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Residential school era survivors tell stories

Early Wednesday morning, Harry Watchmaker set out on the highway from Red Deer to Edmonton for a meeting. Not far along his journey, he looked up and saw what appeared to be two suns, one on top of the other.

On Saturday, he sung and drummed a song about the sun at the Feast to Remember the Children event.

His connection to the giant life-giving orb seems a natural fit, considering the infectiously sunny disposition of the man from the Kehewin Cree Nation.

But a period of terrible darkness is not far away, the six years he spent at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School in the early 1960s implanted in his memory.

“We got hit so many times. Even if you didn’t get hit, you see a kid get hit, you feel it.

“One day I got up, I couldn’t walk. My legs just gave way. I couldn’t walk for four days. I see these kids playing, I wanted to play.

“My legs just about lost their nerves from the hits,” Watchmaker, 62, recalled.

For the last four years, he has been travelling around the province, offering support to Aboriginals, encouraging them to tell their stories.

He will tell his own story at the March 2014 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) national hearing in Edmonton, the last of the seven national events to take place.

“That’s when I’ll be ready. I don’t want to rush, I don’t want to forget about anything that happened. My story will be my story,” he said.

Others chose to share their stories through public hearings in Red Deer on Thursday and Friday at Alberta’s first TRC event.

On Saturday, the event wrapped up with visits to cemeteries where 20 to 40 of the children who attended the Red Deer Industrial School from 1893-1919 were buried, and a public feast and ceremony that drew around 200 people.

As part of the ceremony at Fort Normandeau, the fourth and final commemorative event organized by the Remembering the Children Society, the names of the 325 students who were forced into attending the Red Deer school across the river from Fort Normandeau were solemnly read off.

Society president Charles Wood of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation said the weekday hearings went extremely well, the fact that hundreds of school children were able to take in some of the event and learn about Canadians’ shared history being paricularly heartening.

“I feel now that we are into a new era,” said Wood, “I think we’re on a good road.”

The fact that through the TRC Canadians are beginning to hear of the harm governments did to Aboriginals and their communities through residential schools and other policies is a positive outcome, TRC chairperson Justice Murray Sinclair said.

The harm from residential schools has extended through seven generations, he said, and is seen today in the disproportionate rates of Aboriginals who are criminally victimized, in prison and in foster care.

“That dysfunction stems from the impact of residential schools upon the ability of families to take care of each other. People who came out of the residential schools were unable to parent properly.

“You can’t learn to parent when you live in an institution. You can’t learn to love when you were raised in an environment where love is prohibited,” said Sinclair.

Speaking for 45 minutes to the assembled crowd at Saturday’s event, Sinclair stressed that education is critical so that young Aboriginals can come to know who they are, where they come from, where they are going, and why they are here.

“The education system was important for the government as a tool to take us away from our identity, and now we have to see that the education system is an important tool to get us back to our identity.”

The next of the five regional Truth and Reconciliation Committee events will take place from June 18-19 in Slake Lake.

The national event for Alberta will take place March 27-30, 2014.



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