People across the country this week marked the memory of former students, now survivors, of the Indian Residential School System in Canada.
The Orange Shirt campaign was launched in 2013 and was inspired by the story of one BC First Nation survivor, Phyllis Webstad, and her story of having her favourite orange shirt taken away on her first day at the St. Joseph Mission Indian Residential school.
Now, six years later, September 30 is recognized as a day to raise awareness about the Indian Residential school system.
The intentions are good, but there is something that is deeply disturbing to some survivors of both the Indian Residential and Indian Day School systems — something that needs to be talked about.
Like many indigenous people my age, I am an intergenerational survivor of residential school. I am also a former student of an Indian Day School.
Like many of my peer survivors I have a childhood marked with trauma that left me as an adult who struggles with mental health issues and on Orange Shirt Day — I was triggered.
If you grew up on Six Nations it’s likely that someone in your family experienced significant childhood trauma in either an Indian Residential or Indian Day school. Ours is the longest history of a First Nation interacting with both systems.
The Mohawk Institute, aka the Mush Hole, opened on Six Nations territory in 1831 and was the first formal church-and-state run Indian Residential school in Canada. It operated through to the 1970s.
Simultaneously, Canada’s government and the Anglican Church of Canada co-ran Indian Day Schools in my community for over 130 years — from the 1860s through to the 1990s.
Both systems would eventually be brought into the courts by survivors in separate class-action lawsuits.
The Indian Residential Schools settlement (IRSSA) saw 80,000 former students receive compensation for their “common experience”. It was a wildly unpopular and traumatic memory triggering process that required former students to explain graphic details of any abuse they experienced in order to be compensated. Adjudicators then measured those experiences and assigned a dollar value to what those injuries were “worth”.
Last month, a federal court ruled that those painful accounts documented during the IRSSA process can now be destroyed. Something that has again, triggered a trauma response in several survivors.
One former student I spoke with was overcome with emotion at the news that their story, which was demanded of them and took 60 years to resurface, is now just going into a trash can or shredder somewhere.
The Indian Day Schools class-action reached a similar settlement agreement this summer. Lawyers from Gowling WLG, the firm approved by the courts as class counsel to deal with the class action, say they have established a less intrusive process for the 140,000 potential applicants to acquire compensation.
In total, Canada’s 2016 Census counted more than 705,000 Indigenous people aged 35 and older among its participants. That is on the low end of factual reality. Historically on-reserve Indigenous residents do not participate in the census.
Approximately 86,000 former Indian Residential School students were eligible to apply for compensation in the IRSSA.
The Indian Day Schools settlement now says up to 140,000 former students are eligible in that process.
Those numbers mean that approximately 1/3 of indigenous adults in Canada aged 35 and older were directly impacted by church-and-state run school programs that disrespected our culture, prioritized assimilation and often enabled physical, psychological, spiritual and sexual abuse of students by both staff and peers.
Let me say that again: 1/3 of the adult indigenous population living in Canada today either attended an Indian Residential school or Indian Day school in Canada.
This year, ahead of Orange Shirt Day I got to thinking about my own childhood trauma and the knowledge I carry about the childhood traumas of my loved ones who attended Indian Residential school before me.
I started looking into childhood trauma in general. What are the lifelong implications of experiencing genocide, systemic family separation policies and imposed religion on the brain of a child?
What I found when looking into childhood trauma in general was a vast knowledge base. Did you know that significant childhood trauma can alter brain chemistry and development? Long-term childhood traumas have the potential to develop into a long list of Post Traumatic and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorders that if left untreated can further develop into personality disorders or addiction. Unchecked long term emotional distress can then create a sense of general isolation — one of the greatest risk factors to suicide.
Not surprisingly — the body of work surrounding childhood trauma that is Indian Residential and Indian Day school specific and is easily accessible to the common everyday ‘Googler’ is slim to none.
There is one single Health Canada resource page, published in 2013, that outlines what to do when you are experiencing an emotional response to memories of Indian Residential school.
I kid you not, this is the opening sentence: “Thinking about how Residential School affected you can lead to positive or negative thoughts or memories.”
The page goes on to list suggestions of self-care that survivors of Indian Residential school can do to alleviate a traumatic memory. The suggestions include such nondescript complexities as “be kind to yourself”, “ask for help” and “eat healthy foods”. Ain’t that last one a kicker for the First Nations survivors in the remote north who are plagued with food insecurity and boil water advisories?
There are some quasi-culture related ‘snugglers’ Health Canada added to the list for good measure including “smudge, pray, sing” and “sew, drum, dance”. Which I thought added insult to injury given that both the Indian Residential and Indian Day school systems actively worked to plant and grow culture shame in students.
The September 30 events that made mainstream media overwhelmed me. The giant banner with the names of deceased children was too much. It felt like trauma on parade — and it was colossally unfair. It felt like it was a drama put on, not for us – but for them.
Why is our pain not sacred? Why is everything indigenous eventually objectified for someone else’s benefit?
I was chatting with a friend and she put it perfectly. “The real work of this day is falling almost exclusively on the shoulders of indigenous folks and like, not everyone is feeling that work.”
Eventually, my anger was bubbling over too much. I managed to find that Health Canada does have a National Crisis Line for people to talk to when facing troubling memories about Indian Residential schools to get help 24/7. Their phone number is 1-866-925-4419. I was skeptical but I called them. I was instantly connected to an Annishnabe counsellor somewhere in Quebec and talked to her a bit about how I was feeling. She validated my concerns and helped me get grounded again.
Survivors of Indian Residential Schools finding their voices and telling their stories to Canadians are central and critical to this journey. We need to hold space for them and have those stories heard.
But if another misguided shiny happy person comes through my newsfeed, smiling and flashing a peace sign in their orange shirt, coupled with a hashtag and some inspirational quote — I’m gonna burst.
Don’t get this missed – your #woke Insta moment is not why we are holding space for Survivors.
Orange reminds me of some of the darkest memories of my life that I work really hard to manage in tolerable ways so I can cope with regular everyday life on a daily basis. And to be honest, sometimes I can’t.
When I am triggered — in the worst times the memories come in like a tsunami. Sometimes there is nothing I can do but just float through it and wait until the waters subside. As a mom, that usually means nobody has clean clothes and we end up eating bologna sandwiches and dry cereal until I can set my feet back on dry land again.
It means sometimes the memories take up so much room in my spirit that I can’t find the will to shower or brush my teeth.
It’s trauma. It is real and it is every day.
I hate to say it — but I see more work ahead of us that we as indigenous people have to do. It’s almost like we have reached the epilogue portion of the national dialogue surrounding the Indian Residential school story. And in order to do that work, survivors and intergenerational survivors have to be real and vulnerable. Next year — we need to transition from talking about the historical what, why, when, how and who — and graduate to a national dialogue about the now.
What do the Indian Residential and Indian Day schools stories of the past have to do with the overrepresentation of our people in the statistics of homelessness, mental illness, child welfare, addiction, criminal justice and MMIW of today?
What is it like for survivors with C-PTSD who are suffering both food insecurity and boil water advisories?
Can someone explain how they cope with being an intergenerational survivor dwelling at the intersection of cultural shame and two-spirited identity?
Talk to me about overcoming avoidant personality disorder in the shadow of being a mixed blood woman on-reserve.
Teach me how I can safely access healing through my language and ceremonies when culture hoarding is such a problem in our communities.
These are all real world today problems from the fallout of Indian Residential and Indian Day schools. These are the messages I would love to see on a giant orange banner, paraded in front of a room full of ‘thems’ and broadcast live on national television. That is the bright orange banner Canada needs.