WENDY ELLIOTT: ‘The legacy of residential schools needs to be everyone’s story’

Wendy Elliott
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By Wendy Elliott

Driving by the Shubenacadie Residential School years before it was destroyed by fire, I always got the creeps. Sitting on the hillside near the highway, I don't believe that it is just in retrospect that the building had a dark, grey malevolent atmosphere.

But it is only in recent years that the truth about this country's residential school horrors has begun to emerge. Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission finished its third national event in Halifax late last month and many residential school survivors shared their stories in an effort to create an historical record of the horrible legacy this school system inflicted on First Nations People across the land.

We can thank a brave Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq woman for the truth being revealed. The late Nora Bernard of Millbrook First Nation was instrumental in ensuring justice, recognition and compensation for the survivors of the Canadian Indian Residential School system.

A survivor herself, Bernard founded and became president of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School Association in 1987, launching a class-action lawsuit on its behalf. The action inspired residential schools survivors all across the country in what became the largest lawsuit of its kind in Canadian history, representing about 79,000 survivors.

For 21 years, the white-haired grandmother worked tirelessly to raise awareness and seek justice. In 2007 the federal government settled the lawsuit for more than $5 billion. Bernard also worked as a counsellor for the Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association and contributed to the reconciliation program of the United Church of Canada.

Attending a special performance in Halifax that was arranged for the commission's stop in the city, I was able to learn about the pain of survivors through a poignant Aboriginal children's story entitled Fatty Legs. The Inuit authors of the book, travelled all the way from Fort St. John in Northern British Columbia to narrate the text as part of this performance. The audience was surrounded by 300 linear feet of haunting photographs from the residential school era.

The child Margaret Pokiak was the only girl made to wear bulky, ill-fitting red knee socks in the residential school that tried to erase her Aboriginal culture. Despite the relentless bullying of a nasty nun, this feisty young girl gave her oppressors a lesson in human dignity and courage.

The real-life Pokiak and her co-writer and daughter-in-law, Christy Jordan-Fenton, joined the young women's choir Camerata Xara to portray her story through choral singing and movement. Aboriginal dancer Sarain Carson-Fox, who hails from Ontario, brought the young Margaret to life.

Preparing for this collaboration proved an important learning process for the singers of Camerata Xara, artistic director Christina Murray told me afterward.

"Sometimes we, as non-Aboriginal Canadians, feel like this is not our story and we're nervous to approach it," she said. "But through Fatty Legs, we've learned that the legacy of residential schools needs to be everyone's story. Without knowledge of this painful part of our country's history, healing and building new, equitable relationships will be impossible. Fatty Legs is beautifully accessible for people of all ages and backgrounds. It's an amazing entry-point for learning about residential schools and their legacy."

Murray explained how she was so taken with the story that she searched Jordon-Fenton out on Facebook and preparations for the Halifax performances began by sending story and music back and forth across the country. Now there is talk of a school tour, which would be an amazing experience for Mi'kmaq youth today. But more importantly all Canadians need to hear the truth about sadistic nuns and cruel clergy.

The treatment Canada inflicted on 150,000 Aboriginal children was wrong. So is the lack of safe drinking water and other ills that our First Nations people endure today. The so-called Indian school at Shubenacadie closed in 1968, but its legacy lives on until all the wrongs are acknowledged.


Organizations: Shubenacadie Residential School, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadian Indian Residential School system Indian Residential School Association Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association United Church of Canada First Nations

Geographic location: Halifax, Canada, Fort St. John Northern British Columbia Ontario

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Recent comments

  • M DeWolf
    February 24, 2013 - 15:57

    While some of the stories that come out of residential schools are truly heart-wrenching, and they do much to enlist the sympathy and support of Canadians for the cause of this country's First Nations people, articles like this deliberately omit the context and the wider picture in which the negative aspects of the residential school system must be considered. To say, as this writer does, that Canada treated 150,000 Aboriginal children badly is irresponsible and simply wrong. About 150,000 First Nations children apparently attended a residential school at some point over 126 years (the federal Department tasked with aboriginal affairs can only provide an estimate), but many of these were treated well and had no complaints about their time in a residential school. Native leaders themselves have admitted that some schools were happier than others, and not all staff members were overly strict, cruel or predatory. The fact that only a minority of First Nations children ever set foot in a residential school is never mentioned in this kind of article, the purpose of which is apparently to tell a sensational story of the kind that sells papers and attracts online readers.