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Residential school trauma
Speakers make suggestions on how to move forward as Truth and Reconciliation Commission meets in Fort Simpson

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's recent one-day hearing in Fort Simpson concluded on a similar note as those held elsewhere with many asking how do survivors heal and move forward.

NNSL photo/graphic

Andy Norwegian, centre, is supported by Margaret Leishman, left, and Connie McNab as he speaks before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Fort Simpson on Nov. 23. - Roxanna Thompson/NNSL photo

Commissioner Marie Wilson listened to the personal testimony of 16 people who chose to make public statements before the commission. Fifteen people also chose to make private statements on Nov. 23.

Still felt today

The effects of residential school are still felt today in communities, said Chief Jim Antoine of Liidlii Kue First Nation.

While many people have been able to put their negative residential school experiences behind them and experience success, there are many who are still hurting, Antoine told Wilson during his public statement.

There are people who haven't had the opportunity to deal with what they experienced, he said.

Antoine spoke briefly about his own residential school experience, after he was picked up by a mission boat in 1955, when he was six years old. Antoine didn't see his parents again for 10 months.

"There was a lot of heartbreak in that," he said.

As a young child in residential school, you learn how to survive, he said. Antoine said the treatment he received from nuns and supervisors has had an impact on how he's dealt with situations throughout his life.

Antoine told Wilson the question is where do we go from here, adding he'd like to see Fort Simpson become a healthy community. For that to happen, different organizations and governments will have to work together, he said.

It's simple to say you want a healthy community but it will be a hard thing to reach, Antoine said.

During his public statement, Ernest Tonka said a support system is needed in the community.

Tonka told Wilson –and the gymnasium full of people at Bompas Elementary School – he suffered sexual and physical abuse in residential school.

"What we went through in that school system was terrible," he said. "We suffered, we were abused."

Tonka said he wants the Canadian government to know what people went through in the schools. As a result of residential school Tonka said he became an angry, violent young man and an alcoholic.

Tonka said he lived with depression, stress, anxiety and also attempted suicide. Although it was difficult to talk before the commission, Tonka said he was grateful to tell his story and the community was able to hear him.

"I hope this is not the end, I hope this is the beginning," he said.

Andy Norwegian said support is needed for survivors, their children and their grandchildren because the effects of residential school are inter-generational. Norwegian, who's originally from Jean Marie River, questioned how the effects of residential school can be traced and how young people can be helped to heal.

During his public statement, Norwegian raised a topic many other speakers during the day touched on: while at residential school, male and female students, even brothers and sisters, weren't allowed to talk and interact.

Shortly after entering Lapointe Hall in Fort Simpson at the age of 13, Norwegian and all of the other students were called into the gym. Three boys had been caught going into the girls' side of the residence.

The offending boys were made to strip down to their undershorts and lay face down on a table where they were hit with a leather strap that had a handle. The person inflicting the punishment used both hands to wield the strap, Norwegian said.

"You could hear the impact throughout the whole gymnasium," he said.

Norwegian said a similar incident happened again the next year.

"I was a very angry man after that," he said.

On another occasion, Norwegian saw two young boys, ages 10 or 11, coming down for a meal holding up another boy between them who could barely walk. The injured boy died shortly after.

Left wondering

Norwegian said he's been left wondering who those two boys were and how that incident affected them, as well as how residential school affected other people who haven't had the chance to tell their stories.

Throughout the day-long hearing, almost everyone who gave a public statement talked about suffering some form of abuse. Most of the speakers began crying during their statements and the crowd in the gymnasium remained very quiet, only breaking into applause after each speaker was finished.

During her closing remarks, Wilson said she heard the community's request to take survivors' residential school experiences to the people of Canada and the world so they would understand what happened and the consequences.

Canadians and others have an obligation to know and remember what happened in residential schools and to take responsibility for how we move forward, she said.

Wilson said she has no doubt that what people talked about did happen in residential schools and that it wasn't right.

"It should not have happened and none of it was your fault," she said.

All of the gathered statements will be archived in a national research centre being created as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's mandate. Depending on the type of consent the speaker gave, their statement could be used for research or education purposes and be available for use in documentaries and for their family members to see.

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