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Politics Residential school survivors and their descendants share their stories

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux saw many people who were unable to fit in with their communities once they left residential school, so many took to drinking. She says she learned to be quiet as a child to avoid violence and unwanted attention.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux's mother and stepfather both went to residential schools in Northern Ontario. She is now the vice-provost for aboriginal initiatives at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. This is her story.

My mother was at Shingwauk for eight years and my stepfather, who was married to my mother when I was young, was there for 12 years. He was from Lac Seul (First Nation) and my mother was from Manitoulin Island.

I was born in '56. When I was born, a lot of people coming out of residential schools tried to go home, but they didn't fit in any more or there wasn't anything for them to do there, so they migrated into urban centres like Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver. So there were a lot of people around me when I was growing up (in Toronto) who were direct residential-school participants.

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The one place that they met regularly was the local watering holes, the bars. There was a lot of drinking. And because they were directly out of residential schools, there was also a lot of domestic and sexual violence. So most of the kids in my generation were subjected to that – to the domestic violence, to the sexual violence, to the binge drinking.

From Thursday to Sunday morning was just one long binge. People came home from work, they did whatever they did, and then they were gone. They were out to the bars. And then they came home at one o'clock in the morning with friends in tow, and bootleg beer and partied until everybody passed out or got in a fight, or whatever. That was a regular weekend event.

On the reserves it would have been different because there wouldn't have been any work anyway, so people would have been getting by with whatever they had off the land. But they were still drinking.

(In Toronto) there was lots of alcohol and lots of things like Aqua Velva for the really seriously addicted.

There was sexual violence. That was happening on a regular basis. I had to put up with that, too. I was never raped, but people are drinking, nobody is watching. There was just no protection for kids in those days and I remember thinking it was pretty unsafe.

I have hyper vigilance and today it's a gift because I don't miss anything. But when I was a kid it was necessary. And so was silence and the ability to be invisible because invisibility meant I was safer. I wasn't a noisy child. I didn't want anybody to see me or know that I was there. It was better to be quiet.

There were tragic realities that many of us went through. But there are some enlightening realities in there, as well. And many people have found their way to success because they made choices that were very powerful and positive. And they have done a great job with their kids. We need to point out to people that, if you are given the opportunity to do something different and you do it, it's going to have a different kind of inter-generational effect.

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Dennis White Bird spent nine years at the Sandy Bay Indian Residential School in Manitoba. This is his story.

I was approximately six or seven years old when I first got kidnapped from a loving home.

As I was growing up in my home on Rolling River First Nation, I recall my mother giving me some pinches of tobacco and she would give me the honour of going to present the tobacco to my grandfather and ask him to share the evening, to share stories or to come and sing songs on his drum and to bring his pipe. And every night it was different. For me, that was probably the best part of my traditional education. And, if I hadn't received that, I think that I would have been very much damaged by the residential school.

From there, I was whisked away to residential school. I believe the first time we went, I had a ride with the Indian agent. He showed up and picked up a number of children from Rolling River First Nation and we all piled into the vehicle and he drove us 125 miles away to a school called Sandy Bay.

There, I was in a strange place, not knowing very many people, and basically I was placed in an environment where I had to survive. I couldn't speak English. My first language was Anishinaabe and I was only an Anishinaabe speaker at that point. And, because of that, I got severely punished, beat up and strapped many times because it was the only language I understood.

Once, I got beaten severely by a nun. I got slapped. My hair was pulled. I was punched and so forth, and slammed into the table and whatnot during meal time. My crime was I didn't know how to say please and thank you. I was still probably about six years old. The beating went on for about 10, 15, 20 minutes. She kept asking me questions and I was crying and she kept saying, "Did you have enough?" and I didn't know if I could say no, or yes, or whatever the case may be. And then she would hit me some more.

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When I was in Grade One, I distinctly remember this one nun grabbing me in the back of the head and bouncing me off one of those big army cabinets because I could not memorize one of the Catholic prayers. We had to memorize all these prayers and make sure we knew them by heart. And if we didn't, we were severely disciplined for it. I was crying and I was bleeding and I was in pain. There was no mercy. I was just left to defend on my own. Of course, we were all little children and, when someone was getting beat up like that, we weren't allowed to look at the individual. We had to keep our heads down.

We couldn't talk within certain hours and we had to be quiet, even as there was sexual abuse happening in the next bed, we had to be quiet about it. We all witnessed various forms of sexual abuse taking place when we were just kids. You have 100 beds in one dormitory all squished together and the priests and the nuns and the other lay missionaries going from bed to bed. You'd lie still and pretend to be sleeping when something like that was happening and you wanted to make sure you weren't the next person. There was physical and sexual abuse that was also happening in showers and there were even some (students) that were taken out of their beds and taken into the supervisor's sleeping quarters. It was rampant.

There were some that experienced permanent damage and, for myself, I carry a lot of emotional baggage and you are almost like a walking time bomb that's going to explode at any time.

I think what Truth and Reconciliation has done is expose all of the atrocities that took place in residential schools. I take it as genocide.

These stories have been edited and condensed.

Read more: - What is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

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- Commission to chart map of rocky road to reconciliation

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