Appearing at a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on residential schools on March 8, the K’atl’odeeche First Nation leader said, for the 100 years of the schools, children were taken away from their communities and returned home when they were about 16.
“The elders quickly saw that there was something wrong with these kids and they simply immersed them back into Dene culture and turned them back into Dene people,” he said in testimony before the commission, which held a hearing on the Hay River Reserve on March 7 and 8.
However, Fabian said Dene unknowingly participate in assimilation today through the existing education system.
A high school diploma means graduates have been taught to be a “good Englishman,” he said. “They’re no longer a Dene.”
Fabian argued that assimilation policy needs to change, and he encouraged the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to try to get government to do so.
“We need to encourage Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories to begin operating Dene immersion schools completely in Dene,” he said.
In all, 25 people testified in public at the TRC hearing, while 11 people made private statements. Along with the Hay River Reserve and Hay River, they came from Fort Providence, Kakisa, Fort Resolution, Enterprise and Fort Smith.
Almost all told similar stories of persistent negative effects from the residential school experience – attempted assimilation, loss of language, broken family connections, humiliation and varying degrees of abuse.
Commissioner Marie Wilson of Yellowknife listened intently to the testimony.
“It is not normal to live a lifetime in shame and guilt,” said Julia Pokiak-Trennert of Hay River, adding it is also not normal to live a life disconnected from your family.
Pokiak-Trennert, who attended residential school in Aklavik, noted that for some families there are no known last resting places for relatives taken away to residential school.
She suggested that, in honour of all who died and are in unmarked graves throughout Canada, a national memorial wall should be built in Ottawa.
“The wall would give me and other survivors a sense of justice and closure,” she said.
After her presentation, Pokiak-Trennert said talking before the commission was a positive experience.
“Now I can start a completely brand-new life, like a newborn baby,” she said. “That’s how powerful it has been for me.”
Clara Sabourin of the Hay River Reserve told of dealing with the effects of her year in an Alberta residential school when she was a teenager.
“I don’t want to live a life like this any longer,” she said, adding she has to let go of the past.
Following her address to the commission, Sabourin said it was a very emotional experience.
“I really want to heal because it’s like I feel numb, and I don’t like being that way,” she said. “I want to be just a normal person.”
Amy Mercredi of Enterprise read excerpts from a book by her late husband, Joe Mercredi, who wrote that he never experienced any violence or abuse at residential school.
“There was a lot of good that was done,” Amy Mercredi read. “We should not throw out the good with the bad. We must remember the good.”
Mercredi’s brief submission prompted Wilson to say the commission welcomed positive recollections of residential schools.
Perhaps the most riveting testimony came from Kakisa’s Margaret Leishman, who said she is not ready to forgive those responsible for the residential school system.
“For what residential school did to me, to all our people, I cannot forgive,” she said. “No human deserved what they did to us.”
Near the end of her testimony, Leishman, who spent 10 years in residential school, wailed and sobbed in anguish, prompting many people to rally around her to offer support and causing some audience members to break into tears.
“I’m so angry,” she shouted, as she struck her fists onto the witness table.
The 67-year-old explained she felt rage because of what happened to her and others in the residential school system, including five of her six siblings.
“It’s not OK,” she said. “You don’t do that to a race.”
Fabian, himself a residential school survivor, noted his community requested the TRC hearing take place on the Hay River Reserve.
“By having the TRC here, we are hoping that we will recognize what really happened to us as Dene people here on the reserve,” he said, adding it was felt the community needed to speak
At the conclusion of the hearing, Wilson said survivors’ concerns had been heard.
“I think it’s very important for me to assure you that I have listened carefully, that I have heard you, and I hope that it is important to you to know that you have been heard,” she said.
Wilson said the TRC is focused on healing and education, both for individuals and Canada as a whole.
The commissioner said the process is to help the country heal itself from “massive ignorance” about the residential school system and the broken relationships between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.
It is not fast or easy work, she said. “But it is possible work.”