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Moving forward

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Watching people moved to both tears and laughter during the sixth Sacred Heart Mission School Reunion, Joachim Bonnetrouge said more people than ever before are choosing to confront the haunting legacy of residential schools.

More than 50 people attended this year's reunion held in the community hall in Fort Providence from Aug. 17-19. This is the largest attendance yet for the event which attracted 19 people last year and has an average response of 35-40 participants.

NNSL photo

Fred Cazon of Edmonton, right, belts out a tune with some back-up from Johnny Landry and his band during the mini-talent show for participants of the Sacred Heart Mission School Reunion. - photo courtesy of Phoebe Parent

"That means that more people are beginning to be more comfortable to learn more or to recall what they experienced at the mission school," said Bonnetrouge, the coordinator for the Fort Providence Residential School Society that organizes the reunion.

Former students travelled from Yellowknife, Fort Simpson, Fort Liard, Hay River, Tulita and a number of cities in Alberta including Edmonton, Calgary and Slave Lake to attend this year's reunion.

For the people who attended the Sacred Heart Mission school the reunion is like a homecoming said Bonnetrouge. Some spent up to 10 years at the school and then left the community. The reunion is the first time they've come back.

"People are coming together because they feel they need more support from each other," said Margaret Leishman, a former student and one of the facilitators at the reunion.

"It's almost like a huge family."

The reunion also gives people the chance to remember and relate what they went through at the school. Many survivors are still working through a number of issues, said Bonnetrouge.

There is a lot of trauma associated with being removed from your family and community and being brought to a strange place, he said. On top of that are the physical abuses performed by the people that ran the school. Examples include strapping, hitting with scissors, rulers and mop handles, said Bonnetrouge.

"The list could just go on and on," he said.

Bonnetrouge spent 13 years at the school. In Fort Providence the Sacred Heart Orphanage ran from 1860-1930 and the school from 1930-1960.

Many memories come out during the sharing circles at the reunion. By sharing their stories people come to understand that they aren't alone in their experiences, Bonnetrouge said.

"There's a lot of validation," he said.

Facilitators at the reunion encourage people to realize that remembering and sharing stories is part of letting go and each time it gets easier.

"You never forget but if you can get to the place of forgiveness your life really gets better," said Bonnetrouge.

Another positive aspect of this year's reunion was the fact that some survivors brought their children along, he said.

"That's very significant," Bonnetrouge said.

Some of the children participated in the sharing circles and helped prepare food. Bonnetrouge would like to see more of this kind of participation.

Many young people don't realize what happened to their parents and relatives, he said. The legacy of residential schools isn't widely seen in history books or taught in schools, he said.

For Laura Villeneuve attending the reunion was a positive experience.

"It was kind of sad, but it was fun," said Villeneuve.

This was the first time that Villeneuve, originally from Fort Simpson but now living in Slave Lake, Alta., has attended the reunion. Villeneuve said she met with lots of old friends that she hadn't seen for years.

Villeneuve spent one year at the Sacred Heart Mission school. She said she can only imagine what people who attended the school for years feel.

"It was hard times," she said.