Clarence Wolfleg – Elder Miisika’am — had witnessed racism in his youth as a residential school survivor. As a police officer, he had also experienced its consequences of violence in his community. Despite that, he had made strides to help close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous communities.
From Siksika Nation, an indigenous community settled east of Calgary, he was raised by the customs and traditions of his people. He spoke only his language before he arrived at residential school.
When he was seven, Wolfleg was enrolled in the residential school system.
While at residential school, he witnessed many forms of abuse such as ‘strapping’ – striking a child with a belt. Even speaking his own language was subject to punishment.
“When one person was punished, everyone was. We’re weren’t able to eat,” Wolfleg said.
Punishment ran rampant, ranging from physical to emotional abuse. Wolfleg didn’t experience the harsh punishment in comparison to the other Indigenous children.
Wolfleg took it upon himself to try and help the less fortunate – whom he described as “forgotten” – sharing food, money, or anything he had.
He claimed that it was his father that protected him. His father, a Second World War veteran, spoke with the priests. If they ever harmed his sons, he would hurt them too. He spoke with pride as he talked about his father.
Wolfleg, a former prison guard, described his time at residential school. They were forced to sit a certain way, told not to speak their language, and to not talk during meals
“It’s like serving time in a penitentiary … When I went into the military, it was the same thing. Someone is telling you what to do, where to do it and how to do it,” he said.
During his time at the school, he knew what he wanted in his future. He often thought about it at bedtime.
In the summer, the sun hung high at seven o’clock, a time impossible to fall asleep. He looked out the window at the track field. He thought of his father and his older brother, both of whom had served in the military.
“I’m going to be a soldier, and when I come back, I’m going to be a leader of my people.”
Friends that slept beside him at the residential school said that he would make a great leader. He planned the activities outside: sword fighting, cowboys and Indians.
He had charted out his path in life.
The path included joining the Canadian Forces as a member of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. He served for five years and completed several peacekeeping operations before he returned to his home. Afterwards, he completed a woodworking diploma.
However, he was unable to find a job in that field.
He applied to be a police officer in his community of Siksika Nation, and was accepted because of his experience in the military.
As a police officer in his community, Wolfleg witnessed alcoholism and violence – a result of how the abuse that Indigenous people experienced in residential schools had been passed down in their communities.
Whether he was called to stop domestic fights or to halt drunk drivers from making a mistake – his community was in pain.
“To protect people and bring people to justice … That’s who I am today, maintaining order in a different way,” he said.
Despite the hardships in his life, what he had witnessed in residential schools, and the strife of Indigenous people in his community, Wolfleg continues to help bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
An example was his attendance at the Iniskim Centre’s 10th anniversary Celebration at Mount Royal University.
Among the other attendees was Noah Arney, a non-Indigenous person who runs the ASTEP program at Mount Royal University – an Indigenous focused support system – and had often worked with Wolfleg during his two years there.
This was another regular event for both of them. However, when Wolfleg stood up to speak, he gave Arney, an Indigenous name: Miisomipitah.
Arney was speechless. Wolfleg listed the reasons why he bestowed this honour on him, including Arney’s support for Indigenous people.
“Floored…Humbled … It’s been three days now and I’m still processing it,” Arney said.
Clarence Wolfleg is also an elder, a person who guides his community toward a better path in life.
Being an elder isn’t something that can be requested; it is an honour given by the community. An elder guides people, and teaches traditions and all the oral stories that are passed down from generation to generation.
“To respect the things, you have done, and the learning journey that you have traveled. They don’t belong to you, it’s given so it can be passed along to somebody else.”
To Wolfleg, being an elder is important. Some of the experience, despite however traumatic, led him to try and find a better life – to help others in his life.
“It’s a life that I chose, so I can be happy and I can pass on that happiness.”
Wolfleg often speaks at events, including high school and post-secondary students. He speaks of his experiences, trying to pass along the lessons he had learned.
Wolfleg is happy knowing that he has helped so many people along in his life. He believed that he had accomplished most of what he set out to accomplish.
“I’ve hit the pinnacle of my journey, I’ve become a spiritual leader. This is my life … How can you put a price on someone who needs help?”
Editor: Nathan Woolridge | firstname.lastname@example.org