The Suffering of Canada’s Indigenous People

How entire communities were destroyed by an inhumane government policy

The Suffering of Canada’s Indigenous People
People stand in front of a makeshift memorial to honor the 215 children who’s remains were recently discovered in a mass grave, at the main entrance of The Mohawk Institute, a former residential school for First Nation kids, in Brantford, Ontario, Canada on May 31, 2021 / Cole Burston / AFP via Getty Images

“Who hurt you, Mama? I know someone did because I can hear them when you yell at me.”

I heard this sentence from another residential school survivor, and immediately I felt it in the core of my being. I felt that familiar anguish, that familiar rage that a woman so beautiful and innocent was torn to shreds on a spiritual level, and then I think of all the hundreds of thousands of residential school survivors and their families, and the rage quietens to prayer and resistance.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, 150,000 Indigenous children were ripped from their families and sent to Canadian boarding schools to be assimilated in what are known as residential schools. Thousands died, and thousands more went missing until the entire system was disbanded in 1996.

In my own life, residential school stole so much from me, everyone I love, and those who loved me.

It began when my mother, Lillian Semaganis, was apprehended and taken to residential school at the age of 7, where she stayed for seven years without once going home. My grandparents, who we often call Kokumis (KO-ko-miss, meaning grandmother) and Moshumis (MO-sho-miss, meaning grandfather) had 13 children who went to residential school. I cannot fathom their anguish, and I am certain it contributed to their deaths at a relatively young age. My Kokumis did not live to 50 years of age, my Moshumis around the same.

The biggest impact of residential school is that it took our “Gift of Nurturing.” Nurturing is what exists now in healthy Indigenous communities, when we bead all winter to make pow wow regalia for our families and young ones, when we dote on them, when we braid our prayers into the hair of our children every morning. Nurturing is so many good, beautiful things that we share with our children, whether we are parents, Kokum or Moshum, aunties or uncles, or cousins. The family is sacred to Indigenous people, and we treasure each other like all healthy families should.

Residential school took away our Gift of Nurturing.

It left mothers and fathers at home mourning for their young ones, and entire communities fell silent without the laughter of children playing. It left sad, pained adults forcing themselves through life, waiting for their children to come back. It makes me sad to think of my Kokumis and Moshumis being heartbroken.

When they took my Mama, they would have cut her hair. She couldn’t speak English; she only spoke Plains Cree. Even in 1997, when speaking with her at her home in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, in the midst of laughter, she was still hesitant to teach me our Plains Cree language, for she was afraid that I would be beaten for speaking it. Many residential school survivors have expressed the same sentiment.

Twenty years ago, in Northern Ontario on the beautiful island reserve of Temagami (“The Deep Water People”), my then father-in-law Kush spoke Cree to my oldest son Brad, who was 4 years old at the time. Brad had been taught on the Mistawasis Reserve, and he was fluent in Plains Cree for a while when he was very young. I was surprised with Kush, having never heard him speak Cree.

“Kush! I didn’t know you could speak Cree, too!”

“I learned Cree when I was young, before they beat it out of us.”

Kush also spoke his own language, and Monpi, his first cousin and closest friend, the same. The Elders, who I had the privilege to know and love, said they didn’t want their children to speak their own language for the same reason as my mother — they did not want them beaten for speaking it.

The loss of language is devastating because our original Indigenous languages are vibrant and descriptive of family relationships, our relationship with the land, and all our relations in our cultures. Sometimes, there are no adequate translations because our emotions in these words are so deep and tied to the land and way of life.

My beautiful Mama kept her Cree language tucked in her heart where it stayed.

The Gift of Nurturing includes the precious Indigenous languages we once spoke all the time and how we love one another and what we do for each other.

Her own hair was cut, and she was not allowed contact with her siblings in the same residential school. She was beaten if she uttered anything in Cree.

Without that Gift of Nurturing, she was hesitant to raise her own children and be a loving mother because she did not know how. She wasn’t taught gentleness, kindness, how to make bannock or braid hair. Her own hair was cut, and she was not allowed contact with her siblings in the same residential school. She was beaten if she uttered anything in Cree. There was no tucking in at night, no hugs, no adoration, and no gentleness at all. I don’t know much else because my Mama was pained to think about it.

So pained, it killed her.

In January 2014, my Mama called me from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, at my home in North Bay, Ontario.

“Nitanis (ni-TAA-is, meaning daughter), can you come? I need to testify at the residential school hearings here, and I want you to hold my hand.”

“Mama, I’m in university and can’t make it right now. I will come as soon as I can in May, ok?”

And I assumed she would be all right because I knew she was a strong person. She finished testifying on Feb. 28, 2014 and died three days later. I believe she died from a broken heart, having to relive everything that tormented her and that was stolen from her. My heart broke too, having not been there to hold her hand.

I cannot even imagine all that my Mama lost: loss of innocence, loss of language, loss of family, loss of hair, loss of dignity, and loss of identity. And the loss continued throughout her life, shaping her relationship with us, her children. How could one know how to parent when all you knew growing up was a concentration camp run by nuns and priests?

You want your own parents and family and to be able to run outside along the Saskatchewan River and play with your friends, but you’re in a concentration camp for children and beaten into submission and silence.

“Who hurt you, Mama? I know someone did because I hear them when you yell at me.”

My Mama lost her own children because she asked the government for help. She had lost her spouse in a tragic car accident and then endured a sexual assault during which she was beaten and left to die. Instead of helping her, they declared her an unfit mother and took her children, all seven of us, to be adopted into the AIM program.

The AIM program was the Adopt Indian & Metis and was very different from the other AIM that emerged in the United States, which stands for American Indian Movement and was formed when the Warriors of our Nation grew tired of the incessant oppression and exploitation of our people.

But AIM Saskatchewan was meant to scoop up as many Indigenous children as possible and adopt them permanently into white families, which is what happened to me. I was adopted into a white family in small-town Saskatchewan where there were no other Indigenous children like me living there. Every province and territory in Canada had a similar program that stole hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children again and adopted them out into white families in an effort to assimilate us because residential schools failed to kill the so-called Indian Problem.

This mass apprehension of Indigenous children happened in the U.S., too, and we were sent all over the world — just to keep us out of Indigenous communities and to be raised by white families. We live all across North America and in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia. Yes, they sent us that far to assimilate us.

This second wave of assimilation was known as the “Sixties Scoop” and is only now coming to light as survivors like me are starting to speak out about the oppression and loss of identity and culture. In Canada, there is a national lawsuit that resulted in a settlement for Sixties Scoop survivors, now being doled out to whoever survived the total erasure of a cultural self.

There are less than 50,000 Sixties Scoop survivors from around an estimated 250,000, and even fewer residential school survivors.

My Mama never liked to talk about things that went on at the residential school. I asked her once, of course, but the reaction I saw — her smile was replaced with a contorted expression followed by overwhelming sadness and silence — I didn’t want her to suffer any more, so I didn’t ask again.

As an artist, a jingle dress dancer, a photographer, and a pow wow vendor, I have traveled all over the continent and met so many beautiful and resilient Indigenous people, my own people. We fight so hard to take back what was taken from us: our language, our cultural ways, our traditions, our land! It is difficult to comprehend and harder to defy the loss of all things Indigenous, to keep living a good life, and to keep the circle strong. Like my Mama before me, I’m left to forge myself from scraps left over by government policy, genocide, racism, and exploitation.

The cost of residential school is staggering and immeasurable.

What is valuable? For me, it is that Gift of Nurturing. I do not always succeed in being a good and emotionally solid parent for my own children. As a Sixties Scoop survivor, the first generation after my residential school survivor Mama, I also wasn’t nurtured in the traditional way of our people. I didn’t have Kokum or my Mama to teach me how to make bannock or tan hides, how to use Saskatoon berries, or how to look for Sweetgrass, one of our traditional medicines. I didn’t go to ceremonies as a child.

For all that was lost, I try to give my own children. It’s not easy to give your child an upbringing that you yourself were deprived of. It’s operating on a blank slate and you have no clue, but you try. I come from beautiful and resilient people, so I must try, every single day, and never give up.

Where are the residential school survivors now? And the first generation after — the Sixties Scoop survivors?

We are everywhere, all over Mother Earth.

We are the homeless, the addicted, the tormented, the silent, the workers, the parents, the sober, the pow wow dancers, the leaders, the brave.

For all that was lost, we try to rebuild. In my own family, we sought to take back what was taken. For my Mama, it was her innocence and the loss of her children who were taken to residential school, and that precious Gift of Nurturing.

We found each other except for one, my oldest sister, Cleo Semaganis Nicotine, who was adopted to the U.S., but we did not know where, and no one would help us find her. The search for my oldest sister was documented in the CBC Podcast “Finding Cleo,” which was released in March 2018 and has had over 30 million downloads worldwide and counting.

That podcast teaches us about residential school and its impact on families and Indigenous people. It speaks about intergenerational trauma and why it was such a devastating event for us. The closure of the last residential school in Canada in 1996 is well within my lifetime, and the impacts are still very real for me in my life.

“Who hurt you, Mama? I know someone did because I can hear them when you yell at me.”

To carry such anguish is not an easy thing. It is a huge and unspoken burden, and for years we have been carrying it on our own. Society wants us to just carry on as if we are normal people and forget about the pained looks on our parents’ faces when we mention two words: residential school.

Some of us don’t carry the anguish as well as others. So many have died because of broken hearts, like my Mama, or have been lost to addiction, mental health issues, and suicide. Young ones, older ones, the anguish is something that all Indigenous people over the age of 40 carry. Government assimilation policies have killed hundreds of thousands of my people, and it still kills us today.

The toll of those lost, those who have suffered (our very own moms, dads, grandparents, aunties, and uncles), those who continue to suffer, and the cycle of intergenerational trauma are very real and taxing for us in our daily lives; for some, it will continue to be for the rest of our lives. That precious Gift of Nurturing, we need it back to save our own children today and stop the cycle of loss and anguish.

On May 28, 2021, it was announced that the bodies of 215 Indigenous children were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, and our hearts were torn open. We’ve been saying that our history is important, that we’ve been dying in these residential schools, and continue to die years later.

The bodies of 215 children have sent a message that is louder than the voices of a thousand politicians and millions of ordinary citizens. Only now are people finally ready to acknowledge that our pleas ought to be heard, that we ought to be treated fairly, that our stories ought to be shared in schools, that we ought to be recognized, empowered and seen, and our truth understood.

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