Montreal–A Rwandan genocide survivor on April 26 reached out to former students of Indian residential schools and pledged his commitment to walk with them as they struggle to heal from traumas experienced as a result of being wrenched away from home and assimilated into another culture.
“I want to honour your courage to speak out, but I also want to honour your silence because it takes time to speak out what you’ve lived through,” said Eloge Butera, who was inducted as an honorary witness by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, at the Quebec national event, April 24 to 27. “And in those quiet moments when you cry inside, when you get to shelter shame and hopelessness, I want to let you know that you’re not alone. When you’re ready to speak, we will be here; we will be ready to listen.”
Butera said that, as he sat listening to the accounts of former students, he was reminded of his own experiences during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when about 800,000 Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days by members of the Hutu ethnic majority.
“When survivors speak of trauma, I can relate,” said Butera, a Tutsi who is now a Canadian citizen. “The genocide of Tutsis left me and my fellow survivors with very profound wounds.”
The genocide happened when he was 11, said Butera. He remembered being awakened by his family’s house-help, who informed them that their relatives, who lived about 500 meters away, had been shot and killed. Butera said he and his family managed to escape. They walked 161 km, a journey that took five days, until they reached south of Rwanda, where they hid as the massacre unfolded.
During those five days “when at times [his] father carried his children on his back,” Butera said he witnessed rape, murder by guns and machetes, and saw bodies floating on rivers. “I live with those memories to this day,” he said. When school survivors spoke of seeking shelter in trees, he said that he too thought of trees that way. But, Butera added, there were times when, from behind those trees, he also bore witness to the worst behaviour in people.
Butera also drew parallels between his experiences and those of some students, who spoke of how they couldn’t grasp why their parents would allow them to be taken to residential schools. He said that he also struggled to forgive his father, who he had a chance to flee with his family before the genocide but didn’t.
The Rwandan genocide and the assimilation of native children in Indian residential schools are two different histories, said Butera, but they are both the result of colonization.
During Rwanda’s colonial period, the ruling Belgians favoured the minority Tutsis over the Hutus, and rewarded them with positions of power that fostered inequity and resentment. With the help of religious leaders, colonial rulers divided Rwandans into three ethnic groups-Hutus, Tutsis and Twas. The divisions were created, Butera explained, “on the basis of racist science, racist theology and racist policies, and they were created to mimic their own conception of who we were.” Tutsis were believed to be closer to white people because they were taller and had big noses. Pitting one group against the other became “the seeds that led to a nightmare,” said Butera.
In learning the history of residential schools, said Butera, it is important to understand how the schools were used to destroy the human spirit. He emphasized the need to respect students who have not been able to speak of their traumas, as well as to remember those who were never able to go back to their families. Butera said that he, too, remembers his own best friend, who was murdered along with his family. “We were told his last words were, ‘Please forgive me. I will never be a Tutsi again.’ ”
Butera underscored the need to “unlearn the habits of colonialism and racism,” citing TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair’s statement that reconciliation is not meant to be a second chance to get assimilation right. “We won’t know who we are unless we choose the truth, the path of compassion, and [unless we] demand that our country do better with its history and its first people.”
Butera urged churches who operated the federally funded schools to “truly repent,” and expressed the hope that they will be at the forefront of pushing communities to rethink the legacy of the schools. “By their choices and by their inaction, they participated and served as instruments of an immoral and unjust policy,” said Butera. (For more than 150 years, about 180,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their homes and sent to federally funded schools managed by Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches. The Anglican Church of Canada operated over 30 of these schools across Canada.)
Several former students, after listening to Butera speak, thanked him and said his words resonated with them.
“It took a long time for me to accept who I was, ” said one woman. “I didn’t want to be aboriginal. But now I took that identity back. I took my self back. I am proud of who I am now. I am aboriginal and I’m proud of that. Megwich [thank you].”
“Just because our skin is of a different colour does not mean we’re different,” said another. “We’re all creations of the Creator and I will understand that till the day I’m no longer here and I’m in the spirit world. It really touched my heart because I know where you come from as well.”