“It is a very good beginning to the work that needs to be done, the work of building the relationship between the settlers and the indigenous communities,” said Andrea Dyck, the facilitator, after all was said and done at the common learning area of the Stettler Elementary School on Saturday, March 12.
Ponoka Parent Link Centre and Ponoka Jubilee Library joined efforts to bring together interested community members and “knowledge keepers”, elders of the Maskcawis First Nations bands to bring stories to the surface from the now infamous residential schools which left deep scars in the psyche of the indigenous communities throughout the country for decades.
Four elders, Verna Littlepoplar, Marvin Littlechild, Mary Moonias and Danny Montour from Maskwacis were present at the event, although not all of them had attended a residential school.
Andrea Ramage of the Parent Link Centre said the goal of the gathering was “to bring some truth to the community”, to allow residents to become aware of untold realities of the past.
Dyck, who is studying to get her Master’s degree in Native Studies, said after taking over as the facilitator of the discussion that a lot of those stories had come to light thanks to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), which completed its work late last year.
She said residential schools were so entrenched in the society that one was open until as late as 1996 and one of her own friends had attended that school.
“We don’t share or tell the stories we don’t like, but they also tell who we are,” said Dyck stressing that the stories that came out during the work of the TRC were redefining the identity of Canada.
“Colonialism has shaped us, the settlers and the First Nations in different ways and it is time we started reshaping the relationship.”
The presentation started with the watching of a clip from the CBC documentary series 8th Fire, followed by Marvin Littlechild taking to the podium to recollect some of his unpleasant memories from his time in the residential school in Ermineskin from 1949 to 1964.
He described his experiences as “hard to forget and hard to talk about”.
“Colonization was introduced to me when I was seven,” said Littlechild.
He told of being forced to pray “like a robot” several times a day without understanding the meaning of the prayer.
“Today when I see bearded men, I am still reminded of sexual predators. Some certain aftershave lotion also reminds me of them,” he said.
“They knocked the Indian out of us, we felt so low, so humiliated.”
Although he said the education he received at the school was beneficial, “but what I still remember is the way I was abused.”
Littlechild also said he was transferred to another residential school in Grade 10 when he caught a priest “doing what he wasn’t supposed to do.”
Verna Littlepoplar said she was lucky not to have gone to a residential school as her mother, who was abused at a residential school had not allowed her to be recruited to one.
“I went to a day school, but it was no better than the residential schools,” she said.
“My mother could never talk about what happened to her at the residential school,” Littlepoplar recalled.
She told of the ways they were punished by their teachers, being strapped after being lined up with their palms opened up, being made to stand in a corner for up to an hour and even being deprived of food.
Danny Montour also spoke of his experiences at the residential school in the then Hobbema area and remembered how they were called “these savage Indians” by the priests.
“They used to swear at us in French so I learned some French swear words to understand what they were saying,” he said.
“We were brainwashed with prayers multiple times a day,” he added. “Older boys were made to wake up at 5 a.m. to do manual work, those who didn’t finish their work on time were whipped.”
Both Littlechild and Montour spoke favourably of their relationship with the Ponoka community.
Montour said a teacher who had come from Ponoka had changed some of the abusive practices at school while Littlechild mentioned good relations between the First Nations bands and Ponoka. “I think it was because both communities had horse cultures,” he said.
Following the presentations, the floor was opened for questions and the attendees wanted to know more about the details how they were fed and treated at the schools.
Interviewed after the event came to an end, Dyck said she was satisfied with the level of interest shown by the residents of the community in the legacy of the residential schools.