Gail Gallagher was alone in her office at a career-counselling centre in Edmonton, phone to her ear, when she learned that her mother, Flora Fryingpan, had killed herself on a farm 40 minutes outside Elk Point, Alta. It was October, 1993 – three months after Ms. Fryingpan's sister, Julia Morin, had fatally overdosed on prescription pills, and years after both women had survived Canada's residential school system.
In March, 2014, Ms. Gallagher, who is now 49, told her mother's story to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Following the Commission's release of its final report this week, Ms. Gallagher says that, as an intergenerational residential school survivor, she is not so much seeking justice, but the peace that forgiveness can bring. She spoke with the Globe's Kristy Hoffman.
My mom overdosed on my dad's heart medication. She was the middle child. I had a younger aunt. Her name was Julia. She overdosed on pills, and I don't know if she was drinking or not, but she OD'd.
Growing up, I remember my mom talking about suicide. But she would never talk about the residential school experience. It was so horrifying for her, so upsetting. She never breathed a word of it to me.
But I sensed her pain and her troubled past. She was a really bad alcoholic and she abused prescription pills. She was very, very self-destructive.
She was protective of me and my sister. She acted like, I don't know, she just … you know, was fearful of us getting raped. My sister did say once that my mom did tell her that she was raped at the residential school. She never told who did it.
When she died, the police seized her suicide note and we didn't even know what her wishes were until after her funeral was over. That was quite upsetting, how the police handled the suicide. And it was really weird because … when I got it, I was shocked that she had written it to me, and that she wrote, "I'll always be with you." That's what I had put on the little funeral program, "Always with you." And that's exactly what was in her note. We said the same thing.
I had been working as a career counsellor, and I was 27. I was doing a workshop, and I remember the secretary pulling me out of the workshop and saying, "There's a family emergency. You have to go to your office to take a phone call." My brother-in-law said, "Your mom got picked up by the ambulance. She OD'd." And I said, "Is she still alive?" And he said, "No, she's dead."
As an intergenerational residential school survivor, a lot of dysfunction was passed to me. I have problems in my intimate relationships – even developing relationships. I have problems with communication.
In the Onion Lake residential school, they were not shown love. My mom wouldn't even hug us or kiss us ever when we were little kids. I remember that.
But when I was 18, I was working in Edmonton. I'd have to get off the Greyhound bus, and my mom and dad would come pick me up in the pickup truck, and I felt so … Even though they never told me they loved me, I knew they both loved me. It's hard to describe. She was a great cook – she was the best cook ever. She made homemade bread. But the demon of alcohol got her. And even though my mother abused drugs, I still think she had a resilient spirit.
So when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to Edmonton, I really wanted my mom's story to be told. So many residential school survivors, they're in the grave. Alcohol or drugs and, you know, suicide. It was important to share her story because she couldn't be there.
I make a very clear connection between the impact of residential school and my mom. She was ashamed of being an Indian. She would never allow us to learn Cree, because in those schools they weren't allowed to speak it. I always bugged her as a child. I would say, "Teach me Cree, I want to learn," and she would never teach me. She had a deep shame, low self-worth.
And she passed that on to us kids, too. I was ashamed of being a First Nations Cree child.
But as I got older, as I got to my late teens, I searched out native culture and elders. I had to teach myself, basically. I had to go to sweats. I had to seek it out because it wasn't really taught to me in my home.
I hope the Truth and Reconciliation report just doesn't sit on the shelf and gather dust like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report did.
I don't know about justice, but what really got to me was listening to the survivors talk [on Tuesday]; how freeing it was when they forgave. My mom, she had a lot of anger. And then, instead of turning it outward, she turned it inward on herself. And I feel bad.
My mom would have been 75 if she were still alive. We don't have the suicide note any more. We got rid of it with an elder in a traditional healing ceremony. But what the note said was, "I'm sorry for what I'm doing. Forgive me." I forgave my mom a long time ago because she did the best she could with what she had.
At her funeral, her granddaughter went up to her casket and she touched her. She talked to her mom after, who's my sister. She said, "I forgave Grandma." She was 8 years old then, my niece Danielle.
We weren't really talking about the suicide to the kids, but she must have overheard. So that was really, really touching that she did that. That she forgave my mom, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Kristy Hoffman is a reporter with The Globe and Mail.