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When Margaret Roper came back to the Yellow Quill reserve last fall to start work as a band social worker, she moved into her sister's little trailer, took one look around and burst into tears.

"Nothing had changed in 30 years," she said in an interview last week in her office at the reserve health clinic. "It was so hard to experience that disappointment.

"Time is at such a standstill for us, we might as well be back in the 1900s. There's been no movement in economic development, education, employment, housing. Our community has never flourished."

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Ms. Roper's story is sadly typical.

Born on the reserve in 1960, she was snatched away from her grandparents, who were raising her and whom she loved dearly, at the age of 5 and deposited at the Muscowequan Indian Residential School in Lestock, Sask., a particularly noxious school where in 1981, a group of five or six desperate little girls tried to hang themselves by tying socks and towels together.

At Muscowequan, Ms. Roper - like so many thousands of other native people in residential schools across the country - was emotionally, physically and sexually abused by the staff of the school. (Her abusers were Roman Catholic nuns.)

The goal of the residential school system was assimilation or, more accurately, "to kill the Indian in the child" - and as was so often the case, it almost ended up killing the child herself.

Never comfortable in either of her worlds, Ms. Roper became a troubled teenager, dropping out of school in Grade 9, pregnant with her first child at 15. By 18, she had three youngsters and, recognizing that she was likely going to be a single parent, she left the reserve.

"I left because I wanted to give my children hope," she said, "and to have a different way of life - a good, safe, alcohol-free environment."

Ripped from her grandparents' home so young, she hadn't a clue how to raise her own children. "I'd take them to the park," she said, "and watch how families interacted with their kids. I'd watch other parents everywhere, in grocery stores, and think 'Oh, so that's how you do it.' "

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But she was born feisty, upgraded her education and with some help from her father, who would look after the kids as she grabbed a few hours' sleep between her full-time job and her full-time studies, she finished college at what is now called the First Nations University.

In the intervening years, she came back now and then to Yellow Quill, but never for long. In 1990, for instance, speaking her mind about what she saw, she was harassed by a group of young men and, pregnant as she then was with her youngest, was basically driven off the reserve.

But last September, with her son now 15 and the others long grown and on their own, she returned in a more permanent way.

Ms. Roper was the woman many Canadians saw on television a few weeks ago, when the reserve had its 15 minutes of infamy. She was one of the reasons I went there last week - because of all those who were interviewed when the awful story of Santana and Kaydance Pauchay emerged, Ms. Roper's was easily the most furious, articulate voice.

The Pauchay youngsters froze to death after their father, 25-year-old Christopher Pauchay, had stumbled out of his house into a snowstorm with the little girls. Their pregnant mother, Tracey Jimmy, was off on a tear. Mr. Pauchay was, his relatives said later, drinking that night. Though the RCMP is still investigating, it appears that Mr. Pauchay, staggering drunkenly through the frigid night, somehow lost track of the barely dressed girls.

Ms. Roper was one of the few people on the reserve who was actively involved in the frantic police search for the little girls.

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After the first child was found, Ms. Roper had to practically order a group of young people to help the police look for the other girl on the second day, and she remains angry at the chief, Robert Whitehead. "He did not offer to help," Ms. Roper said. "He went to the band office, to wait for the media."

Mind you, she understands that sort of learned helplessness - powerlessness - as well as anyone can.

The poisonous residue of the residential school experience is everywhere, in generation after generation who learned too young that it's better to keep your mouth shut, that it's safer not to be seen or heard and that there's no point in raising your voice because your voice doesn't count.

On Yellow Quill, disappointment follows disappointment as elsewhere night follows day. Every election, candidates for the band council and chief promise to do things differently, people may even believe it a tiny bit for a minute or two, long enough to vote for them - and then nothing changes.

It has led to the collective numbness infecting Yellow Quill, one that is reflected in a dozen ways - in the fact that the reserve's ice rink, the only recreational facility for the band's children, is closed, because no one will maintain it; in the fact that the little reserve fire hall is boarded up for the same reason; in the fact that when volunteers are sought for various band committees, people promise to come but rarely show up; most egregiously, in the fact that when those two little girls were missing, only a handful of people came to look for them.

Back living in what she frankly called "this cesspool," Ms. Roper said bluntly that the reserve's most significant problems are sexual abuse - or incest, in families - domestic violence and neglect. "These are the core issues," she said.

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After the Pauchay girls died, she called a community meeting, basically to say, "Everything is not okay.

"I said I know there's a lot of sexual abuse and some guy was cackling in the back of the room. I told him that this is no laughing matter. This hurts us as women and it's not our shame and guilt - it's yours.

"Everybody's 'normal' is different," Ms. Roper said, "but our people's 'normal' is so out of whack. Our people's guidance system is just not there any more."

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