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Rights + Justice

Still Surviving: Reconciliation Through Everyday Rebellion

Residential school survivors rebuild through small acts of hope and resistance. First of two.

Meghan Mast 2 Jun

Meghan Mast is a writer living in Winnipeg.

For years Gina Laing followed her grandmothers up the river behind the cannery to bathe. They'd walk along a little creek to a waterfall that poured into a clear green pond. A canopy of trees and ferns shaded the women as they slipped, fully clothed, into the water. How noble and then comical they looked when they emerged again -- arms in a V, hands turned upwards, clothes plastered to their skin, their long black braids dripping.

Both grandmothers were gone now. And that memory seemed far away as Laing, at 17, pushed her way through the trees. She had returned from residential school a year earlier. Stepping over the stones, she walked closer to the rushing water. She sat down on a large rock and studied the gun in her lap. Her last living grandmother had just died. The only person who "loved her without conditions." Slowly she lifted the heavy, metal object to her mouth.

Just then she heard a noise that made her look up. A blue heron hurtled through the sky, squawking wildly before belly flopping into the water, legs and wings splayed. Screeching and hollering, the bird climbed onto a rock and shook itself off. "I couldn't help it. I started laughing," she remembered. "I put the gun down. I started laughing. I started crying. I started laughing. I started crying. I figured, 'Well if you can be so ugly and awkward and fall all over the place and pick yourself up, I can do the same.'"

Gina Laing is now 67. A gentle woman with a warm manner and a penchant for flower-print shirts, she's a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. She watches Jim Carrey's Liar Liar when she's upset, or a Burt Lancaster movie where "the good guys always win." She also likes horror movies because she needs "to believe that there are things more terrible than what happened."

Laing was one of an estimated 150,000 aboriginal children across Canada brought to residential schools between 1876 until the last federally run school closed in 1996. Children were taken from their parents, often forcibly, and banned from speaking their language. The schools were part of a federal assimilation policy to integrate aboriginal people into white society. The goal was to 'kill the Indian' in the child.

In the 10 years she spent at Alberni Indian residential school, Laing, like many former students, suffered repeated sexual and physical abuse. She was seven when she arrived. "Residential school perverted everything that was beautiful," she said. Water had always been sacred to her family. But bath time at residential school remains a traumatic memory. Laing would sit in the recycled, cloudy bath water while staff scrubbed her until her skin was red and sore, calling her "a dirty little Indian."

Over time, she has come to love the water again. She doesn't have the strength to walk to the spot where her grandmothers bathed, but she uses her time in the shower to pray "to God." Though, she stressed, "I don't have to call him God if I don't want to." She reads the bible every night before bed. Something she learned from her mother, she said, not from residential school.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which gathered witness testimonies from 7,000 residential school survivors and their families beginning in 2009, wraps up this week, May 31 to June 3. The commission, funded by survivor's compensation money, aims to address the suffering of survivors but also educate the Canadian public about residential schools. The closing TRC events in Ottawa feature a walk for reconciliation, traditional ceremonies, cultural performances and survivor sharing circles.

As the commission traveled across Canada, stories of abuse and neglect in the schools leaked into the public consciousness. Participants have shared their experiences -- some privately, and others publicly and on the record at the new National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.

But the commission does not necessarily represent the beginning of healing for those involved. It took the federal government over 100 years to close the schools, apologize and acknowledge the devastating effects on aboriginal communities. Meanwhile, many survivors began their own healing long ago -- slowly rebuilding their worlds, reclaiming their everyday existence through small acts of hope and resistance.

Cedar braids and skull tattoos

When I first met Dennis Bob, at a white-walled Waves coffee shop in Burnaby a couple years ago, he was armed with a Ziploc bag full of photos from his past. Also in the bag was a newspaper cutout image of a rabbit with a cat's face drawn on it in pen. He laughed when he pulled it out to show me. He'd brought the image to look at when he got emotional. His girlfriend, Cynthia Keitlah, sat nearby in case he needed support.

At over six-feet-tall, he's an imposing figure. The cross tattoo near his left eye, along with the rest of his tattoos -- most of which are skulls -- he said he got in prison. He thought looking tough would keep people at a distance. "But it brought in rotten people and made us all rotten," he said.

582px version of Dennis Bob and Cyndie Keitlah
Dennis Bob shares a smile with his partner, Cyndie Keitlah. Photo by Meghan Mast.

Bob, who is 52, also attended Alberni Indian residential school. He arrived at the school just before his fifth birthday in the late 1960s -- four years after Gina Laing had finished -- and left three years later. Today he wears an artificial eardrum on his left ear where he was smacked repeatedly. The ringing in his ear has not stopped. His abuser, dorm supervisor Arthur Henry Plint, was sentenced to 11 years in prison, in 1997, after pleading guilty to charges of indecent assault. Plint's trial was the third residential school case to be filed by a group of Indigenous claimants and prompted an RCMP investigation of similar schools across British Columbia.

Bob shared his story at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event in Vancouver, British Columbia in September 2013. He wore a cedar braid headband and carried a drum on stage with him into the large auditorium before sitting at a table facing commissioner Marie Wilson. He and his table of supporters filled two large screens on either side of the stage. As he spoke he looked down, heaving big laboured breaths that lifted his chest and shoulders. He fought through a cracking voice, clearing his throat several times between reading the words he'd scrawled on a piece of lined paper.

In April, he relayed his testimony for the Independent Assessment Process, which provides compensation for survivors who suffered physical or sexual abuse at residential schools. He forgot his photo of the rabbit with the cat face, but he did bring a class photo, of when he was five or six, from his time at residential school. In the picture, the bottom of his pant leg is darker than the rest. He wanted the government officials to see how he'd wet himself. "I wanted them to understand why that little boy peed himself," he said. "Because he was abused." Bob said his hands trembled as he went in on his own. He wore a cedar bandana, made by Keitlah, with small feathers from the tips of an eagle wing for strength. Keitlah waited for him in the lobby along with his mom and his auntie.

"After I spoke about it I cried so hard I almost got rid of [the pain]," he said. "I have a little more and then I'm done, I'm hoping."

Violence and the everyday

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, now winding down, has held gatherings in small cities and several national events in major cities. Justice Murray Sinclair worked on a report, and he will present a summary at the final events this week. Three years ago Gina Laing shared her story, both publicly and privately, at a TRC event.

She showed some of the artwork she created in an art therapy workshop. Many of those paintings were later featured at a gallery at the University of British Columbia. It was there I met Laing. She'd sat in front of her paintings -- brightly coloured representations of her residential school experience -- and shared the stories behind the angry black lines that streaked through the canvases and the omnipresent yellow eyes. "We were always being watched," she said. Some of these paintings, along with several others she made during her time at Alberni Indian residential school, will be considered for display at a new exhibition on reconciliation at the Canadian Museum of History.

Laing said she chose to testify at the TRC because she wanted people to know what had happened to her. She wanted to share the pain she'd endured. She wanted to educate people, but sharing her story that day wasn't central to her own healing.

As she spoke that day, and over the subsequent conversations we had, it became clear to me that Laing's personal reconciliation had begun a long time ago. Decades of counselling have helped her regain her life. But equally important is the small ways she re-experiences and rebels against what happened to her at residential school.

Ethnographer Veena Das nicely articulates the importance of daily tasks. She spends long periods of time with people affected by traumatic events and lived for several years with urban Punjabi families who had lived through the violent riots of the Partition in 1947. Through intimate, in-depth research, she studies how traumatic events affect everyday life for individual people. In her book, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, she writes that when a traumatic event occurs, that experience "attaches itself with its tentacles into everyday life and folds itself into the recesses of the ordinary."

She writes that daily tasks are crucial to combatting unspeakable horrors, because the answer to relieving social suffering lies not in transcendental experiences.

Rather, the answer lies in the mundane rhythms of life.

The 'wild west'

Over a year ago, I visited Laing's family home in Hilthatis, a small Uchucklesaht tribe reserve village near Port Alberni -- home today to only one family and loggers passing through. We had kept in touch since meeting at the gallery and she invited me to join the family's regular weekend trip. Back then, the family was commuting between Port Alberni and their village every Friday. When the band cancelled funding for school transit, the family had to rent a home in the city during the week so Erika, Laing's granddaughter, could attend school.

I climbed into the back of the family's black Ford pick-up; its cab was packed with red gasoline tanks, boxes of groceries and tuna sandwiches. The Laings tend to drive pothole-filled logging roads with no guardrails for a couple hours. They braved the narrow roads hoping they wouldn't meet a logging truck along the way.

"That's where I used to go to school," Laing pointed to barely visible roof peaks at the top of a steep hill. "Do you want to see it?"

"Sure," I replied, surprised at the casual nature of her suggestion.

Gravel crunched under the weight of the truck as we pulled up the hill towards the former site of Alberni Indian residential school. Expecting big, dark, decrepit structures, I was surprised to see several well-kept buildings, a pastel mural and an active parking lot. Laing told me most of the old school was torn down when the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe repossessed the land. Former students helped pull apart the old structures in 2009, smashing windows and wrenching wood from nails. We looped around, passing each building before heading back down the hill. It occurred to me Laing passes this site every time she travels to and from home.

Back on the road, her granddaughter tried to figure me out.

"What's your favourite colour?"

"What's your favourite food?"

"What's your favourite band?"

"What's your favourite food again? I forgot," she blushed.

After a long drive, with several stops to admire the view and forage for mushrooms, we arrived at a small dock. A chainsaw screamed from the nearby logging camp, and pop music played from a neighbouring boom box. We moved the boxes down the ramp to the dock while Laing's husband called a friend, from a walkie-talkie, to pick us up.

582px version of Hilthatis
View near Gina Laing's old home in Hilthatis, a small reserve village near Port Alberni. Photo by Meghan Mast.

Laing referred to her childhood years on the reserve as the 'Wild West.' There was no accountability for the abuse that happened. Women did not leave the reserve unscathed by sexual assault. Families were deeply broken by cycles of abuse. Mostly everyone had attended residential school. Laing said the abuse didn't stop once she left school. Her father wasn't around during the summers, when she returned from school, but he was around during the year. He would often fly into unpredictable rages. She'd sleep under the bed behind boxes, when he was home, so he couldn't find her.

Her father had attended the same residential school and Laing believes he was abused by the same man she was. "I remember [the supervisor] hauled a picture of a little boy and showed it to me. He said, 'This is your father. Look how blond he is. Just like you,'" she mimed the way he'd stroked her as he spoke.

But her father was often away from home for work. And home brought some freedoms that residential school hadn't. She could stay up as late as she wanted to, watch as much television as she wanted to, and eat as much as she wanted to, whenever she wanted to. She did not have to eat pasta. The strange, slippery strands in the school cafeteria looked like larger versions of the worms that infected the salmon at the end of the fish season. "I always wondered how they managed to cut all the heads off," she said.

As the boat neared the reserve, the clear ocean water lapped against the shore. The sun warmed the sand. "Coming home is like medicine," Laing said.

A new home

Since we last spoke, Laing lost her home. On New Year's Eve, while at her daughter's house in Nanaimo, her brother phoned and asked if she was sitting down. "I said, 'Yeah I'm sitting down.'" She was worried, thinking he was calling about one of her kids. He said her house in Hilthatis burned to the ground. The lawn mower was found flipped over, and the cap on the gas tank was missing. The cap to the gas tank on the ATV was also off, and lying on the ground next to it. She said the police are suspicious of the fire. It seems to have started from the outside.

She has visited Hilthatis once since then. Everything is in ashes except what was metal. She walked through the rubble and found a few tools on the back porch. One of the RCMP officers salvaged a frying pan for her.

Laing has made a home in Port Alberni now, but still hopes to rebuild in Hilthatis one day. "I thought I would be there until the day I died," she said. "Then they would pack me out. Because that's home."

She missed the parts of her house that held memories, particularly her porch with the big flowered Martha Stewart umbrella. But she does not want to be defined by the loss. She said living in Port Alberni has afforded her opportunities she may not have gotten if she was still living in Hilthatis. She has spoken to students at different schools on Vancouver Island about her experience at residential school. Her artwork was featured in an exhibit in Port Alberni, Northern Ontario and the University of Victoria.

Gina Laing talks about home.

She'd always thought of her home in Hilthatis as a healing place, but said she's forced to look after herself now. "It's a part of my life I have to tuck away. I can't stay stagnant and stale," she said.

Survival mode

With long black hair, a cautious smile, and soft arms, April Thompson looks just like Laing, her mom. We arranged to meet a couple years ago. She greeted me at the front door of her apartment in Nanaimo before leading me through the beige hallways, up the stairs into her suite. She sat at the table in front of a bowl of frozen peaches on a table cluttered with Halloween make-up, school notebooks and a roll of toilet paper she occasionally reached for to blow her nose. Her arm crossed her body, settling into the nook of her other elbow.

She talked about what she and her siblings called survival mode. Even though her mother did not talk about residential school until much later, the experience was always present -- saturating Thompson's childhood memories. She remembered wearing clothes and shoes to bed. Her mother hung a bag of food and emergency supplies on both the front and back door. This was so that they'd be ready to go if Laing's partner at the time came home drunk. But it was also, Laing had said earlier, because she lived in fear that "they would take my children away like they took me from my mom."

Even outside their home, the family was on alert. "When we'd go to a restaurant we'd plan a path of escape," Thompson said. She still plans an escape route when she's in a public place. And she'll often point out the exit to her daughters.

These rituals echo the intergenerational "lived memories" of the past that anthropologist Carol Kidron's describes. Though Thompson's mother did not tell her about it until much later, the residential school experience was very present in Thompson's childhood. Kidron works with the children of Holocaust survivors. During one study, where she conducted in-depth interviews with children of survivors, she found that trauma became visible through the ways survivors conducted their daily tasks. "The nonverbal and partially verbal traces of the Holocaust [were] interwoven in everyday life. These traces form a vital experiential matrix of Holocaust presence in the private domain," she writes in her article, "Towards an ethnography of silence."

Memories of trauma can attach themselves to ordinary objects. Kidron talks about how one woman's mother keeps the spoon she ate soup with in Auschwitz. She doesn't keep it memorialized in a separate case, but instead keeps it in the utensil drawer and uses it to feed her children oatmeal every morning. This might go unnoticed by most. But small acts of rebellion like this are crucial to reclaiming life after trauma. Every morning this mother uses the spoon she gives the Nazis her proverbial middle finger. Not only has she survived, now she uses the spoon to nourish her children -- furthering the bloodline the Nazis failed to eliminate. Kidron writes that "if the spoon from Auschwitz holds one's morning oatmeal, then one cannot disentangle the mundane life-world as one knows it from the interwoven co-presence of the Holocaust past."

Eating with the spoon confirms this mother's strength and ability to survive, embedding this belief about herself in her daily life.

Find the second half of this article here.  [Tyee]

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