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Penticton  

South Okanagan daughter of residential school survivor shares story on Orange Shirt Day

Generational scars linger

The last residential school closed in 1996, but the scars both emotional and physical still impact everyday life for many Indigenous people in Canada.

Each fall since 2013, the Orange Shirt Day movement honours young Phyllis Webstead who was stripped of her brand new orange shirt and had it replaced with a school uniform at St. Joseph Mission Residential School in 1973.

“It’s supposed to be a reminder of things that happened in the past with residential school, so that those things can never be repeated,” said Muriel “Ducky” Bray, a Family Preservation/Maternal Child Health Worker at the Nk’Mip Resource Centre. “But it was not the only bad thing that happened to First Nations.”

She works with families in crisis and those involved with the Ministry of Children and Family Development, and has seen first-hand the intergenerational impact caused by not only residential schools, but a range of government actions that impacted generations of Indigenous people in Canada.

Bray has a close personal connection to the many attempts of assimilation by the Canadian government. Bray’s mother was taken to the Kamloops Indian Residential School which closed on July 31, 1978. Students were transported from Oliver and Osoyoos to Kamloops in cattle trucks and some Indigenous children from the area were taken to the Eugene Mission Residential School just north of Cranbrook — which was open until June, 1970. Students started attending at the age of five and most remained until they graduated from Grade 12.

The school was segregated by gender and brothers and sisters were not allowed to speak to each other. Many were beaten for speaking anything but English, and all were stripped of their culture, their family and more.

“(My mother) said that it affected every area of her life,” Bray said. “It affected her health, her education, loss of language and culture, loss of family connection, loss of spirituality.”

Bray’s mother also spent two years in Coqualeetza Hospital, also known as the Sardis Indian Hospital.

“Indian hospitals experimented on the children, the native children. They were looking for cures for tuberculosis and all kinds of things. The only thing my mother said about her two years there was she can remember being tied to a bed and the doctors putting hundreds of needles in her back,” Bray said. “The same kinds of things happened at Indian hospitals as they did at residential schools. People being tied up or not being able to eat or drink water, or anything.”

Bray has helped survivors of Indian hospitals share their stories in a $1.1 billion class-action lawsuit currently before the federal government. She has also assisted those involved in a class-action lawsuit for the “Sixties Scoop.” In the mid-1960s churches and government ministries forced Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands. Bray’s oldest brother is one of the children who was taken to live with a non-Indigenous family in Alberta.

“(The lawsuit) just went through recently and there are some people on this reserve who have already received settlements for that,” Bray said.

While she enjoys assisting her community in getting reparations for their suffering, Bray knows her work cannot reverse the generational impact.

“It feels good to help people receive some kind of financial settlement for the things they have suffered through in their life, but the financial component is not nearly enough,” Bray said. “It helps now, but the biggest thing is counselling. I make many referrals to people for counselling because the best thing is to deal with things yourself.”

Generational Impact

The government-sanctioned assimilation of Indigenous people in Canada may have started over a hundred years ago, but the effects of attempting to systemically destroy a culture echoes out through generations to today.

“As they grew into adults, the ones that did survive the residential school experience, many could not even say ‘I love you’ to their own children because they never heard it,” Bray said. “Even as they got older and had children of their own, if their child went to them crying and hurt, they never thought to ask ‘what’s wrong? Are you OK?’ Because they were never asked if they were OK.”

In her work, Bray has seen how deep the effects of surviving residential schools can run.

“Many of them have odd things that they do on a regular basis. I know of some people who collect clothing because they didn’t have their own clothing, they had to wear the uniforms every day,” Bray said. “So there are some Elders who collect toys because they didn’t have toys.”

The psychological impact can show itself in more detrimental ways as well, Bray said, recalling one survivor who suffers anxiety attacks around schools, and some who have trouble standing their ground or voicing concerns.

“Many of the children of residential school survivors had to kind of make their own way and learn how to parent themselves because their parents didn’t teach them how to parent,” Bray said.

She has lived through this experience herself, and while residential schools shaped a generation, it did not define them.

“Even though some survivors of residential school experienced horrible abuse, that has been passed down from residential school, and even though that is the case — we love our parents who did go to residential school,” Bray said. “I myself have said to my own mom that I hate what residential school has done to her. I love my mom and would not want another one. She has taught me many things in my life because of what she has experienced. She was not the perfect parent, but neither was I. I know my children love me. My mom knows I love her, and that’s all that matters.”

It is worth noting, Bray said, that not all those Indigenous children who attended residential schools had the same experience. However, many missed out on a childhood connection with their parents.

“Some of them had a not-so-bad experience, they weren’t as physically abused or anything. I think that’s why today many native children are in the Ministry of Child and Family Development’s care because their parents did not know how to parent because their parents did not know how to parent,” Bray said.

Forgiveness

Orange Shirt Day is about reconciliation, Bray said, and in her work with families in her community, forgiveness also plays a vital role in the healing process.

“When you forgive somebody, I believe that forgiveness is actually for yourself so that you can heal. It’s not to forgive and forget what somebody has done to you, it is to help yourself heal and move forward with your life,” Bray said. “I hate to say this, but I do believe many things happen for a reason and I believe that with every action there is a reaction.”

Helping others get some financial compensation from the government is part of that positive reaction for Bray.

“All of these bad things happened, now we need to swing over to the opposite side of the pendulum to see all the good happen as well. Thats what part of the class action lawsuits are helping with, the other end.”

“I remember one thing my mom said: ‘the government can’t destroy us, no matter how hard they try.’”



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