Indigenous community leaders reflect on resilience of residential school survivors
As Canadians mark the country's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, two Indigenous community leaders are reflecting on the resilience that helped them and others survive the brutal residential school system.
That system stole approximately 150,000 children from their homes, and sent them to institutions designed to rob them of their language and culture. Dr. Ron Ignace was one of them.
He was taken to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the same site where hundreds of unmarked graves were detected this year using ground-penetrating radar.
Inside, he was beaten for speaking his mother tongue – but he refused to abandon the Secwepemctsin language.
"I thought in Secwepemctsin and spoke in English, knowing full well that they could not beat me for what I thought," Ignace said.
In 1962, he was allowed an unsupervised leave for his 16th birthday. With the help of his uncle, Ignace ran away from the school and never returned, escaping what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called a campaign of cultural genocide.
"They failed in that, as I still stand here, and I've been fighting for our rights ever since," he said.
Outside, Ignace has lived a distinguished life. He spent 32 years as chief of the Skeetchestin Indian Band, earned a PhD in anthropology, and was recently named Canada's first-ever Commissioner of Indigenous Languages.
"Our languages are who we are," he said. "The best way that we can honour those people that didn't make it home is to ensure that our languages do not die."
As many as 15,000 residential school students perished, according to the commission, and the harm inflicted in those institutions caused inter-generational trauma that continues in Indigenous communities decades later.
Brenda Dubois tries to help fellow survivors of colonial violence process their experiences.
"I think the most important thing I've done over the last many years is telling people it's OK to cry. It's OK to feel. It's OK to be a human being, because that's what they tried to take away from us," Dubois said.
Dubois, of the Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan, was separated from her family at just four years old and forced to attend the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School. Today, she is a knowledge keeper at the University of Regina, providing cultural insights on ceremony and traditional teachings.
When speaking to survivors, she encourages them not to let the past dictate their future.
"If you are granted a day tomorrow, you are granted a day to make something different," Dubois said.
Both she and Ignace have tried to use their experiences to make a difference in a nation that needs their wisdom, maybe now more than ever.
"What we want to see happen here is to ensure that we have the ability to contribute to building a country that is great and good for all," Ignace said.
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.