There was no shortage of tears shed at the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in Thompson on Sept. 25. One after another, survivors of Indian residential schools made their way to a delegation table and fought through tears to tell their stories of how they were affected by the schools.
The stories were harrowing and at times not easy to listen to, but as Commissioner Marie Wilson explained, it is an integral part of the healing process for those who have been affected.
"The primary job of the TRC is to contribute to the healing of those who went to the residential schools and their families and our nation as a whole," said Wilson, "by finding ways to understand more fully what happened at the schools and the impact they had and where does it leave us in terms of both the challenges and opportunities that face us today."
Race relations in Thompson were a concern for Wilson as well when she spoke of the conference and its mandate to support community healing.
"The vast majority of the people here are aboriginal, where are all the non-aboriginal people?" said Wilson, "where are all the non-native people whose laws and policies created these schools, whose churches ran these schools, where are they? They're not here to listen to this, and yet it is their story, it's their history."
The first speaker to share with the commission was Caroline Ouskan of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation. Ouskan spoke of being taken away from her parents, and that her mother and father were threatened into making her go to school. Ouskan was taken on a train to the Anglican-operated MacKay Indian Residential School in Dauphin.
"I remember crying the entire train ride," said Ouskan as she fought back tears, "I don't like remembering how I felt that day. When I arrived it was mass confusion, to me I think about it like it was the holocaust, for me that school was like a death camp."
Many of the survivors who spoke of their time at the residential schools shared a commonality, in that they were undeniably shaped into the people they are today because of their experiences. In many cases, the survivors had turned to alcohol and/or drugs as a means to escape the painful memories.
Philip Michel from Brochet did not go to school until he was 10 years old, and his father did not want him to go as he had planned to teach him how to trap and fish and live off of the land.
"I went to a Catholic residential school; because of the experiences there, I no longer wanted to be Catholic," said Michel, "I began abusing alcohol and drugs later in life because it was the only time I could actually feel good."
Indian residential schools were in place for over 130 years and seven generations of people and families were affected by the experiences at the schools. Wilson says that one of the goals of the TRC hearings are to bring to light what went on in the schools.
"As a country we have learned nothing about this in our school system or as part of our overall history, although it's been a running thread throughout our history as a country of something devastating that happened to one of our founding nations of our country," said Wilson.
She said that in order to fully understand the history of our nation, we need to hear all sides of the story. Records must still be perused as far as children who died while at the schools or went missing.
What is known, as evidenced by a story from Elizabeth Beardy from Split Lake, who was also a student of MacKay Indian Residential School in Dauphin, is that students were subjected to physical abuse.
"My third day at the school, an instructor was talking to me and I must not have understood her and she slapped me in my ear and I went deaf for a few days," said Beardy, "another time I was in class and was working with my head down and an instructor came by and smacked my hand with a yard stick and cut my hand open. My hand became infected and doctors thought they would have to amputate my thumb."
Beardy also explained that she had never known about racism before she attended MacKay Indian Residential School.
"I didn't know that there were people out there that would hate you because of your skin colour," said Beardy, whose father was also a survivor of residential schools, "my father thought he was going there for school but he was just made to work; he was there for 10 years and when he came back he still spoke broken English."