Tofino resident Marvin Curley is wrapped in a blanket after giving his testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in Campbell River Friday.

Reconciling residential school experiences in Campbell River

Residential schools: Survivors tell their personal stories

Voices cracked with emotion. Tears flowed. But the heartwrenching stories were still told. Abuse was detailed using words like torture, sexual abuse, loneliness – sometimes healing. That came later to some.

An emotional two days of personal accounts told to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at Thunderbird Hall last week outlined the impact of residential schools on First Nations residents of the region.

Often, the victims told their stories surrounded by family and friends, making their presentations with the arms of loved ones wrapped around them.

Frequently, presenters and people witnessing the presentations were overcome with emotion. They were often supported by commission representatives. Hugs were offered and accepted, tissues were passed around.

After each presentation, everyone in the hall applauded and stood. Family and friends frequently lined up to hug and console the person making the presentation. It was obviously a cathartic experience.

Most expressed thanks for the opportunity to tell their stories, hard as they were.

Some of the testimony illustrated the fact that the effect of physical, emotional and sexual abuse carries over into subsequent generations.

“There is something inside me that I think goes back to residential schools because of what this person might have done to me,” Calvin Rufus from Alert Bay told the commission.

Rufus outlined a lifetime of dealing with abuse he suffered at the hands of an uncle who was a residential school survivor.

“I am 43-years-old and I have been carrying this all of my life,” Rufus said.

The hearings at Thunderbird Hall were an opportunity for residential school survivors to share with the commission and the federal government the unique experiences of children who attended these schools. The meeting was also an opportunity for all Canadians both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal to learn more about and bear witness to the legacy of the residential school system.

This meeting was a build up to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada regional event to be held in Victoria April 13-14.

On Vancouver Island, there were five residential schools (18 in British Columbia) at Ahousat, Port Alberni, Alert Bay, Kuper Island and Tofino. Emotional testimony at Campbell River’s hearing expressed anger, sorrow, regret, understanding and forgiveness. Both presenters and people witnessing the presentations were frequently overcome with emotion.

One woman entered residential school when she was nine and left it when she was 13 or 14. The experience – which included sexual and emotional abuse – devastated her.

“When I got out of school I started drinking,” she told the hearing. “I felt I was not worthy. I didn’t care who I was with because I didn’t think I would have the life that I have today.”

Years of alcoholism resulted in uncared for children who ended up being abused themselves.

“Some of them were sexually abused because I didn’t protect them because I was drinking,” she said.

Survivors told of punishment for speaking their Native languages and other “transgressions,” which included being smothered by blankets covering them from head to toe or having to wash a flight of stairs from top to bottom with a toothbrush.

Survivor Marvin Curley told of a lifelong struggle with anger left over from not only his period of residential school living, but also his parents earlier experience in residential schools.

He drank heavily to try deal with a life without parents, a life of bullying and violence, a life that contradicted the teachings of his elders.

“I wanted to drown my pain,” he told the hearing.

“Residential school was really good in a way for my education and my sports but as far as my abuse was concerned, It had a terrible effect,” he said.

Later, another speaker told the commission that many of the survivors didn’t know that what was happening to them, was also happening to others.

“So much happened to each of us individually we never saw what happened to each other,” he said. “That was the worst part of it.”

The smaller hearings on Vancouver Island give survivors who may not be able to attend a national event a chance to still share their stories.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its Interim Report. on Feb. 24. Additionally, the TRC also launched a new historical publication entitled: They Came for the Children: Canada, Aboriginal Peoples, and Residential Schools.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Interim Report, reflects activities undertaken by the Commission since June 2009 and provides 20 recommendations that touch on five key areas including the operation of the commission, education, support for survivors, reconciliation and commemoration. It represents a brief summary of what the Commissioners have heard directly from as many as three thousand former students and staff who were most affected by the schools.

“The truth about the residential school system will cause many Canadians to see their country differently,” said TRC Chair, Justice Murray Sinclair, while speaking at Simon Fraser University’s, Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue. “These are hard truths that we need to acknowledge in order to lay the foundation for reconciliation.”

For more on the TRC, visit trc.ca.