Mary Courchene (centre, illuminated) with students from Dr. Joannie Halas’s Culturally Relevant Physical Education and Health class.
For more than a century, it was Canada’s dirty little secret.
But now, thanks to the bravery of residential school system survivors like Mary Courchene, a nation’s secret shame can be spun into something positive.
“The whole notion of knowing why our young Aboriginal population still struggles stems from our history, and must be told to truly understand what ‘Aboriginal perspective’ is,” said Courchene.
“This, to me, is what ‘reconciliation’ means.”
Courchene – who’s the Elder-in-Residence at Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg, and who previously served as principal of Children of the Earth School and as Dean of Aboriginal Education at Red River College – visited the University of Manitoba this week to speak to students in Dr. Joannie Halas’s Culturally Relevant Physical Education and Health class.
She spoke of her childhood happiness while growing up on what’s now the Sagkeeng First Nation north of Winnipeg – a happiness that was shattered when she was removed from her family home and forced to attend a Roman Catholic residential school at the age of five.
“My mother looked at me, gave me a hug, and away she went,” said Courchene, recalling her first day of school.
“The next time I saw the inside of my house – which was five minutes away (from the school) – was 10 months later. Can you imagine being a five-year-old child, to have all that bonding, all those attachments, just abruptly taken away? It was the most horrible, traumatic experience for me – and I had 10 long years of that.”
Courchene was denied contact with her brother while at school, and only saw her parents for one hour each week.
Even worse, Courchene says, she and her classmates were stripped of their Ojibwa language and culture – part of an indoctrination process she now recognizes as stemming from “a system designed to destroy.”
“I learned to read and write (in English), but at what cost?” she said. “We were told that our way of life, our religion, was pagan, and that we didn’t have anything. (Our) ancestors, we were told, were the ones that almost killed us all. And we believed that.
“When you’re indoctrinated and you’re brainwashed, you begin to believe what’s told to you. I believed that my ancestors didn’t have religion, that my ancestors didn’t have laws – that they lived like animals. And I hated that. But most of all, I hated myself.”
Courchene was especially embarrassed of her parents, whom she now credits with insisting that she maintain ties to her culture, even as she continued her education at a residential school in Saskatchewan (after being denied admittance to high school in Pine Falls based entirely on her race).
In fact, her memories of the injustice remained buried until the early 1980s, when she happened on a television interview with former classmate Phil Fontaine (who’d go on to become National Chief of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations).
“He was talking about the residential schools, and both my husband and I were mesmerized by what he was saying,” said Courchene. “He was saying he was abused. My husband said, ‘What is he talking about?’”
The denial was so deeply ingrained that Courchene even phoned her parish priest to assure him “things hadn’t been that bad.” But it wasn’t long before her husband – with whom she’d never before discussed details of their shared experiences – confided he’d spent much of his childhood locked in a closet, or forced to straighten rusty nails when teachers couldn’t accommodate his learning disability.
These days, Courchene appears to have made peace with her past: a practicing Catholic, she still maintains contact with some of the nuns who served as her teachers, though she also makes room in her life for the customs and wisdom of her ancestors.
She was recently invited by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean to be a guest of honour at the ceremony to launch Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa, and was present when Prime Minster Stephen Harper issued a public apology to residential school survivors in June 2008.
“I remember (his) words: ‘Never again will we do this, and we are truly sorry,’” she said.
She describes the present state of race relations in Canada as a period of reconciliation, and says it’s up to the current crop of Aboriginal youth to lead the charge while reconnecting with their culture.
“Young people today, they’re the ones that have the tools,” she explained.
“If I can borrow what Barack Obama says, they’re the agents of change. They’re the ones who will pick up the reconciliation wand ... and once again have pride in who they are.”
As for the future generation of educators – like the FKRM students she met with on Thursday – Courchene says they have an integral role to play in ensuring the mistakes of the past are never repeated.
“Underneath it all, it’s about building relationships, not just going through an assembly-line education,” she said.
“(Students) are not just faces, they’re actual people – each and every one of them.”