
Some talked about the ways in which their experiences continue to haunt them.
Rose Miller, who attended the Kamloops Indian Residential School, said the red brick building that still stands in the community “is a constant reminder that reaches deep into my soul”.
“I have so many scars from there,” she said. “Today I am 71 years old, and in a few weeks I’ll be 72, and I earned every bit of those years.”
“I got a little bit knocked about through the years, especially during the time of the residential school,” she continued. “It was a journey in life that affected me and my children, and grandchildren most of all.”
Another former student, Sainty Morris, told TRC chair Murray Sinclair earlier this week that when he was punished, he was brought to a dark room, where he was forced to kneel from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., without any food or water.
“Before that, I was not afraid of the dark, but now I can’t even sleep without a light on, because it always brings me back to that time in school,” said Morris.
“I live with that…I live in fear of the dark because of residential school."
Some speakers have also shared stories about healing that has taken place in the decades following their traumatic experiences at the schools.
For Flanders, that process didn't begin until after she was 40.
“From 16 to 40, I had a rotten life,” she told the commissioners.
But eventually, after embarking on a healing process and seeking counselling, she began to write about her memories at the school. She filled two journals with her thoughts, and titled the books “the little girl behind brick walls”.
And she has started sharing her story with people. Recently, she spoke to elementary school students in Courtenay, B.C. about her experience at St. Michael’s.
“I think it’s really important because survivors never, ever shared their stories with anyone,” she said in an interview.
“They just came out of the residential school and their lives were really bad. And with me, it’s so important that I share my story, because the children today don’t even know what happened to us.”
As Flanders sat outside the PNE Forum after giving her testimony, a woman stopped to thank her for sharing her story, telling her: “it’s so good for us to hear it”.
Flanders, who is now 71, hopes that other survivors will be encouraged to share their experiences.
“A lot of them are telling their story, which we weren’t aloud to do,” she said. “Now we’re doing it—and nobody’s going to stop us.”
The TRC national event continues for a final day today (September 21) at the PNE. Events include sharing panels between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., and from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Closing ceremonies will take place between 5 and 6 p.m.
On Sunday (September 22), the 4-kilometre Walk for Reconciliation will take place from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre at West Georgia and Hamilton streets to Science World.