On Canada’s first National Truth and Reconciliation Day, our goal is to amplify Indigenous voices in honour of the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, their families and communities.
We sat down with Daisy House, Chief of Cree Nation of Chisasibi, to talk about what this day means to her and her community. She discusses how recent discoveries of the mass graves at former Residential schools have affected her community, and what non-Indigenous allies do to support Indigenous people and make meaningful progress towards reconciliation.
The discovery of the remains of 215 children in a mass grave shocked Canadians even though the Truth and Reconciliation Report mentions that over 4,000 died in residential schools and that that number is likely much higher. How did this discovery of the mass grave in Kamloops affect your community?
I always remember the day when our community organized a vigil in front of the high school on May 31st soon after the announcement of the discovery of the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops BC. I also recall several community members approaching me and sharing their stories wherever I saw them. They were all heart wrenching. I cannot imagine what they went through. I cannot not imagine parents being forced to send their children to residential school as young as 4 years old. Some never to see them again or only seeing them once a year during the summers. One lady said her mom told her the community was different without the children.
As you can imagine, the recent events have triggered many members of our community. One person came to me when the Kamloops news surfaced. He almost went back to his ways of addiction. He attended residential schools, and the trauma he experienced disrupted his life. On the second day at residential school when he was only five years old, he was abused and witnessed abuse happen to other children. He even told another older child about it and was told “that’s what they do here”. He is now proud to be home and doing quite well. He admits, he has his moments. Everyone is different, and not all situations are the same. That’s why I cringe when people say get over it. It is easier said than done. Most people will never understand the intergenerational trauma of the residential school era which continues to plague our people, our communities and nations.
They have held vigils for people to reflect. We were handling it before, but this has brought things back to the surface. We will be consulting our elders, the survivors, Residential school group committee, support groups and our community on next steps. The elders and the survivors will take the lead and the Cree Nation of Chisasibi will be there to support and help with next steps. It will be a challenge as we relocated from the island of Fort George to the mainland – new community of Chisasibi due to Hydro-Quebec development in 1979-80.
We will be discussing whether Ground-penetrating radar – GPR will be done at Fort George near the former residences and the schools. Buildings at Fort George were burned, demolished and buried so it will be more challenging identifying unmarked grave sites if we do decide to proceed with the GPR. Moreover, with the overgrowth of trees and unlevelled land. Fort George had the first two residential schools in Quebec. Over the years, there were rumours that nuns and children had babies and they would be burned in a furnace. The basement of one of the schools was like a prison.
There are some support groups in the community for Indian Residential School survivors. Some members of our community have dealt with the underlying issues, but others have not. Some are upset by the gatherings because they trigger them. Some saw children beaten and left outside in the winter and later dying. Our elders have always taught us there is no way to move on if you don’t forgive – it is through forgiveness that we can move forward. This position is a traditional belief. I had a hard childhood and learned to forgive. My parents never spoke to me about what happened at residential school. However, they may have with my older siblings.
Many people are not ready to forgive and others will be angry at the system. How can we blame anyone for being angry? After all, they were all innocent little children. Many of them not understanding what was happening to them at such a young age. As the Native American proverb says, “Never judge another man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
Some of our people die from their addictions. Resilience can help. Our elders knew this as they had to deal with deaths out on the land and still had to go hunting and provide for their families and community. We are slowly losing those values. It is through storytelling and even at general meetings that we often learn from our elders of our old ways. Others just can’t forgive and they stay angry. Unfortunately, after 45 years since the signing of the JBNQA, there is still no treatment centre in Eeyou Istchee for our people where they can speak Cree, our first language. But the Cree Health Board is planning to build one soon.
Indian Residential Schools operated until 1997, which wasn’t that long ago. Did people from your community attend a residential school? What did attending residential school mean? Did children get to see their families? Did families have a choice?
One member of our community was only two years old when she was sent to an Indian Residential School because her mother had died. Some children weren’t allowed to see their families even if in town or couldn’t because their families would be out at their inland or coastal camps and would only come back to Fort George in the summer for provisions. They would leave the whole year either by foot, dog sled teams or canoe to be out on the land.
What do you see as the impacts of the residential school system on your community? Are people in your community who never attended residential schools impacted by the fact their parents or grandparents attended these schools?
Many people never talk about what happened, even couples don’t talk about their experiences to one another or their children and grand children due to the trauma. Some are angry that the emotions are resurfacing and others are angry because they were deprived of the elders just to name a few reasons. Those who lost their lives at residential schools would have grown up to be the elders of our respective communities. How many graves are there that we don’t know about? Survivors are continuing to meet with elders and have plans to eventually erect a monument and interpretive panels so we don’t forget.
What can non-Indigenous allies do to support Indigenous people and communities in recovering from the impacts of the Indian residential school system?
We need a healing centres and a treatment centre for the Cree Nation. Governments need to address housing shortages and the overcrowding in homes which exacerbates social and health issues.
What are we doing to adapt with the times, to evolve and offer services, education opportunities and economic development?
Adult Education and/or Cegep level programs need to be hybrid part-time/full-time so that it is more accessible for northern and isolated communities. Full-time studies aren’t for everyone. How can they do these programs full-time if they have children? The Early childhood education program offered through the Cree Nation Government Child and Family Services Department is one of the most successful Cegep Attestation programs in Eeyou Istchee. It is successful because it is offered in each of our respective communities as there is community support when offered in community. Having to go to school down south outside of our community it sometimes feels like residential school all over again for some people. Yes, some do leave the community but many prefer to stay in the community to upgrade their skills so that they have support and can continue to practice their traditional pursuits just to name a few examples as there are many more to consider.
My son was being bullied at school and in speaking with him, I realized that the kids doing the bullying were struggling in school so I spoke with the principal saying these kids need help at school. So I told the principal to help those kids and to provide tutoring programs and remedial help so they could catch up and hopefully pass their school year.
As a community, we have raised concerns about the impacts of social issues, and alcohol and drug abuse with the Cree Health Board. We also have some community members who are in and out of jails who have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder. It is 100% preventable if people don’t do drugs or drink during pregnancy. Marijuana is causing significant problems with young men/boys who are having mental health issues now. However, I do not know the percentages of cases. Once we have the data then we can determine our next steps. How and where should be our focus. For a community of 5000 plus, are we talking about less than 500?
In spite of the many challenges, we have to remain optimistic that we can surmount the obstacles for the betterment of our people, our communities, our Nation and especially for future generations. Education, awareness and prevention programs are essential and key.
Food insecurity is an issue as it is also impossible for many to live on a student allowance. A full cart of groceries costs $700 for one week for 4 people. Meat is the most expensive and the reason why many need to go out on the land to hunt. However, we sometimes cannot practice traditional activities without money, as we have to use canoes, snowmobiles to get to our respective inland and coastal traplines. There are 40 traplines just in Chisasibi.
We also need the governments to understand the realities of our people. We are the same but different – we are Canadians, we are Quebecers, we are Cree, but even from one community to the next we have different values and priorities. Where we came from, where we are, and where we want to go. Rather than always having a win-lose argument why can’t we just understand each other? We need to be creative and understanding. It isn’t always about throwing money at the issues – we need programs and services that enable us to better the lives of our members while giving us the tools to maintain those programs and services such as land-based programs.
After all, our elders have always said that being out on the land is medicine for the mind, body and soul. Miyupimatisiiun – living well. We will continue to strive to do what is best for our people through our Cree Language, Cree customs, traditions, teachings, storytelling, legends and parables. Our ancestors are proof that we can surmount any challenge if we work collaboratively with various stakeholders and persevere as our elders are true examples of how resilient we are as a nation. There is always a teaching or lessons in every story or legend. We just have to find it, understand it and move forward in life.