The Regional Conference on Residential Schools took place in Val d'Or, March 5-8, 2013.
Below is the text of the opening remarks by the Chair of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, Bella M. Petawabano. The PDF file at the bottom of this page contains the same text in Cree syllabics.
Mr. Chairperson, Grand Chief Dr. Matthew Coon Come, Members of the Organizing Committee, Invited Guests and Delegates:
I am honoured to have been invited to deliver this welcoming speech at this very important event, the First Regional Conference on Cree Residential Schools.
This conference has ambitious & important goals. It aims to create awareness of the often-traumatic Residential Schools experience and of the ongoing impact of this trauma, which does not end with the individual but travels through generations.
This conference also aims to build knowledge and wisdom that we can use as we seek to design and implement programs that will address individual and community needs in supporting survivors and their families.
Residential Schooling came relatively late to Eeyou/Eenou Istchee compared to other areas. We can count ourselves fortunate that fewer generations of Eeyouch/Eenouch experienced this forced schooling compared to many other First Nations groups. But that does not mean we were unaffected; far from it. Our communities have many people – an entire generation of people – who were removed from Eeyou/Eenou Istchee and placement in residential schools. Many have told their stories to trained support workers, who have recognized that we need a better understanding of the impacts of the Residential Schools. That is our objective here for the next three days.
Individual children's experiences in Residential Schools were varied. We all experienced our own traumas. I spent five years in residential school at Fort George. I had the very good fortune of having lived ten years on the land with my family, residing on the trapline for much of the year, before attending the school. My sense of myself as Eeyou/Eenou, and my bond with the land and with traditional Cree living, was very strong. I was also fortunate in that my school was run by people who did not dismiss the Eeyou/Eenou experience. It was there that I learned how to read and write Cree syllabics; we also ate traditional foods. And I learned new things. I spoke no English when I arrived, so the first thing I learned was how to say “yes” and “no”. I found the RS experience isolating; I was often sad and I missed my family. But I must confess that I gained a great deal of useful knowledge that helped me later in life: I learned to read and write. I was taught the catholic religion , and for a time I even wanted to become a nun. As I said: we each had our own experience.
But while each of us had our own experience, there is something that we all share as First Nations people. We, the Eeyou/Eenou nation as well as Eeyou/Eenou individuals, were victimised by the Residential School system. We were deprived of choice. We had no control over who would attend these schools, nor for how long. The schools were not our decision; they were imposed upon us. They were imposed upon our parents, who had their children taken away from them, and who saw them vanish into a school system they had not chosen. They suffered tremendous loss, which we must acknowledge – not only the loss of their children, but the loss of the choice for their children’s future. This loss of choice is something shared by all who were part of the residential school system.
In recent years we have opened the doors to talk about residential schools and to clear out the cobwebs hanging over our memories and experiences. Now, our job is to move beyond a sense of being victims; we need to expel it from our present, and exclude it from our future.
We also need to remember that the Residential Schools were only one part of a larger system which took the lands of Aboriginal peoples and relegated us to the status of dependent children. It was in this context that children were removed from their families. They were to become non-Indians. Well, it didn't work. As I said, I attended RS for 5 years and I'm still Eeyou/Eenou.
First Nations people have begun to discuss our dependency and victimhood in relation to Residential Schooling, and this is in itself a great achievement. But let us remember that we opened this discussion so we can name and acknowledge our past suffering and then move beyond this, towards healing our families and building strong communities. Our goal must be to achieve Chiyaameihtamuun, which is usually translated as ‘harmony’ or ‘peace of mind’ and focuses on how we live together. Chiyaameihtamuun is closely related to miyuupimaatisiiwin: the one has to do with the quality of how we live together, while the other encompasses the Eeyou/Eenou concept for health and well-being. Both of these have been threatened by our experiences in the residential school systems; we seek to repair this damage.
And while we are doing that, we must remember that governments have never acknowledged the underlying issue: Canada is built on Indian lands. As Eeyouch/Eenouch, while we have done exceptionally well in comparison to some other groups, we are still addressing important questions regarding our lands.
The Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, the Regional Mental Health Department along with Health Canada have been working with Residential School Survivors since October 2010, assisting them in their process of applying for the Independent Assessment Process. The Cree Health Board has also created a program, Nishiiyuu Miyupimaatisiiun, which aims to bring back traditional land-based healing and helping methods as a health service to the people. We must continue to find ever better ways to support those who need support. Our task, as I’ve said, is to strengthen chiyaameihtamuun, to strengthen miyuupimaatisiiwin, as we create healthy communities for our families and future generations. And through these healthy communities we will be strong enough to control our own destiny, and that of Eeyou/Eenou Istchee.
We are Eeyou/Eenou, and that identity is key not only to healing the wounds inflicted across generations by the residential school system. It is also the key to our future. That we stand here today is testimony that the residential schools could not defeat us, even if they hurt us. They did not – they could not – take away our identity.
I look forward to the outcome of this conference, and the promise of better ways to travel the healing path.