I understand that a lot of aboriginal students have trouble adjusting to post-secondary life. Is it fair to say they have difficulties because they’re away from their families and things that are familiar to them?
You could say that. Some of these people may be the first person out of their family to go to college or university. So there’s no gauge for them to judge by — there’s nobody they can really talk to about it. So they’re kind of going into it blindly — they’re not prepared for it, for participating in class, being able to speak in front of people and do presentations.
Most of the time it’s the elders doing the talking. Everybody listens to the elders, so we’re used to listening. So it’s uncomfortable for us to do presentations in front of the class. We’re not used to it, so sometimes that makes it a little tough.
At ACC, we have the Cultural Centre, where they can escape from that for a little bit. Talk to me, talk to (aboriginal services/employment officer) Crystal Bunn — we share our ideas with them on how to maybe get over some of those hurdles. And then sometimes they’ve got some personal stuff, too, that comes along with the residential schools.
Did any of your relatives go to residential school?
My mother went to day school, it was called, with nuns. She didn’t live there, but there was still the physical abuse. They would hit her on the back with a ruler if she wasn’t sitting up straight.
You said you grew up in a loving home, but despite that, because of your Ojibway heritage, you had some questions about why so many of your contemporaries were having trouble adjusting to life.
We always lived off-reserve. But it still wasn’t easy, because we grew up in usually non-aboriginal communities. Sometimes there were maybe one or two aboriginal families there, and that made it tough. And I think when I was growing up, there wasn’t a very positive outlook on aboriginal people. And you’d feel that. It’s like an energy that keeps coming at you. And after a while, you start believing it. So you start feeling bad about yourself and look at yourself in a negative way, too. And I think that’s how some of our students feel when they come into a place like the college — they might feel left out, or not included sometimes. But that’s not everybody. I think the majority of our students do have a positive experience. But there are a few who don’t.
You went through a rough time and experimented with alcohol, which became a bit of an issue for a while.
It was kind of a way to escape those feelings of not fitting in. So you’d have friends that would offer you stuff and you’d say, "Yeah,’ because you want to be part of the group. For me, sometimes, it was just to stop thinking about stuff, to just get away, to kind of be numb from those feelings of being not valued or looked on in a negative way.
I think education helped me out quite a bit that way. It gave me tools that I didn’t have before to get over those feelings.
You inspired me, as you know, probably 10 or 11 years ago with your presentation on the residential schools. And I still feel there’s a percentage of the white population who just still figure, ‘OK — that was years ago, and it wasn’t you — it might have been a parent or grandparent — so just get over it.’ I don’t think they understand the implications for future generations of the physical, sexual and emotional abuse that happened in those places.
Well, a lot of it was done when they were little kids, so some of them were four or five years old. And if people think about the kids in their lives right now — daughters, son, grandchildren — and think of them when they were five, to have them taken away. There was no choice. If they didn’t allow their children to be take them away, the parents would go to jail.
And that was because the government of the day decreed that the aboriginals were going to be taken to these schools and…
Be assimilated. ‘To wipe the Indian out of the child’ — that was the goal. And if you think about these kids, as they’re growing up this way, in the residential school, that’s all they know — that’s all they know how to feel or react. All they know is abuse. So it becomes normal for them. And it becomes what they pass down to their kids.
They didn’t have any parenting skills because they’d never been parented. And the education, I don’t think, was the greatest. You’d learn to read a little bit, and write, and do math, but I think it was mostly doing labour jobs. So you’d go to school or church in the morning, and in the afternoon you’d work in the fields or the garden. And those were the skills these kids were coming out with. So once they were ready to leave, they were left in between. Because they’re not part of their community any longer, and they’re not part of white society — they’re stuck in the middle. So where do they go? They go to the streets, because they don’t belong anywhere. Some of our kids today are in that same boat. It gets passed down from generation to generation, so it’s still there. It’s not being dealt with. It’s not being fixed.
That’s because, though, these children had no examples of parenting — some of them went away to the residential schools at age five and didn’t see their parents for 10 years. So this was the only life they knew. And if you don’t have parents to model behaviour, or a family to grow up in, it makes it impossible to raise your own children, right?
Right. They don’t have parenting skills, so their children are raised in what might be an abusive home or a home that lacks direction, so they don’t have parenting skills, so it’s a vicious cycle that’s almost impossible to break.
Not all staff were like that, though. There were some good staff who were there for good reasons to help the kids.
But you look at the children who went to those schools — they ended up having kids, and the parenting skills weren’t there. And then you get into the Sixties Scoop, where Child and Family Services comes into play, and again they’re taking kids away and putting them in foster homes. And that’s when we heard about kids getting killed in foster homes, or sexually abused, physically abused, mentally abused — again. So it’s a repeat of what happened in residential schools.
So those people who were at the schools, their children, their children’s children, often turn to drugs and alcohol, as you did, for an escape — to numb these feelings of worthlessness.
Yes — just to forget about stuff and not think about it anymore. It’s probably calming for them to be in those states.
I remember you said that when you started your exploration of what happened to your people made you more forgiving or more accepting or more understanding of — and these were your words — ‘the drunk Indian in the park.’ You used to look at those people and think, ‘What’s their problem?’
Yeah. Why don’t they quit drinking? Why don’t they get a job? That’s how I was feeling until I learned more about it. So learning more about residential schools and learning more about my culture gave me a different outlook on how these people got to where they were. I understood, ‘OK, that’s the reason this person is like that.’
I’ve read some comments from people, even those in the aboriginal community, saying that we need to move past this. But I think it would be extraordinarily difficult. I don’t know how you step in and teach somebody parenting skills when they’ve had no examples for generations. Is it possible to fix, do you think?
There were some students who were strong, who held on to their language. They would practice at night when everyone was sleeping — they would sit there and speak to themselves.
When they were in residential schools, they weren’t allowed to speak their languages, they weren’t allowed to talk to their siblings, they weren’t allowed to talk to boys or girls — they were separated.
I think what was lost was the love. Love was lost — that’s what was lost with residential schools. You lose that feeling of wanting to touch somebody, of wanting to care for somebody, because that’s what you’re brought up with. If you couldn’t talk to your sister, you lose that connection.
So a lot of the love was lost. And I think that’s what we’re trying to get back.
Have we made some strides? The government apologizing and offering some cash went a little way, but you can’t financially, or even just by speaking a few words, wipe out decades of mistreatment. Do you think we’ve made any headway?
I think aboriginal people have made headway. Because they are going back to their culture. I think people are learning — like myself — to care about themselves, they’re learning to care about their families, their communities. It’s slowly coming back. And the supports that you have in your life make a big difference. When I look back, when I was younger, maybe the support wasn’t there. But once I started going to school, meeting different people, meeting different elders, changing my life and getting that direction from elders, and seeing my parents quit drinking — and my mom going back to school — that’s stuff’s inspired me to take a look at myself, too.
If you could say one thing to white society, what would that be? Give us a break? Understand what’s gone on and how its influences still impact our people?
I think if they could just understand and support us. If they speak up for aboriginal people and get the truth across that, ‘No it’s not like that — these are the reasons why.’
The more people learn about the residential schools and the effects they had and how devastating they were that helps out quite a bit. Stuff like that is a positive thing. It helps get rid of sort of all the negative feelings and the negative attitudes.