When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched in 2008, more than 7,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis people from across Canada shared their stories and experiences of attending residential schools. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report.
According to the report, an estimated 150,000 children were placed in residential schools, with survivors recounting the physical, emotional and/or sexual abuses they endured. Diseases like tuberculosis spread rampantly through these schools, and of the 139 schools that operated between 1883 to 1996, 53 burned down.
Over 6,000 children died as a result of residential schools.
Now 21 years after the last school shut its doors in 1996, the scars caused by Canada’s residential school system and Canada’s overall treatment of Indigenous People still shows on individuals, and in communities across Canada.
But what does truth and reconciliation mean on a personal level?
These are the stories of three First Nations people from very different walks of life as they give an account of what Truth and Reconciliation means to them.
Tina Fox, 76, residential school survivor, Nakoda First Nation
When you hear the words “residential school” what comes to mind?
“I see a three-story building with white walls and a red roof and anger. It brings up anger because that’s where you were called a dirty Indian, a stupid Indian, you’ll never amount to anything,” says Tina Fox, an elder from the Nakoda First Nation in Morley, Alta. located 73 km west of Calgary
“We were strapped and hit with books or rulers. It brings that up.”
Fox attended the Morley Residential School for 10 years, where she endured the emotional and physical abuse that Canada’s residential school system inflicted on First Nations people across the country.
Fox was raised by her Cree grandmother in Morley but was forced to attend the school at a young age.
At 12 she was forbidden to speak the Blackfoot language that she grew up with. She also recalls how First Nations people who lived on the reserve were forbidden from leaving without consent from the “Indian agent.”
"I see a three-story building with white walls and a red roof, and anger." — Tina Fox
“If you left, then you were arrested,” she says.
Now 76, Fox has been a powerful voice for First Nations people for most of her life. In 1976, she was the first woman to be elected to the Wesley First Nation in Morley and she served as a councillor for 14 years, non-consecutively. In 2000, she retired from her position as a councillor and moved to Brandon, Man. to chase after a Bachelors of First Nations and Aboriginal Counseling degree.
Fox graduated in 2003 and was hired by the Stoney Education Authority in southern Alberta. She is still working with the organization as a counsellor and elder, passing down knowledge and equipping students with traditional teachings.
She married and had five children but two have died, along with her husband.
For Fox, truth and reconciliation has two meanings. Truth means telling the stories of people who survived residential schooling, as well as shining a light on the treatment of First Nations after Treaty 7 was signed.
“Some schools were even worse than ours with the horrendous abuses that took place,” she says. “That has to be told.”
“But when you tell your story, there are some people who say, ‘oh get over it. You’re just making it up,’” she continues. “It wasn’t made up.”
In terms of reconciliation, Fox says a lot of healing has gone on but there is still a long way to go. She appreciates the apology that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave to Indigenous people and she says she was “touched” when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that Canada needs to do more for Indigenous peoples.
However, she knows that there are some who are still struggling with the trauma they experienced.
“In my community, there are survivors who are older than me who will not talk about residential schools at all,” Fox says.
There are some people who have also refused to accept compensation from the government, including Fox’s stepmother, Margaret Hunter. Fox says her stepmother passed away still holding onto the pain of her experience.
However, to move forward Fox says, “we have to forgive. Never forget but let go of the sorrow and pain.”
Fox hopes that a stronger dialogue between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people will be fostered to push the discussion of Truth and Reconciliation further. As an educator and elder, she is hoping to see the lessons and experiences of Indigenous people taught in schools and implemented into the curriculum during her lifetime.
She hopes that Canadians never forget what people like her went through.
“Those who can speak up have to tell our stories and get it out there. We have to deal with sorrow and pain and move on,” she says.
“And we need to make sure that residential schools never happen again.”
Dion Simon, 49, son of two residential school survivors, Ermineskin Cree First Nation
When you hear the words “residential school” what comes to mind?
“I’m a 49-year-old Plains Cree, Status Indian man and I don’t know my language as a result of residential schools. My parents don’t speak it because of residential schools. I can’t own a pipe because I don’t know my language, I can’t own a sweat lodge because I don’t know my language, I can’t be in ceremony because I don’t know my language,” says Dion Simon, medicine trail program administrator with Mount Royal University’s (MRU) Iniskim Centre.
“Our ceremonies are our bloodline, our songs are our DNA, our language is our DNA, and it has been stripped from us.”
Growing up on the Ermineskin Cree Nation near Maskwacis, Alta. — 235 km northeast of Calgary — was not easy for Simon. Both of his parents were enrolled in residential schools as children and he experienced firsthand how the cycle of trauma and abuse has echoed through generations.
Simon’s mother spent eight years at a residential school and due to the experiences she faced there, he says, “I do not know what it’s like to feel [and] to have a loving mother. I’ve never been loved and I’ve never been hugged by my mother. She still lives today but I don’t know what it’s like.”
"Our ceremonies are our bloodline, our songs are our DNA, our language is our DNA, and it has been stripped from us." — Dion Simon
His father experienced similar trauma. “My father went to residential schools in Ermineskin and Hobbema and as a result of that, my father started to drink at eight years of age. He’s 68 years of age today, and he’s still an alcoholic as a result of residential schools,” says Simon.
“I do not know what it’s like to have a father. I have no idea.”
Simon’s own memories of growing up contain stark images of abuse. He says there were times when he endured physical abuse, and there were other abuses such as the use of substances and alcohol that shadowed him.
“There was an attempt on suicide,” he says. “It was all there.”
In 2000, Simon moved away from the Ermineskin reserve and came to Calgary. He went to school and got an education. He then began working with MRU’s Iniskim Centre in 2011 as a cultural advisor and the medicine trail program administrator.
But most importantly, he began to forgive.
“It was a lot of forgiveness. Forgiveness of who I was, forgiveness of what I experienced,” says Simon.
He says the process of forgiveness was really easy. “In our Indigenous ways [and] in who we are as spirit beings … we cannot see harm and hurt, blame and violence, come from another human soul. We can’t see that.”
“It’s the same way as we don’t see a word for ‘goodbye’ or ‘death,’ we don’t see words related to this,” he says. “In terms of hate and violence, we couldn’t see one being in that nature, so forgiveness was quite easy.”
Looking forward, Simon acknowledges that despite the efforts to find truth and begin reconciliation, more needs to be done between government, Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people.
If he had the undivided attention of the premier, prime minister and mayor, Simon would tell them to, “listen to the 1.4 million Indigenous people of Canada who have lived, ate and slept the Treaty, the Indian Act, the residential school, colonization and assimilation for over 500 years and really put yourselves in their shoes.”
He is also hoping for more investment into First Nations communities and for post-secondary students. He wants to see an increased dialogue between groups as this would highlight the history, circumstances and barriers faced in these communities.
“My belief is that Canada continues to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and [Canadians] hold within their heart every word that was shared by all 7,000 residential school survivors.”
Trevor Solway, 25, grandson of residential school survivors, Siksika First Nation
When you hear the words “residential school” what comes to mind?
“A lot of imagery, a lot of black and white photos. There’s one on my reserve that still stands today. It was called St. Mary’s residential school but it’s since been renovated to be a community college … I’ve been in that building a lot and it’s always in your mind.”
“To me, it always has been a building that has had an eerie vibe to it, but then I hear elders come into the school [after many renovations], they can be like, ‘you know, you can paint these walls, you can do this and that but it still has the same kind of smell, it still has the same kind of structure and feelings and still has the same kind of appearance,’” says Trevor Solway, a documentary filmmaker, journalist and recent Mount Royal University graduate from the Siksika First Nation.
Solway grew up with a strong desire to tell stories. However, he says he wasn’t the best oral storyteller due to a speech impediment and his knack for “going on-and-on.”
He then started channelling his love for storytelling into creative writing and eventually, documentary filmmaking.
There were not a lot of opportunities for him to explore filmmaking on the Siksika reserve. He says he would get excited whenever he saw posters or advertisements promoting student filmmaking camps but his excitement would deflate when he realized the camps were in Calgary — over 95 km away from Siksika — and he wouldn’t be able to go.
"I don’t think everybody is ready to reconcile, and I think we need to decolonize and take care of those people who are not ready before we can reconcile,” he says. “Some work needs to be done for those people who are still in a hurt place and who are so resentful to Canada. And then we can move forward." — Trevor Solway
There were other challenges that he needed to face as he got older, especially when TV or movies would try to “romanticize” certain stereotypes or depict First Nations people as if they were stuck in a time capsule.
“I grew up on a ranch and I used to really want to be like my uncles who were cowboys and really great horseman, and when we watched those [western] movies, I’d be like, ‘oh man I want to be John Wayne,’” Solway says.
“But then when we would go to school, we find out that we’re not John Wayne, we’re the villains and the savages and the people that John Wayne kills, so there was a harsh wake up call when I was a kid going to school and I realized that I was rooting for the wrong side this whole time.”
For Solway, the discussion around truth and reconciliation is good intentioned but is just the beginning of a larger process to break down the systemic oppression that still affects Indigenous people across the country.
For example, in 1996 the federal government put a cap on the amount of money that would be provided to First Nations through transfer payments. Solway says the population of First Nations people has increased from 700,000 to an estimated 1.4-million from 1996 to 2017, but the amount of funding for reserves and First Nations has remained relatively the same.
Because of this lack of adequate funding, Solway says it is increasingly difficult to build schools, health clinics and other necessary services on reserves.
“Populations are growing but our cap of money is set [to] when we were a small population,” he says. “You’ll see a lot of places that don’t have a lot of infrastructure on reserves to help them with these things, so the systematic oppression has been in place for a long time and they’re still in place today.”
“So when you say truth and reconciliation, it’s trying to move forward past these wrongdoings that have been done to us but I think the way it’s happening now, we need to actually see these systems get broken down,” Solway says..
“Acknowledging you’re on Treaty 7 land is nice but it’s still kind of surface level.”
Solway says he is ready to reconcile but understands that there are people who will have a harder time with reconciliation.
“I don’t think everybody is ready to reconcile, and I think we need to decolonize and take care of those people who are not ready before we can reconcile,” he says. “Some work needs to be done for those people who are still in a hurt place and who are so resentful to Canada... and then we can move forward.”
Solway will be screening his newest short documentary called Trench at the imagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto on Oct. 22, 2017. He has also setup student film camps in Siksika to give kids the same opportunity that he didn’t have while growing up.
- By Tyler Ryan