Residential school survivors speak out

‘My life flat-lined,” says Isabelle Knockwood. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published October 29, 2011
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Isabelle Knockwood was just four years old when she was sent to the Shubenacadie Residential School, which was run by the Roman Catholic Church from 1930 to 1966.

Now 80 years old, Knockwood says the experience changed her life completely. “My worldview shifted violently, suddenly, permanently. Everything now looks different. The air smells different, the food tastes different, the sounds are different.”

Knockwood, who is an elder and author of Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi’kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, was among those who spoke before a Truth of Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) panel.

The TRC is hosting the third of seven mandated national events here from Oct. 26 to 29. Created as part of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the TRC’s task is to document the 130-year history of residential schools and to educate Canadians about it.

During the first five years at residential school, “I cannot remember “talking, feeling, crying or even growing,” says Knockwood. “My life flat-lined.”

Knockwood attended Shubenacadie from 1936 to 1947. In the 1990s, hundreds of survivors from that school were the first to file a class action lawsuit against the federal government for physical and sexual abuse and loss of language and culture.

The Mi’kmaq had a hunting and gathering tradition and their own customs, ceremonies, language and belief system. This was supplanted by “artificiality, dogma and Christianity,” says Knockwood, has served as an inspiration to aboriginal people for having pursued a degree in Anthropology and English at Saint Mary’s University when she was 58.

Knockwood says she also has drawn inspiration from former students. After Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology on behalf of the government, Knockwood asked another former student what she thought about it. Knockwood remembers the woman’s response to this day. “She said, ‘I accept the apology. I accept what happened to me and I forgive them. I don’t want to carry that garbage in my life. I’m helping survivors and I’m happy with my life. My happiness is my revenge.’ ”

Ruth Maloney-Loft attended Shubenacadie for seven years, from the age of five. She said that for many years she “suffered in silence.”

The biggest lesson she learned was fear, Loft told the panel. “I didn’t know love. I didn’t know how to give it or how to receive it. I never had people say to me, ‘I love you,’ or give me a hug.”

After years of therapy, Loft made a choice speak out about the “cultural genocide.”

“Now I can’t be stopped,” she says. “I’m on a mission. Everybody thinks it didn’t happen. I’m here to tell you: It happened.”

Her goal is to educate Canadians not only about the “dark history” of residential schools, but also about the rich history of her people, says Loft. “There was nothing wrong with us. We were fine the way we were. I am still here, my people are still here, singing, dancing and celebrating life to the fullest.”



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