Lila Bruyere is an Ojibway public speaker based in Sarnia, Ont., who is originally from Couchiching First Nation near Fort Frances, Ont. She attended St. Margaret’s Residential School from age 6 to 14.
Where the oblates, nuns and priests at St. Margaret’s Residential School learned their behaviour, that’s beyond me. But I do know how I became me.
I was the youngest child of 12, to parents who also attended St. Margaret’s. They worked incredibly hard at their fishing business, but they did not know how to be parents, because their role models were the same ones I had. As a result, they weren’t able to give me the nurturing care I needed at a young age. Instead, I saw violence at that school – sexual abuse, and beatings for speaking Indigenous languages, which forced kids to give up their language unless they spoke it in whispers. I felt violence too, at the hands of a nun who hit me with a ruler hard enough to leave scars. Instead of care, we were kept apart from our family members and our identities. Instead of care, I felt fear.
After decades of being told our language and our cultural ways were no good – that our beliefs were heathen and uncivilized, that we were savages – I know how hard it can be to untangle how we became ourselves.
That’s why, as another National Day for Truth and Reconciliation arrives, I cannot help but feel that reconciliation is impossible in my lifetime.
I used to think it could happen. But after unmarked graves were found at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last year, I feel that it won’t. Many Indigenous people knew those graves were there – yet even now, it feels as if we are still in denial. Nothing has been done to help with the grief.
Too much damage has been done. Indigenous people are simply dealing with too many deep, entrenched losses – loss of language, of culture, of spirituality – and too many violations. And generations of non-Indigenous people grew up thinking it was okay to look at us differently – to judge us as lesser. How can our leaders have solutions for all these problems? How can we approach reconciliation if people won’t understand how we each became ourselves?
Many Indigenous people have responded to our pain – the intergenerational trauma from residential schools – with anger. My parents told me about how, in their day, Indigenous people were caring. We would share our bountiful game and grain, they said, and we would share in the watchful care of each other’s children. But that doesn’t happen any more. Too many families don’t talk to each other; they don’t gather on holidays with their loved ones.
Meanwhile, drugs and alcohol are killing Indigenous youth. I’ve seen it firsthand, before I retired as an addictions counsellor. So many of our young people told me that they think nothing of dying, that they do not see the value of their presence within their families. I have seen too many people die, and they have no clue the kind of pain they are leaving behind.
And First Nation chiefs, many of whom aren’t standing up for their community or enforcing change, have grown afraid of approaching dealers in their communities. Reports of embezzlement, meanwhile, have caused trust issues in Indigenous leadership.
When did we stop caring? Is this the way of life we want to pass down? We need to address these questions first, before we think of reconciliation.
If we could agree on our shared path ahead, then we could start that process. But we can’t even seem to agree how severe our dilemma is. There is still too much to work to do first.
Even Murray Sinclair, a former senator and the chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, acknowledged as much. “I did say … at the end of the TRC report that we will not achieve reconciliation in my lifetime,” he told the CBC in 2021. “We will probably not achieve it in the lifetime of my children. We may not even achieve it in the lifetime of my grandchildren.”
As Indigenous elders, we’ve seen the devastation happening to our communities and have asked for help. We are still waiting. But we can’t just say there is no solution to these problems – that would make us stuck in our ways, stuck in a colonized way of thinking. We can’t just give up: Doing nothing would only hurt ourselves and our youth. We have to change, too. We have to wake up. But we also have to be realistic.