Helping survivors let go of hurts

(L to R): The Rev. Lily Bell, Bishop Barbara Andrews and elder Charon Spinks during a brief break at the TRC's BC National Event in Vancouver. Photo: Marites N. Sison
(L to R): The Rev. Lily Bell, Bishop Barbara Andrews and elder Charon Spinks during a brief break at the TRC's BC National Event in Vancouver. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published September 30, 2013

When Charon Spinks and her husband, Tim, got married in 1962, he asked her to promise that if they ever had children, they wouldn’t hand down to them what they had learned and experienced at St. George’s Indian Residential School in Lytton, B.C.

“It took me a long time to grasp what he was getting at,” said Spinks, an elder from the Interior Coast Salish in Lytton, B.C., and a parishioner at St. Mary’s and St. Paul’s Anglican Church. “He knew what he was doing-getting rid of all the discomfort and hatred of supervisors” at the school, where numerous abuses have been documented and taken to court.

Her husband’s words came back to her when Spinks became a guidance counsellor at her children’s school, and later, a family violence worker for Child and Family Services. “Everything went back to the residential school. It just wouldn’t stop,” she said in an interview with the Anglican Journal.

In 1979, Spinks’s husband died and she stepped back from “the helping field” to become the sole breadwinner in the family. In 2001, she applied to become regional co-ordinator for the Residential School Survivors Society in Vancouver, where she still works to help former students heal from the effects of the schools.

Spinks said she was motivated to follow this path because her husband had always encouraged her to pursue her own healing journey and to involve her friends.

“There were four of us and two [are now gone]. One OD’d [overdose of a substance] and one passed away from alcoholism,” she said.

The wisdom of her grandfather, Willy Monroe, was another motivating factor, said Spinks. “He always said, ‘We’re here to help another human being. It doesn’t matter who it is, be open to help them,'” she said.

Working with survivors has proved to be a blessing, said Spinks. It wasn’t until she underwent training to help survivors overcome schools-related trauma that she was able to deal with her own pain at having been sent to residential school, and later, dealing with the loss of loved ones. “It really helped me understand grief-with me being taken away from my grandparents and the grief of losing them. And also, of losing my husband and my oldest son,” she said.

Part of her work involved accompanying survivors to residential school hearings and adjudication processes, and Spinks acknowledged that when she was starting out, it was tough. She found it difficult to hear stories about being reprimanded by school supervisors without recalling her own experience at the school, which she attended for nine years, starting at age 6. She still bears physical scars from being hit in the head.

Helping survivors let go of their hurts is also difficult work, Spinks said. “There’s still a lot of anger,” she said, adding that part of her job involves helping them to identify the most hurtful issue they’re dealing with. “Oftentimes it all boils down to one or two people that hurt them,” she said. Building trust takes time. “You can’t just do it in one sitting,” she said. “I know a couple of cases where the anger is overwhelming and they’re not here anymore. They’ve turned to drugs or alcohol.”

Spinks said she eventually learned how to practise detachment and to follow the advice to practise self-care after attending sessions with survivors. “We weren’t allowed to just go home and wash clothes…Massage [therapy] was one of the things I did for my self-care.”

During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s B.C. National Event, Spinks was active behind the scenes-as one of the health support workers. But in one event, she took centre stage, along with Archbishop John Privett, bishop of the diocese of Kootenay and metropolitan (senior bishop) of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia, in presenting the Anglican Church of Canada’s “expressions of reconciliation.”

Despite what happened to her at St. George’s, Spinks said she considers the church her resting place. “I rest and I re-energize through St. Mary and St. Paul’s…I find that I need a staff to hang onto and the church is one,” she said. Spinks is also active with the church’s national indigenous ministry, and has taken part in Sacred Circle gatherings.

Spinks cited the influence of her mother, who worked as a pastoral leader in church and had enormous respect for bishops and priests. “My mother believed in the church so much.”

When she was at the school, where she experienced being slapped in the face by an Anglican minister who was also the supervisor, Spinks said she felt confused by what they were being taught. “I’m reading this part that said, ‘Jesus loves all children,’ and yet these things are happening to me,’ ” she said.

Spinks said that later in life, she was able to somehow make a distinction between what had happened to her in the school and the church as a whole. During Christmas and Easter, she would go with her mother to a downtown church, and Spinks said she always felt at peace there. “There was a relaxation. There was no anger.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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