[First posted in November 2011 on www.deepeningcommunity.ca]
Free Spirit was wrenched away from his mother, sister, and Algonquin community when he was four years old. At the residential school where he was taken, a nun gave him a new pair of shoes, which he immediately plunged into a sink filled with water. The beating he received came as a shock. His people always soaked their new moccasins and chewed on them to soften the leather.
Free Spirit is among thousands of survivors of Indian residential schools, who were forced as children from their homes by government decree and church complicity across Canada and the United States. This tragic and misguided effort at assimilation lasted almost two centuries, and its legacy lived on in ruptured families and broken lives. Thankfully, Canada has begun the difficult process of hearing the truth and moving toward healing.
On the morning of Wednesday, October 26, ashes from national Truth and Reconciliation hearings in Winnipeg and Inuvik were placed in the Sacred Fire lit at the site of the Nova Scotia legislature, symbolizing national unity. For four days, a few blocks away, testimonies poured forth in Halifax from survivors: painful and poignant stories of isolation, malnourishment, sexual abuse, and regular beatings in an effort to “kill the Indian in the child.”
At the end of each day, all the tissues used by those who were speaking and those of us who were listening were collected and given to the Sacred Fire—a gathering up and releasing of all the tears. We became a community for a moment forged together in lament.
But we were also bound together in hope by the resilience and humor of the survivors. As children, they had cared for one another, the oldest surrounding the youngest in cold weather to keep them warm, sheltering the weakest and most vulnerable with them in their beds at night.
Fredda knew exactly when the sun would strike a wall each day, where he could make shadow plays he described as “Three Stooges antics” to make the little ones laugh in that sad place where they were forced to live. He boldly rescued his friend Jonathan—so small he had been carried to the school in a basket—from a table where he had been tied by the predatory hands of an alcoholic, pedophile priest. And he snuck out a window and down a fire escape regularly at night to milk a cow in the barn and bring back nourishment for Jonathan and the other young ones.
As Commissioner Marie Wilson expressed it so poignantly to the survivors in her final remarks, “Many of you have said that there was no love in those schools. It was not in the places children should expect it. But you were that love. You brought it with you.”
On Saturday night, at the conclusion of the hearings, we all shared a feast that culminated in a birthday party, complete with candles and a thousand cupcakes. We sang “Happy Birthday” in Mi’kmaq, Innu, Inuktitut, Tlingit, French, and English. Tears and laughter mingled and flowed freely among the survivors, who as children had never had their birthdays remembered or celebrated.
We can never replace stolen childhoods. But Canada is forging a courageous path, facing the truth of its past, offering apology and reparation, reclaiming and honoring its diversity of communities and cultures. May it bear much fruit in reconciliation and hope.