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Truth and forgiveness

by Archives January 22, 2008

MONTREAL (CUP) — Audrey Redman sits down in front of the microphone in the tiny booth at CKLN, the community radio station at Ryerson University. She puts on her headphones, adjusts the levels and slides up the master volume. It’s Sunday evening, a fall day in Toronto, idyllically Canadian, with bursts of gold, red and orange through the green belt. For the next hour Redman’s show Honour the Earth broadcasts over the city, a combination of news and spoken word. She puts on her headphones and waxes poetically – and sometimes angrily – about Canada and her life as a Dakota Cree.
“They’d rather listen to a story about Africa or Burma than a story about Six Nations,” Redman says about Canadians. People want to “act globally,” but in doing so it’s easy to overlook human rights abuses in your own backyard.
Redman looks younger than her 56 years. Her waist-length black hair shines, with only a few grey strands. But appearances can be deceiving, and under that hair lies a brutal past. When she was six years old, Redman was plucked up from her home in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley and sent to residential school.
And while many of her friends are cashing in for their share of the federal government settlement for residential school survivors-$10,000 for the first year and $3,000 for each additional year- Redman has sent in her opt-out forms.
“You can’t put a price on my suffering,” she hisses. “You can’t buy healing.”

Painful Past

Redman spent the first six years of her life living on the Standing Buffalo native reservation. “I remember open plains. We had all the freedom that any child could want. The children had the run of the plains.”
When she left for school, Redman didn’t know where she was going. While the children all waited in line outside the strange building she held on tight to a stranger’s hand for comfort. It got dark as they entered the school. The sun didn’t penetrate the maze of dark stairwells going up and down and corridors going left and right. It was her life for the next seven years. Run by Catholic Grey Nuns from Montreal, St. Paul’s Residential School was about 10 miles away from the reserve, near Lebret, Saskatchewan. Although it was close to home, Redman recalls, life in the school was a world away from life on the reserve.
“We ate in lines, stood in lines, slept in lines.”
Some 130 Indian residential schools were established across the country, many before Confederation. Catholic missionaries established the very first in the 1600s. Before Confederation, the schools were mandated under the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857. Although assimilation policies continued post-Confederation, by the ’70s, most such schools had closed; the last school shut its doors in 1996-the same year the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples shed light on abuses that occurred at many of these schools. From the intentional spread of tuberculosis to rape and physical violence, abuses were institutional and systematic.
Over 3,700 claims have already been settled against the government, seeking compensation for physical or sexual abuse. In 2005, then-Justice Minister Irwin Cotler called the residential school system “the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history.”
At Concordia University’s Centre for Native Education, director Manon Tremblay says not all schools were created equal. “Some schools were not as bad,” she said. There may have been less abuse, but Tremblay says the cultural loss is still devastating.
At Redman’s school all the children’s hair was cut and their clothes from the outside world were taken away. They were punished if they spoke, and especially if they spoke their native language.
“I remember Mrs. Town. She was the first white woman I’d ever met. I remember her yelling at me, ‘Sauvage,’ and I wondered, what is that word?” said Redman, but the way the word sounded, she knew what it meant. “I don’t remember one kind word, one kind act.”
The cultural effects of the schools had started to take effect by the time Redman and her siblings went through the system. Redman grew up speaking English. Even on the reserve, their native language already losing hold. Her grandparents refused to teach her parents Cree.
“In the first generation it doesn’t work so well. In the schoolyard children have ways of communicating, and in the fields,” Tremblay explains. “But that generation of parents are going to teach their kids English to protect them. It was a gesture to protect the family. They intentionally don’t pass on culture.”
Her knowledge of English afforded Redman some protection and she wasn’t targeted for physical abuse. But her brother was raped. Her sister was beaten and eventually ran away from the school at age 15. Native youth coming out the schools were stuck in a cultural no-man’s land. Their childhoods weren’t steeped in the culture of their people, yet the white establishment didn’t accept them either.
“They might have made you speak English and strip your culture, but they weren’t able to whitewash you either,” says Tremblay. “You’re stuck between two worlds.” And that’s where the problems start.
Redman and her siblings ended up in Regina, but had nowhere to go. “No one would hire an Indian,” she says. Her brother was in and out of jail for the next 30 years. He contracted HIV in prison and died of AIDS. After a hard life, with time on the streets, her sister also died young.
“I feel like I am an exception to the rule. I was able to escape the violence and the alcoholism. I don’t know how it happened,” she says.

Burden of the Truth

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People put the residential school issue into the public eye. In 1998 the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was established with a budget of $350 million to be distributed to community-based initiatives. But as more and more survivors of the schools came forward with stories of abuse, the Canadian government had to do more. In 2005 Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci was appointed “to negotiate a fair and lasting resolution,” according to federal government documents. About 80,000 people who attended the schools are still alive.
The eventual settlement had several parts. It called for a cash payout called the “common experience payment” for anyone who attended residential schools, a separate process to compensate those who suffered abuse, as well as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Setting the record straight, it is believed, will allow the healing process to begin.
Among its functions, the TRC will travel around the country and collect stories. It will have three commissioners, at least one of whom must be aboriginal. The selection committee gathered more than 300 applications by the August 2007 deadline and hopes to have a shortlist ready in the coming weeks. It’s a slow-moving process, but attention to the TRC has been building.
“Indian residential schools have affected a huge portion of the Aboriginal population in Canada and mainstream society is largely ignorant,” says Seetal Sunga, a representative from the interim office of the TRC. “[The school system was responsible for] interrupting families and communities. It’s fundamentally race-based and has affected how Aboriginal people are included in the social fabric of Canada.”
Sunga says the TRC is about nation-building and differs greatly from other commissions. The exercise is not about writing a report that will sit on a shelf, but about promoting participation, learning and healing, she says. “One of the big challenges is to raise awareness. We’re going to have to be a bit of a megaphone.”
The two co-chairs of the commission are big names in the realm of Aboriginal rights. Former B.C. Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger has been a commissioner for several inquiries, including the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, and has done human rights work internationally. Marlene Brant Castellano is of Mohawk origin and was heavily involved in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples as co-director of research, which ran from 1992 until 1996.

The problems with money

The class-action settlement called on Canada to provide significant financial resources: $60 million for the TRC, $20 million for commemorative events and $1.9 billion for common experience payouts. Still, with an average payout of $25,000, the money has made little difference for the many who live in poverty. Redman says that in her experience it is difficult to directly access support from many of the government and non-governmental organizations that should be there to help her.
“Some people say the lawyers are the real winners in this,” said Manon Tremblay from her office at Concordia. In November Canada paid out $45.6 million to the lawyers involved in the class-action suit on residential schools. The CBC reports this is the largest legal bill Canada has ever paid.
Tremblay understands Redman’s frustration. Millions of dollars have already been spent on government initiatives to solve the problems facing native communities.
In 2001 the Assembly of First Nations published a progress report and gave the federal government a failing grade due to “a lack of progress on socio-economic indicators.”
“The federal response has been limited to providing some funding in targeted areas such as early childhood development, diabetes, housing, sewage infrastructure, some aspects of education reform, water management and social assistance,” the AFN reported. Recommendations that range from developing a network of healing lodges to the abolishment of the department of Indian Affairs have been largely ignored, according to the report.
Most recently, the government common experience payment has come under criticism. On Nov. 26, CBC reported that a Manitoba man, Steve Daniels, was ready to take the government to court. He did not receive full compensation for his seven years in residential school on the grounds that he boarded outside the school with a white family. Concerns were also raised in the Montreal Gazette that $86.2 million earmarked for the settlement agreement was transferred to Human Resources and Skill Development to defray costs of the summer jobs program. In attempt to allay worries Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl responded in the House of Commons that everyone entitled to compensation will get it.

Hope and healing

At the Interim Office of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Seetal Sunga is still optimistic the TRC will provide a unique space and an alternative to the usual Canadian process of writing reports that collect dust. She hopes the process will work for people like Audrey Redman, suspicious of the common experience payment.
“Ultimately the story does belong to the survivor,” says Sunga. “If someone wants to come before the TRC, it’s based on residency, it’s open to anybody. It doesn’t matter if you’ve opted out [of the settlement].”
While thousands are no longer alive to tell their stories, Sunga hopes this history can also be collected from stories passed down. At the end of the TRC, a public archive on residential schools will be established. Sunga says this will be one of the lasting legacies of the commission, and will play a role in heightening public awareness and education.
Back in Toronto, Audrey Redman is going through her own healing process. Aside from the radio show on CKLN she is an avid writer, documenting her experiences and the movement towards healing. “I didn’t feel comfortable going to a government agency for counseling and help,” she said. Poverty has almost forced her to the streets on more than one occasion, but Redman was able to raise her five children and the head back to school in her 40s.
“I put a lot of years into giving them the childhood that I didn’t have. Putting that time with them and doing best I possibly could,” she says. “In the circle of life we have all our family around us. [Through residential schooling] they took everyone out and now we stand alone.”
She is now employed with the Canadian Executive Service Organization, a service that matches volunteers with community organizations and help with finances and governance. Now that lumps of settlement money from residential schools are reaching survivors, CESO is organizing volunteers to help people with everything from budgeting and money management to writing wills.
Redman says her spiritual life is strong. She takes part in drum circles every week and has gone through traditional healing processes like sweats and fasts. “We have to do the work-recognizing the pain, recognizing the loss. And as we get older, the Creator helps us. We can become whole human beings again.” Forgiveness might be difficult, but healing is possible.

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