Sharing the pain
Residential school healing group formed in Fort Providence

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

FORT PROVIDENCE (Jan 22/99) - "All I want is to be happy."

Sadly, that's the unofficial motto the Fort Providence residential school healing group has adopted.

The group, which met last week to begin the formal process of becoming a society, is comprised of those who attended Sacred Heart school in Fort Providence and reportedly suffered from egregious actions at the hands of the school's authority figures.

Some of the abusive acts were verbal, others physical and still others were spiritual, said healing group members Nick Sibbeston and Joachim Bonnetrouge. The school, which was run by Roman Catholic missionaries and nuns from 1859 to 1958, was designed to remove every shred of aboriginal identity, according to Sibbeston, who now lives in Fort Simpson.

He recalls the "dehumanizing" process of children being removed from the homes in the bush, having their bag of belongings taken away, their hair was cut and they were all forced to wear coveralls. In addition, they were often referred to as "savages." Some were baptized and given saints' names.

"It's the whole process of taking your dignity away, taking your person away," he said, adding that boys and girls were segregated and anyone who spoke Slavey was chastised.

Bonnetrouge, a resident of Fort Providence, said he remembers being taken away from his family in the bush by RCMP officers who were under orders from the local priest. He also recalls a heavy emphasis on guilt and punishment. He said he "manufactured" sins for confession each week because anyone claiming not to have "impure" thoughts was thought to be a liar.

Margaret Leishman, from Kakisa, added that First Nations children were taught to be ashamed of their bodies and forced to bathe to remove their "odour."

Sibbeston added, "There was a lot of fear."

Consequently, many students formed a shell, he said. They didn't receive love and therefore weren't able to express it to others.

"Why didn't the sisters and the priests show a little bit of love? Why didn't they show kindness, gentleness to the kids in their care? That's the question that keeps popping into my mind," said a sombre Sibbeston. "When I came out of there, I wanted to burn every church I have a lot of anger."

Now, the group is hoping to reach out to those who endured similar traumas and worse. Bonnetrouge figures there are up to 2,000 people still alive who attended the school. They would be encouraged to become members.

Sibbeston said, "There's very much of a bond among us...when we share, you feel like you're relieved and not alone."

As a society, the residential school group will be eligible to receive funds from the $350-million Aboriginal Healing Foundation. Those funds would be used for things such as healing workshops, like the group first held close to two years ago.

"I guess we're really wanting to heal from these hurts and to be assistants to those parents who had their children taken away from them," Sibbeston said. He added that he hasn't ruled out the possibility of pursuing financial compensation, but asserted that it wasn't his primary motive.

He, Bonnetrouge and Leishman all agreed that the inhumane treatment they received in the school is largely responsible for the numerous social problems found in the North. Many have difficulties raising families, experience depression and wind up with addictions, he contended.

"If that cycle is not broken, we know now that it's generational," said Bonnetrouge. "We have to start naming those demons, what is plaguing us. Hopefully, one day we will be happy, normal people with happy, normal families."

The road to happiness lies in training people to work in the communities, to build awareness and put support mechanisms in place, according to Bonnetrouge. Land-based programs should be an alternative for families who won't attend meetings and workshops, he added.

"Maybe it'll do something," he said.