Listening to Survivors

By Chiara Fish

* I wrote this post in July… better late than never…

Several weeks ago I was talking with one of my colleagues about residential schools. Her father was in Winnipeg for the Truth and Reconciliation’s National Event. I didn’t know if or when the TRC would visit Iqaluit, but a few days later I found out the commissioners were in town. That evening I went to the meeting after work.

There were fewer than 40 people present, including the 3 commissioners. Most of those present were Inuit and had a story to share. I was there to listen, learn, and bear witness.

Everyone told different stories – some are still very very angry. One lady said she was NOT proud to be Canadian, that she was a victim of genocide and that she will not forgive the fact that she was kidnapped, taken without permission. Her parents did not permit her to be taken. She spoke in English, the language that was taught to her in residential school so that she could communicate what happened to her in a way that we could all understand…

Others spoke in Innuktitut. They talked about the abuse, the beatings. They described being lured into bedrooms with candy. They talked about not learning to read and write. They talked about losing their culture and language. One lady said she does not know who she is – her identity was stolen. Others said that it was only in the last few years that they realized it wasn’t their fault, that they are valid.

They talked about what it was like to return home: the impact on parents of having children taken away – losing the ability to parent… having children for only a few short weeks or months every year and not being able to parent during that time because it was just too precious.

They talked about losing childhood.

As I sat listening to these horrific stories I felt deeply ashamed of our history and our country.

Some children never came back. Some are still missing. We don’t know where they were buried or what happened to them. There is always an empty chair at TRC events to represent those who never returned, those who have not yet been found.

I am so impressed with the strength and resilience of the people who shared their stories. It takes incredible courage to talk about what happened, and this community has strong people to heal and rebuild.

Some talked about the future – what youth today are lacking. One commissioner quoted an elder from another community, saying that we must not move into the future looking backwards… but that history is essential to understand where we are today. Today’s youth must understand the history to understand the present and why they and their community are where they are, to understand the problems and challenges they face.

As a Jew I have grown up listening to Holocaust survivors’ stories. In kindergarten my teacher was a survivor, and ever since I can remember I have had the privilege of listening to survivors’ stories. Survivors are our links to our history. All Canadians need to hear residential school survivors’ stories. It is the only way we will learn about our history and understand the present.

As I sat at the back of the room with tears rolling down my cheeks I felt a hand on my back. The lady standing there asked me if I wanted to talk, and told me that she was a facilitator. I said no thank you, I just wanted to listen. In the ultimate irony, this residential school survivor was comforting me.

(For more information about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: www.trc.ca)

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