Residential school survivors share their stories at Truth and Reconciliation event in Vancouver
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.
Sep 21, 2013 at 11:06am
Thank you for having this available to readers. I have tremendous respect for those that speak out, share and heal. It gives me courage to face my own demons that now don't seem so terrible. They seem surmountable. Here's to hoping that at least one racist person out there hears a survivor's story and begins to feel compassion, replacing ignorance and hate towards FN people. Ask yourself, what if it had been me? What if an authority showed up to take your children away and ignored your protest? Protest meant incarceration! Wake up Canada. Open your eyes to your history. May survivors find peace within their lifetimes.
Sep 21, 2013 at 11:08am
She is a hero.
Until working with a colleague of first nation descent, few years ago, I'd absolutely no idea of the barbaric programs our own government inflicted upon them.
There was never a peep of this in any high school history class. In fact, the CBC and Georgia Straight were the only windows into these atrocities. And very few even know about all of the other systematic minority abuses against Chinese, Indians, Japanese.
We keep priding ourselves of how we're so diplomatic, respectful, kind...all these great things. But our past history is marred just as bad as any of the worst places around.
But if there is a redeeming quality about our home, we aren't afraid to readdress the wrongs of the past and try to make things right again. Hopefully we'll be vigilant and not condone government policies that lead down the ugly road to these crimes again.
Sep 21, 2013 at 6:47pm
It is so good to hear of the healing that has begun to happen. I will pray that some outlet for residential school students to continue to tell their stories can be accessed long after the commission ends in 2014.
I have been blessed to have been to two of the TRC hearings and was impacted in ways I had never imagined. A couple of major learnings: just listening, caring and being there for someone who is courageous enough to tell their story is often a huge comfort (validation and being heard) and that the trauma is intergenerational – the inability to parent effectively, to express love and devotion are often missing, which repeats the cycle through the generations. Almost across the board in the stories I have heard, the residential school students were demeaned, treated as second class citizens and not nurtured in any way. Not all were sexually abused but I believe all were neglected, at the very least. These facts shed much light on the plight, and subsequent behaviour, of many aboriginals in our society.
Sep 21, 2013 at 10:51pm
Verna and everyone of you I thank you for sharing your story...You all are heroes!
Sep 22, 2013 at 10:34am
I was at the Forum to hear Verna and her peers share their stories with us on Thursday. The strength that these little children had to find within themselves to get through their young lives is a testiment to their culture and then to once again live through it in order to complete the healing process is something that we all need to hear and recognize. I will never forget the pain in Verna's voice when she cried out "there was no-one there for me", I will also never forget the sight of her 2 loving son's there with her to support her with love and respect.
Sep 22, 2013 at 4:07pm
I am 55 years old and was brought up in many communities along the BC coast. I went to school with many First Nations children, never saw a difference between any them and my sisters and myself. I am so distressed at finally learning the history of so many of the members of First Nations. At the same time that I'm trying to deal with the horror of learning of these outrageous acts against the people I lived among, I am so glad that the people affected by those acts are finally getting the chance to tell their stories and perhaps start to heal. Thanks for their strength and courage in sharing with ignorant people like me their histories. I hope, together, we can somehow make things right again.
Sep 22, 2013 at 4:59pm
Sep 23, 2013 at 9:07am
I've personally known Verna for many years and it's great she can tell her story. Keep soaring with your wings and let the world know. My 84 year old mother who also attended residential school was on the walk. She said she walked for her late husband, late sister, and late brother who all attended residential schools in BC.
Sep 23, 2013 at 5:06pm
When victims become victimizers...
The passion you feel for righting the wrongs that were done to you inevitably means you will trample on someone's rights in order to get justice.
In your mind, it's ok to trample on the rights of the category of people whom you believe oppressed you. If some of THOSE people become victims so I/we can get justice, we'll that's OK, even good, because THEY deserve it. Revenge against the oppressor is ALWAYS just.
You (member of category of oppressors) have NO idea what I went through so just shut up! This is about ME.
We members of oppressor's category (who did nothing to you by the way) are really tired of listening. All we do is listen to victims of various stripes complain. All you ever want to do is talk about yourself.
Sep 26, 2013 at 11:13am
I belong to a group trying to build a bridge of friendship between Aboriginal and Non-aboriginal people. Words can't express how truly blessed and humble I feel in the moment when allowed to hold one of the survivors hands and listen to their truth. Getting to know them has brought a change in me and I will be forever grateful!!!!