Living, surviving, and never giving up!
Pessamit, 1973. This story begins 40 years ago, after a routine medical exam given at the dispensary of an Innu community in the beautiful Côte-Nord region. The news was unexpected and devastating: like the weighted blade of a guillotine, falling at lightning speed between its wooden pillars, unimpeded by any obstacle in its path, not even my head. That’s when the doctor told us, in a language I didn’t understand, that I would soon have to leave my family, friends and community for a very long time. I felt the guillotine’s effects once again, except that this time, it wasn’t only my head that was severed from my body, it was my very soul that would be severed from the family unit. That seemed more horrible to me than losing my head.
As a young 9 year-old Aboriginal boy who had never before ventured outside his community, it was unimaginable to me that I would be wrenched from my family’s embrace. I lost my freedom and found myself utterly alone, isolated in a sanatorium in Mont-Joli, hundreds of kilometres away from home. For endless months, my life revolved around a 15’ x 18’ room. The “healthy” lifestyle prescribed for me involved swallowing a staggering number of pills and sleeping the nights and days away.
In my lucid moments, I would sometimes observe this microcosm of society made up of people who were different than me, who spoke a foreign language, and who moved at a frenzied pace.
Otherwise, I would dream of my corner of the world. I would see myself running on the beach, swimming in the river, climbing trees with my friends, or simply lying quietly in the shade of my tree, admiring the beauty of a cloud-dotted sky or the fragility of a defenceless lady bug. Loneliness would invade and overwhelm my daydreams, which would simply melt into sleep. All that time lost, spent tediously waiting, living in the hope of a speedy recovery that took nine months, two weeks and three days to come. I will remember it always.
And then came freedom. I could finally close the door on this dark chapter of my life. I came out of the shadows cast by those cold, soulless grey stone walls. I waited until I was far away up in the sky aboard the plane that would bring me back home before quietly—as I was taught to do at the hospital—shouting: “I’m free!”
I was reunited with my beach, my river, my friends and my tree, but not with my Grandfather, who had quietly left this life while I was far away fighting to hold on to mine.
I would sit on the beach at times and look at the river that had kept me from the rest of the world, from my world. It was the cause of the overwhelming loneliness and pain I felt from being far away from my people for such a long time without a single visit from my loved ones. What a cruel fate for a child in search of himself, trying to become a man and building his identity. That child was left without a single cultural reference from his environment—everything had been taken away.
Illness, loneliness, displacement and cultural uprooting; as great as my misfortune was, it didn’t even come close to what Aboriginal youth experienced in Residential Schools. I was never abused. Sanatoriums were there to fight illness; Residential Schools generated it. Their impact was catastrophic and contaminated generations of Aboriginals. Apologies cannot cure these ills, let alone money.
As for me, with time, I entered into a phase of resilience rather than recovery. The memories I carry unconsciously resurface and manifest themselves on an emotional level as anger, shame and insensitivity. These memories are expressed through actions, reactions and behaviours that are unintentionally more violent than I’d like, as if dictated by a repressed consciousness trying to expel them without knowing how they will be dealt with once they surface.
Like any traumatized individual, Aboriginals sent to Residential Schools must wonder if it would be best to bury these terrible memories deep within and build a better life, knowing the slate can never be wiped clean because the scars are permanent.
Victims have no other choice than to take the path of resilience. Some may even heal by learning to live with their past.
We must succeed in freeing our mind of the burden weighing on us for far too long and start running again, light and free, on the soft sand of our beaches and on the strong, compact soil of our ancestral lands.