By Malcolm McColl
Two separate conferences dedicated to residential school healing were held October 21-24 at the Prince George Civic Centre. The Indian Residential School Survivor Society (www.irsss.ca) hosted sessions on the 21st and 22nd entitled “A Regional Gathering on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Looking Into Canada’s IRS System.” The Carrier Sekani Health Services organized the second two-day conference entitled “We Lez Du Neeh (Letting Go)” in the same venue, and their agenda included a large feast on Friday. Jane Morley, Q.C., one of the commissioners on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, gave a keynote address during the first conference and sat in on the open mike sessions.
The urgency of people to testify overshadowed any controversy about a corresponding resignation of Judge Harry LaForme as Chief Commissioner of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He quit in the middle of the week, but everything proceeded according to agenda. During the open mike sessions, there were many outstanding testimonies and serious discussion about the process of healing at the IRSSS gathering. One man at the microphone said, “They didn’t give us the opportunity to go to the mainstream schools.” Trade schools were also unavailable. He continued, “At that time it was called Prince George College, and they didn’t give us that opportunity to go there either. They didn’t even let us vote until 1960.”
Another strong speaker then took the microphone, a lady who began, “How we treat ourselves as First Nations people leaves a lot to be desired.” She spoke of being uncomfortable even in many First Nations organizations, acknowledging her own issues with trusting people in authority. “There is no trust there,” she said, “How could I relate to these people and how could they relate to me?” She finds it difficult to trust a commission where “the federal government is holding the purse strings” and denounced a lack of function among institutions within the human resources sector. She spoke about struggling with poverty, “I live on six hundred and ten bucks a month. I pay $400 for rent, sometimes $70 for hydro. The rest is my food, my transportation, and the odd pack of cigarettes. And for entertainment? I am lucky if I get a 99 cent cone at McDonalds.” Despite her struggles and concerns she says, “I am on the healing path. I know that I am dysfunctional. I admit it. I owned up to it, and knowing that, I can begin to heal.”
As the woman continued her speech, she pointed out the slogan on the University of Northern BC crest which says, “En Cha S’ay Nuh: He too has life.” On her reserve, there is no water, no well, no electricity, not even a road, so she raises questions, “Don’t they realize that we are human beings just like they are? My blood is just as red as theirs. And whose land are they sitting on anyway?” How can she trust, she wonders, when there is nothing left to call a home. Her parents are gone. Her mother, who passed away a year ago, was in the Lejac Residential School from 1922 to 1930, but never spoke of her experiences there. Still, her daughter says, “Some of the things that she experienced, I can recognize now because they are in me, too.”
She spoke boldly about a government that seems to shrug off the true needs of a people, first going through the Aboriginal Truth and Reconciliation process, and then they “throw a few bones to these Indians.” This speaker wanted to know, “Where in the hell is the healing? I want to be healed first before I get any money so I’ll know what to do with it.” She doubts there are any healing services in Prince George.
Still, she does support the idea of a commission, saying, “It’s an opportunity for us to tell our stories our way, each and every one of us; and when I’m ready, I’ll be there, and I hope you will be too because this is our opportunity to take the reins, to rewrite that history about First Nations people.” She says, “We’re not dumb. We’re not stupid. We’re not lazy. We’re not drunks. We’re not dirty. We’re not savages. We’re human beings. We have heart that we used to have for each other, for the animals, for the land, the respect that we showed to every living creature. We treated everything with respect and that, we lost.”