As Harry Moon sat in a sharing circle at the Churches Listening to Survivors area, he explained why he was there: “I’m here because I’m having a hard time.”
Three of his closest friends, whom he considered to be “stronger than me,” had taken their lives. They had all gone to residential schools.
Moon himself attended two Indian residential schools-St. Michael’s and Port Alberni, both in B.C.-and he has been struggling to come to terms with his past.
“I get to a point where I forgive and let go,” Moon said, “but then I see something that triggers my memory” and he reverts to being the angry teenager he grew into at the schools. Moon said he had to be tough in order to survive in the schools and when he went back to his village, he became a bully who was always spoiling for a fight.
“How do you move on?” asked Moon his fellow residential school survivors, representatives of churches that operated the schools and members of the public who listened to him during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s B.C. National Event, held here Sept. 18 to 21. Daily sharing circles were part of the event.
“I have a hard time telling my children that I love them,” Moon said. “I’m still trying to find myself,” he added, as his 21-year-old son, who sat behind him, wiped away tears. Moon’s own parents attended residential schools and were similarly unable to express their feelings, he said.
Moon said he has been trying his best to change things around: this year he earned his high school diploma, graduating at the same time as his son. “It was a big thing for me,” he said. The residential schools-related compensation he received has been spent attending survivor gatherings in search of peace and healing.
Moon was reflective, but there were other survivors who vented their anger and frustration at churches, saying they had been robbed not only of their language and culture, but their sense of self and family. Between the late-19th century to the mid-1990s, about 150,000 aboriginal children were sent to residential schools that were funded by the federal government and run by the Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches.
“I’m angry at the churches. Yes, I want to yell at them,” said Patrick Nelson, as one visibly shaken Catholic nun tried to hold back tears during a sharing circle. “For so long, I’ve wanted to die…I’ve always felt like a failure because I was told we’re nothing but drunks and savages, and I believed them.”
Nelson said he was raped at the Anglican-run St. Michael’s residential school when he was five. “I hope you churches really get it and take responsibility for what you’ve done,” he said.
Nelson said he couldn’t grasp why the school talked about God and prayer and then hurt the students. “It made me think of the dynamics of who is the creator? How could the creator allow this to happen?” he asked. Before residential school, he was a happy-go-lucky child who had a family. When he returned home, Nelson said, “I became angry and vengeful. I would hurt a lot of people and then I would become remorseful and ask myself, ‘Why do I always put myself in these predicaments?’ ”
Now 50, Nelson said he developed “active addictions” at the age of 10; he has been sober for the last five years. “I still don’t feel right, but I’m slowly learning to have compassion and empathy.”
Other “inter-generational” survivors-sons, daughters and grandchildren-also spoke before packed gatherings at the Churches Listening to Survivors area, one of the venues for “truth-telling and sharing” at the event.
The bishop of the Anglican Parishes at the Central Interior, Barbara Andrews, spoke at one sharing circle and expressed the Anglican Church of Canada’s “deep sorrow” over what happened in the schools, where some students have reported physical, mental and sexual abuse. “We did terrible damage in the name of the love of God…,” she said.
“I sit in the circle humbled by your stories. Your story is my story,” said Andrews, who is of Métis descent. Her father, Henry White, was from the Cree Nation and he was a residential school survivor, she added.
Andrews said she first heard about the experiences of some students at St. Paul’s Anglican Indian Residential School in southern Alberta sometime in the 1970s, when she moved to the Blood Indian Reserve. “I wondered why I became an Anglican. The stories were terrible for a young mother to hear,” said Andrews.
She said she realized later that “I was brought to this church to work at being a bridge between my father’s people and the church that I love and serve, and to find a way to work at bringing healing.”
Andrews pledged to carry the survivors’ stories, saying, “They will be a constant reminder for me to do things differently-with love, compassion and respect for all of God’s beautiful people.”
The Rev. Dr. Paula Samson, director of native ministries and assistant professor of ethics and First Nation studies at the Vancouver School of Theology, also offered her own reflections as an Anglican during one difficult moment at a sharing circle.
“I’m shaking, but I’m grateful, too-for the courage, the bravery, and the anger and the tears-because without the power of those, the depth of what’s happened, and what needs to happen, isn’t necessarily noticed,” she said.
Samson said that by being part of the residential schools legacy, the churches, including the Anglican church, “didn’t just turn our backs on the children; we turned our backs on God and that’s a pretty big sin.” She said she was reminded of a sentence in the Book of Common Prayer that says, “The remembrance of them [sins] are grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”
So what must be done with the intolerable burden? Samson asked. “We share it, we help each other lift it up and off,” she said. “One way to do that is to make space in which to put it down, make space for prayers that sound different, make spaces for ceremonies that aren’t European and for people who want to become Anglican and indigenous; let that happen.” Space must also be made for the telling of more stories, whether they are of pain, anger and bravery, and Samson urged patience, saying, “That’s going to take us more generations than one.”