Brandon Strawberry never went to residential school – the last one closed two years before he was born.
Yet like thousands of other Canadians, he’s still feeling the effects.
“When I was younger, I got picked on a lot because of my skin tone and the way I acted and my language,” said the proud member of the O’Chiese First Nation (which is near Rocky Mountain House) – language the residential schools tried to stamp out.
He also grew up in a home of drug and alcohol addictions – addictions his grandparents picked up due to the trauma of residential schools and passed on to his parents.
“My parents and my uncles and my aunties, they were abused and wronged by my grandparents because they were abused and wronged” in the schools, he said.
Now, he wants to teach as many people as he can about this past to help heal this rift with Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
“Canada’s history needs to be taught,” he said, speaking before a crowd of thousands of Alberta youths. “We’re not a country of different people. We are one.”
Strawberry was one of the hundreds of residential school survivors to speak this week at Edmonton Shaw Conference Centre for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final national event, which opened Thursday.
Thousands are expected to gather at the free event to hear and share the truth about Canada’s residential school program as part of a national effort to right this historic wrong.
The commission has heard many times in the last four years from youth who said they never heard anything about the residential school in class, said Commissioner Wilton Littlechild said.
“What happened to the children who were taken from their parents?” he asked. “What happened to the parents that were left behind? What happened to the children who came after?”
The commission held a special youth education day Thursday to try and teach students the answers to these questions.
“It’s a great day!” Littlechild cried as he opened the event, fists high as he spoke before some 2,000 Alberta students. “Learn well, students, and share.”
Impacts for generations
Canada’s residential school program was an intentional effort on the part of the federal government (often in partnership with major religious bodies) to assimilate First Nations, Métis and Inuit people into Canadian society, the commission has found.
That involved taking about 150,000 young aboriginals from their home and putting them in residential schools, one of which used to occupy the site of Poundmaker’s Lodge by St. Albert.
These students were stripped of their names and identities in favour of new, Christian ones (or just numbers), said Jenna Broomfield, 25, an Inuit throat-singer originally from Nunatsiavut (a.k.a. Labrador). “That’s a horrible experience.”
Students in the schools were often punished for speaking their own languages, the commission notes.
Broomfield said her grandmother used to speak fluent Inuktitut, but stopped at age 12. “My grandma had 18 children of her own. Not one of them speaks our language. Not one of them passed it on to us.”
Grade 7 Sir George Simpson student Hannah Nash said her grandmother has told her of the abuse she suffered while in residential school.
“When she was little in the school, she had to get her appendix out,” she said, missing a few tests in the process.
The teachers didn’t believe her excuse. “They took a strap of horse-hair and they hit her five times on each hand.” Then they took her to the principal, who hit her with the hair ten times on each hand. “She was bleeding non-stop.”
These students grew up into parents who thought it was right to strike children when they did something wrong, Strawberry said. “That’s not the right thing to teach to a student.”
Education and reconciliation
“Right now is not a time where it is okay to be aboriginal,” said Danielle Powder, a 21-year-old Métis woman and a panellist at this week’s event. The legislation behind the schools created a stigma around aboriginals that still affects her today.
“We owe it to ourselves as Canadians to demand the truth.”
Knowledge is the first step towards reconciliation, said panellist Maxime Rurangwa, whose parents survived the Rwandan genocide. “If you know there’s a problem, you can figure out the means to fix it.” He urged all schools to develop programs to raise awareness of the history of residential schools.
Everyone here today has an obligation to share what they have learned with others, said panellist Mary Andreason. “It’s the most powerful thing we can do as youth and as a country: to work together and not let the silence happen.”
The national event wraps up this Sunday. Visit trc.ca for details.