From survivors to 'thrivers': Former residential school students connect with culture and each other

For one group of former residential school students in Winnipeg, returning to their culture and teachings has them identifying themselves in a new way.

Eva Wilson-Fontaine, who runs a program for former residential school students called Intergenerational Knowledge, said since they began meeting five years ago she has witnessed the group’s progress.

“Last year they said ‘We don’t want to be known as survivors anymore. We’re thrivers.’ And I thought, how amazing is that?,” said Wilson-Fontaine.

“They totally are thrivers. They’re supportive of one another.” 

Residential schools were part of a federal policy to assimilate First Nations children by removing them from their communities and sending them to schools run by the government and churches. Many of the estimated 150,000 students who attended these schools were emotionally, physically and sexually abused. The first schools opened in the 1880s and the last residential school closed in 1996.

Christina Kitchekesik, who is from Tataskweyak Cree Nation about 900 km north of Winnipeg, attended residential schools for 14 years. She said that it was difficult being away from her parents; growing up in the schools, nobody told her that she was loved. Nobody hugged her or encouraged her.

She gives a lot of credit to the Intergenerational Knowledge group for her own personal healing.

Christina Kitchekesik shows off her sweater for Orange Shirt Day. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

“I’ve been thriving for the past five years, really thriving,” she said.

“I’m still struggling with my emotions and my anger and my loneliness and hopelessness but when I started this journey, that’s where I learned how to show my emotions… I carried a lot of shame. Fear was number one for me all my life. And then I connected with my culture.”

In the past, Kitchekesik had made attempts to heal from her painful experiences during residential schooling by attending Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous and various mental health counselling. 

She said she has nothing against western healing practices but said they didn’t work for her. Despite those struggles, she is determined to live a good life.

“For me it’s to show my family that… despite all the trauma I’ve gone through, you can overcome anything so long as you work hard within yourself, like you really have to go deep down and just connect with our culture and practise the seven teachings.” 

Programming decisions survivor-led 

The Anish Corporation, a non-profit organization whose mandate is to deliver culturally appropriate health and wellness programming to former students of Indian Residential Schools, runs Intergenerational Knowledge. Intergenerational Knowledge is funded by New Horizons, a government of Canada grant program which offers up to $25,000 in funding to enrich the lives of Canadian Seniors.

The former residential school students are encouraged to bring their family members to participate in the workshops. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, was listening to the personal stories of survivors in 2014, a few Winnipeg-based survivors reached out to Anish Corporation and said they wanted to incorporate their family members into a more holistic form of traditional healing. 

Since its inception, the programming for the group has been led by the survivors themselves and includes a long list of workshops on topics like internalized oppression/lateral violence, traditional parenting and activities like ceremonies and medicine teachings. 

“Every year we come back to the table and we look at that list [of workshops] and we say ‘Is there anything that we want to add?’ And then we apply it. And it’s been working,” said Wilson-Fontaine, the team lead for Anish Corporation.

One of the core components of the program is encouraging survivors to bring their children or grandchildren to attend the cultural programming.

Former residential school students go from survivors to ‘thrivers’ 2:50

“Survivors are wanting to give that [knowledge] back to the young ones too… We’re all learning together. We’re all at different stages of learning about who we are.”

Participants meet at the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg’s North End. Over half of the programming offered are land-based activities, where the participants travel by school bus out to the Cedar Lake Ranch in Anola, Man., about 40 km east of Winnipeg.

Activities on the land

Cree knowledge keeper Fred Stevens was invited out to Cedar Lake Ranch recently to talk about the different traditional medicines on the prairies, herbs like sage, cedar and sweetgrass.

For Stevens, himself a residential school survivor, being able to share what he knows is also form of healing.

“It’s a gratifying feeling for me. It helps me get stronger also,” said Stevens.

“I’m doing my little portion by providing some of the things they lost. I make them try and remember it and they do.”

Fred Stevens is a Cree knowledge keeper from Sapotewayak Cree Nation. He also attended also attended residential schools. Being able to teach other former residential school survivors is a form of healing for him. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

He said that it took him over 30 years to get to the point where he’s at in his healing. He also recognizes that not everyone who went to residential schools is able to recover from what they experienced.

But he hopes that former students and their families make an attempt to go back to their languages and culture.

“[It’s about] knowing who you are and where you came from. And not forgetting what happened to you. And being able to share that openly and from the heart.. that keeps me going,” said Stevens.

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