by Anna Penner
When the discovery of unmarked graves near the Kamloops residential school hit the news, I did not know what to feel, or think, or whether I wanted to process this at all. Why do we need to be reminded of this terrible segment of our history? And yet an overwhelming sadness came over me; a sense of sorrow, grief and a dark cloud of depression. I could not block it from my consciousness.
Over the years I have heard many personal stories. These are not simply statistics; these are my friends (from different communities and from different generations) who were personally affected.
As I reflected on how I could be helpful in contributing to the dialogue about the effect of these government policies, I realized that I could simply share the stories of my friends and invite you to listen and care. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
When the government made the initial payouts for residential school survivors in the late ’90s, former students were asked to write their stories so they could qualify for additional financial payouts, if they had also suffered abuse in school. My friend Josie told me that as she was in this group, writing her story, she was surprised when she noticed her friend Benita also writing an account. They had been best friends for years, but had never shared their sexual abuse experience with each other.
I asked Josie, “When you came home for the summer, did you not tell your parents what school was like?” “No, why would I ruin my summer? Once I was off that plane I was free; free to run and play until I had to return in fall.”
One young boy told his parents about what the priest had done to him and was told, “Do not speak such things about Father. He is a holy man.” He learned not to speak.
In one sharing circle a man spoke of his years of abuse. Later he was approached by a lawyer who had heard his story. “Your story is fool proof. I will take your case to court for you. No need to pay. When we win, we will split the difference.” My friend said he thought about that for a few days. He remembered how he had once been unfaithful to his wife, and she had forgiven him. He knew that the Lord had forgiven him for all his sins. When the lawyer called him, he told him that he chose not to prosecute the Anglican priest or the school. The lawyer was very angry. A few years later my friend was walking down a sidewalk in the city and noted an older man ahead of him. He looked very familiar. As he drew alongside he recognized the priest who had been his abuser. “I uttered a hasty ‘I forgive you’ and hurried away.”
My non-Indigenous friend who grew up in the North shared how horrific they found the truth now being exposed. Re-looking at her childhood and knowing these atrocities were happening under their very noses has caused her a lot of grief. She recalls her mother voicing her disagreement about kids being taken from their parents and shares how hard it is to admit the entire system—government, church, schools—was complicit in trying to annihilate fellow Canadians. “I can’t imagine the cruelty, neglect and abuse that the little ones suffered.”
Another friend says, “Yes, it is difficult. Many of us who were there have sought healing and can move forward. Hopefully, all the love and support being shown will help others know that people do care.” The government is providing some counsellors for those who need and seek help.
Indigenous parents were coerced and threatened with jail if they would not allow their children to be taken to school. Once in a home Bible study my husband asked a man to read the next paragraph. He said simply, “I never learned to read.” I wondered how this could be. After all, this is Canada! But he told us that every fall when the plane came in to take the kids to residential school his father would hide their family in the bush. Inwardly, I applauded!
The abuse has repercussions for several generations. One friend told me her dad was beginning to open up about his experience in school. He questions his parenting and wept in remorse that he had not been a better father. But he was far from home when he should have been learning these skills from his parents. What kind of parents would you and I be if we had grown up in an institution with dysfunctional role models? Do not be surprised at the rash of suicides and violence in these communities. Alcohol and drugs dull the pain for many.
My friend Margaret says, “I thought I had those memories safely buried, we never talk about those times even among ourselves. The thing is, no one believed, so we never said anything. I think I am going to be okay. At first it was devastating to have it brought up in the news again. Please, we need prayer. I need to pray….to forgive and be forgiven. What happened to us children made some very bitter and I think I was bitter for a long time. Some of it was good for me anyway but I know not all of us were fortunate. We were not allowed in stores or restaurants. The white men called us names. A lot of the girls had babies, never brought them home, just gave them up.”
What can you and I do?
We can listen, believe them, and acknowledge that they were wronged. We can let people know we are sorry for what happened, and be there for them. We can talk with other non-Indigenous people about how we care about the situation. There are very many out there who don’t care or understand and have negative thoughts, feelings, and comments about Indigenous people. We can help to bring them to a more realistic understanding.
One Indigenous friend says that Christians are under attack in their area. The Native Christians are seen as dishonest and aligning with the churches that committed these atrocities. “But we are just gonna love them and continue to walk with our Lord and be faithful, trusting the Lord that something good is going to come out of this soon. Can you pray for my people?”
We need a respectful approach to a sad and terrible situation. Understand that many Indigenous people are re-traumatized right now and that many truths are coming to the surface. Images, news articles and personal recollections of residential school trigger pain and anger.
Last week a friend from the North texted me and asked whether Bill and I had worked in residential schools. She knew that we had taught in different northern schools. It struck me hard. “What are you thinking of us?” I responded and said, “No”, and then continued to process this with her for a bit. But it reminded me that we should also think of those who are personally guilty of inflicting this abuse on the children. Many are still living. May God give them grace to repent and to acknowledge what they have done. It would be good and courageous for them to come forward and say, “I committed terrible wrongs. I am sorry.” To those who could hear these words, it would help in the healing process and affirm their value as persons.
It takes two to tell a story, one to speak, one to listen. Years ago, when we first helped to organize the Steinbach Bible College Mission Exposure to the North, I asked Cree evangelist, Fred Evans, “What shall I tell the students to prepare them for this experience?” He replied simply, “Listen, listen, listen.”
Yesterday my son and I visited an Indigenous home in Winnipeg. Several of our friends from a northern community were there. We listened. They were concerned about the drinking and drugs which are a pervasive and growing problem in their own families and community. What with COVID-19 restrictions, sickness and deaths, no more church meetings, the smoke and danger from forest fires, and now the intense anger stirred up about the residential school abuses, “We need hope.”
I dare not take the luxury for myself to simply refuse to think about these issues. The writer of the book of Hebrews says, “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3).
Lord help us to be compassionate, to listen, and to pray.
Anna and her late husband Bill taught school in Cormorant and God’s River, Manitoba, for five years between 1959–1967 and pastored the Lynn Lake Gospel Church 1976–1983. They directed the Continental Mission (now part of InterAct Ministries) in Thompson and surrounding communities 1995–2010 and after that travelled back North every month or so to continue to encourage the Christians. Anna currently serves as guest lecturer at SBC for the Residential Schools and Sixties Scoop class in Gord Penner’s InterCultural Ministry course.