Jillian Harris survived a harrowing experience at St. Mary’s Indian residential school in Mission, B.C., which she began attending when she was 14. Today, she is earning a master of divinity at the Vancouver School of Theology, an ecumenical theological institution in the city.
A former chief of the Penelakut Tribe, Harris has also been part of the Women of Courage tour sponsored by the Canadian ecumenical justice group, Kairos, and she has worked alongside indigenous people from Colombia and the Philippines.
But, as she told commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) here on Sept. 19, her journey toward healing has been “very hard.”
Just last year, she tried to take her own life, something she had once attempted at the age of 10.
Harris had attended a TRC event in Victoria in April 2012, and when she returned home, she said, “It seemed as though the spirit of suicide came roaring in our community.” A respected elder and residential school survivor had killed himself a day before he was to appear for his adjudication regarding a claim for abuse he experienced at the schools , and Harris took his place in the elders’ committee. “It’s strange, but I went on the very seat where they said he always sat,” she said, adding that she immediately felt the pressure of the work of an elder. It was like she was being approached by what sounded like “a train of all the troubles” that had visited her community and family, and she wanted to hurl herself into it to make it stop. Harris downed a bottle of pills.
Reflecting on how she had also attempted suicide, using pills, when she was 10, Harris wondered how a little girl knew how to take them: “How would a ten year old know to take pills? Where did I see that? Where did she learn that and think it would stop the pain?”
Harris’s mother had sent her to residential school because someone from the community had molested her and she thought Harris would be safer there. Instead, she was raped at the school, which was first operated by the Roman Catholic Church and later by the federal government.
The injustice didn’t stop there. As she tried to apply for compensation under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement’s independent assessment process, a lawyer told her that her story wasn’t good enough. “You’d have to tell a better story than that. You were only raped once. You have to beef that up,” the lawyer told an incredulous Harris. She decided to find another lawyer, who told her that her “story “was not just a story, but evidence of a crime.”
As Harris sat before the commissioners’ panel at the B.C. National Event, being held here Sept. 16 to 21, she was surrounded by several women who, she said, had supported her for the last 15 years. Among them were Penelakut elder, Florence James; the Rev. Lily Bell, a priest from St. John’s Anglican Church in Old Masset in Haida Gwaii, B.C.; and the Rev. Dr. Wendy Fletcher, a professor at Vancouver School of Theology. Harris referred to James as her mentor, and Bell as the aboriginal woman and seeker of justice that she wants to be.
“I’ve always felt inferior,” said Harris, adding that when Kairos approached her, she didn’t know how they could possibly think of her as a woman with courage. But, as she stood side by side indigenous people in Colombia and the Philippines who are fighting for their lands, Harris said she realized that she was no longer just “the little girl who was afraid of the world.”
Harris said she is relieved that those who abused her in her community have died. But, not knowing the fate of her abuser at the school, she addressed the person in her statement, saying: ‘I’m sure you must be suffering as much as me…I’ve carried this pain for a very long time now. But this is the day that I cut off my bondage to you…But I hope that you would also free yourself and ask for forgiveness from the Creator.”