Putting the legacy of residential schools to rest

Telling one's story is one of the primary ways residential school survivors can heal, said Chief Robert Joseph who spoke at the Kwanlin Dun Potlatch House on Tuesday.

Telling one’s story is one of the primary ways residential school survivors can heal, said Chief Robert Joseph who spoke at the Kwanlin Dun Potlatch House on Tuesday.

More than 200 people gathered at the Potlatch House as part of a three-day conference to celebrate the demolition of Yukon Hall, a former residential school in Whitehorse.

Find a way to move beyond feelings of anger and shame, Joseph, who is chief of Vancouver Island’s Gwa wa enuk First Nation, told a roomful of intergenerational survivors, using his story as an example.

His journey began in 1998, when he learned former Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart would deliver a national apology to residential school survivors.

He rushed home from work, flicked on the television and waited for her to say the words he had dreamt of hearing since being sent to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School when he was six years old.

But the words never came, said Joseph.

“She didn’t say ‘I’m sorry,’ she made all kinds of equivocating statements of regret, and I got so angry I couldn’t see through my tears,” he said.

His own residential school experience led him to alcoholism, depression and thoughts of suicide.

So, after listening to Stewart, Joseph decided everybody who had been responsible for the residential school system “was going to pay.”

He found a lawyer in Victoria and went across the country signing up hundreds of residential school survivors for a lawsuit he was to launch against the federal government. He became involved in national dialogues on the issue, pushing for compensation and reconciliation, and eventually became the executive director for the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.

Ten years after his battle started, he finally heard what he had worked hard to hear. In the summer of 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal apology to all of Canada’s residential school survivors.

“When the apology came, I was so happy, so liberated,” he said.

Seeing the government take responsibility for its actions meant he no longer had to shoulder the painful weight of his residential school experience, Joseph explained in a separate interview.

“I suddenly recognized that it wasn’t our fault … these misconstrued policies that were intended to destroy our Indianness. When you discover that attempt, then you’re not ashamed anymore.”

But an apology on its own wouldn’t be enough. People who had experienced these schools firsthand needed to tell their experiences.

“When I travelled across the country (while trying to mount a legal battle), survivors told me over and over and again, ‘I want to tell my story.’”

Joseph was one of a group of

people who pushed the government for a federal inquiry into the residential school system.

But Canada fought the idea “with all of its legal teeth.”

So they created a truth and reconciliation commission where survivors could go to safely tell their story.

With the commission “there would be no one in Canada who didn’t know the issue or who would say, ‘I forget,’” said Joseph.

“If no one learns about this issue then we can’t transform our relationships – and that’s so important – we need to transform our relationships.”

Financial compensation, although helpful, isn’t the key to recovery, he added.

“If you try to throw money at it, it’s not going to do it. Things will change when aboriginal people accept responsibility for their own situation.”

Aboriginal people can be given money for better houses and educational training, but they’ll still manifest the same effects of trauma if they don’t effectively work through their residential school experiences, he said.

“Trauma is the sustaining cause that creates the environment for hopelessness.”

His words resonated with Teslin resident Vicky Bob, who was at the Potlatch House yesterday.

She didn’t speak about her residential school experience until last year, when her son convinced her to tell her story on camera.

Her experiences and those of her son, Duane Gastant Aucoin, were eventually recorded for thousands of people to see in the movie, My Own Private Lower Post.

“My son told me that he wouldn’t be able to understand his own story until I told him mine,” she said.

She hadn’t realized all the “brainwashing” she received from the Lower Post residential school she attended had been passed onto her son through her.

“We were little robots,” she said of the school that forced physical, sexual and mental abuse upon children.

And telling her story was the best way of putting those experiences behind her, said Bob.

“Now I see the mistakes I made as a parent,” she said.

“Before, I didn’t know how to say I loved him (my son). But now I can hug him and tell him I love him.”

Contact Vivian Belik at

vivianb@yukon-news.com