No day goes by where I do not reflect upon the legacy of trauma left from the residential and day school systems. The trauma inflicted upon families, upon multiple generations, upon an entire people. Schools are meant to be a place of safety, where children can learn and grow, where children are protected and nurtured. Indigenous children did not have these experiences. Our children were robbed of their families, their cultures, and their futures.
As unimaginable as these traumas are, they were a product of careful governmental design. In 1879, the policy was titled “aggressive civilization” and it was officially reported that “Indian culture” was a contradiction, as Indians were uncivilized, and therefore, the aim of the school system was to “destroy the Indian in the child.”
It almost worked.
As an Indigenous leader, like far too many across the Northwest Territories, I am actively working to unlearn all of what our residential and federal day schools have taught us. It taught me that I had no name and no identity, only a number. It taught me that my language, my people, my place, my land, and my very self was wrong. It taught me shame.
For the last seven years, we have marked this trauma every Sept. 30 with Orange Shirt Day in recognition of the harm that the residential and day school systems did to survivors’ sense of self-esteem and well-being, and as an affirmation of our commitment to ensure that everyone around us matters. A day in recognition of Phyllis Webstad, who was stripped of her orange shirt upon entering her residential school for the first time. It’s an important day and it’s a hard day. It’s a day where we attempt the seemingly impossible: To take the trauma of the past, recognize it, and deal with it in such a way that we turn it into a force for good. The question is, how do we emerge from this trauma not only healed, but with a future that is stronger, brighter, and safer for our people?
To begin, recognition is vital. That is why the Dene Nation has called upon the Government of the Northwest Territories to recognize Sept. 30 as a Territorial day of Commemoration of Residential School Survivors so more people across this territory, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, can authentically discuss the ongoing impact of day and residential schools, and colonization more broadly.
The stories of survivors need to be heard and utilized to incite and inspire action. I want to envision a future of unity and shared humanity where we can be authentic, true, and powerful together. We need to break free of the trap that allows the system to define the pathway forward; survivors must be empowered to define their own path, a path that includes our pain, but does not let the pain be the only thing that defines us – which is why the Dene Nation is beginning to pilot a Trauma Program.
I am a survivor and today I claim my trauma. I claim it as the pathway to discovering that we can all face the collective trauma we’ve experienced together, abuser and abused, settler and colonized.
Survivors of day and residential schools are stronger than we ever knew. Our communities are stronger than we ever knew. We know that through our own lived experience that our love, our compassion, our humour, our humanity, and our spirit are still alive and well and available to be shared with the world. Not in spite of our trauma, but rather inclusive of our trauma. If we, and the Government of the Northwest Territories, can stand shoulder-to-shoulder to begin clearing the path to recognize that the trauma we share is also shared across this territory and country at large – we will collectively lay the foundation for a healthier society.
They didn’t succeed in killing the Indian in the child … but let’s not forget the fight isn’t over yet. This work takes authentic commitment and shared responsibility. I’m ready to do the work to heal, to benefit all of our communities, but is the GNWT?