Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Navigating Stories

Reading stories from residential school survivors made me feel uncomfortable about my own story.  The survivors’ stories are heartbreaking and filled with unbearable pain and sorrow. 

I have also been following stories on Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, and these too made me uncomfortable.  On October 4th a documentary film on the Hospital screened in Edmonton. Again, the shocking treatment of Indigenous people who were admitted to the Indian hospital, sometimes for years, is equally horrific.
These stories must be told and they must be heard.  It is an important Canadian historical legacy.  Furthermore, both the telling and the listening to these stories are critical for the truth and reconciliation process.
So why am I feeling uncomfortable?  Because my personal experience was very unalike most of the stories I’ve heard or read about. My story was never told because I feel it is not something that people want to hear.

Holy Angels Residence 
Recently I posted a residential school picture on facebook. It portrayed a celebration of sorts; I was sitting with three of my brothers at the dinning room table with other children. Three nuns were standing in the background.  Someone posted in the comments, “ID like to kill them nuns and burn that place down.”   This is not someone who went here or any other residential school.  This person never asked me about my experience, he just assumed it was bad.     How do we heal when there is so much anger from people who didn’t experience residential school or are not willing to listen to all the stories?

It is interesting that even in the same family, experiences of accounts can be vastly different.  This is certainly the case in my own family. 

I am one of the youngest of 16 children.  We were raised in abject poverty. We had no running water or electricity.  Although the hamlet where we lived was a “dry town, meaning that alcohol was not allowed, this didn’t mean it didn’t exist there.  In fact, there was alcohol in our home because my parents were bootleggers.  They made and sold home-brew and shipped in liquor by plane, this to supplement their income from trapping and seasonal work in order to feed the lot of us.  As a child I witnessed violence in my home due to alcohol abuse.
To complicate matters, when I was a toddler, I was stricken with a serious illness and I almost died.  I was sent to Charles Camsell Hospital frequently. 

Many Indigenous people from the area where I grew up also lived in poverty, and were sent to Holy Angels Residence.  Some of them also were admitted to Charles Camsell Hospital, like me.  

I am hesitant to tell my story because I know some people would dismiss it on the basis that I am so colonized that I am not even aware of how colonized I am.  Or because I am brainwashed.  In any event how can I say, after all the horrific stories about Indian Residential Schools, by the way, I don't think it was so bad,in my experience. It sounds callous and empty.  

My experience in residential school from the first day was a good experience. There, I said it! 

I will always remember the afternoon my older sister Dora said, Do you want to go to school? I said, Yes, with a big smile. Ok,” she said, Go get into your snowsuit.” We walked to residential school. It was getting dark and the snow sparkled like diamonds. It was in December, and I had just returned from Charles Camsell Hospital, having missed the first part of the school year.  I wasn’t scared because my sister was a cook at the Holy Angels - I was excited! I took quickly to learning and only spent one week in grade one before I was moved into grade two. 

Holy Angeles Residence, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta
I particularly loved reading and spent many hours in the study hall.  I didn’t mind work, like polishing the hardwood floors and the wooden banisters, because I was used to doing housework at home.  In a large family like ours we all had to pitch in to help.  I also learned beading, embroidery and how to darn socks and mitts.  There was also playtime. The older girls never picked on me. Once a week we had movie night.  Because we lived in town we got to go home for the weekend and when we returned Sunday afternoon, that evening we would watch a movie. All the other boys and girls came to our room to watch the movie.  Occasionally we played bingo.   I remember going camping too; we were allowed to run into the hills for hours until we were called for dinner. 

A number of the priest spoke Denesuline (Chipewyan) and Cree. Also, Sister Brady, a Metis nun spoke Cree.  We sometimes laughed behind their backs at how they sounded when they spoke our language. It must be said here that neither the nuns nor the priests ever mistreated me, physically or emotionally.  In fact, I corresponded regularly with one of the priests until his death in 2003.  He even visited my home in Ottawa several times and met my husband and son.

Indeed, I still have many fond memories of being at Holy Angel Residence. 

That said, I also remember fights between girls in the schoolyard.  I remember students running away and being brought back in tears.  I remember that one time an older girl slugged a nun.  I remember whispers about a certain “brother” who would fix bikes for the boys. So yeah, for sure there were critical concerns during my time at Holy Angels.

Like I mentioned earlier I split my time between Holy Angels and Charles Camsell Hospital.  I always looked forward to going to the hospital, the pain from numerous operations notwithstanding.  I would find money in my folded clothes on the bed, left by Sister Nadeau for canteen treats while I was at the hospital.  I didn’t worry about falling behind in my studies because I attended classes there.  I was in the hospital so often I developed personal relationships with the nurses and doctors, which I maintained through correspondence when I was back at Holy Angels.  I was encouraged to have pen pals and the nuns took my letters to be posted in town. 

Indeed my story is different, maybe it was because the era was the late sixties and seventies, and times and attitudes were changing.  I don’t know why my experience was different, was I the only one with these good memories?

The story of residential schools is a challenging and complicated one.  We don't serve the truth if we don’t tell the whole truth, and reconciliation can't be based on half-truths.  My story doesn’t take anything from those students who suffered abuse, or who died to be placed in unmarked graves.  The fact that I was lucky to meet people who were caring does not contradict the truth of those who were abusive, or the misguided policy that sought to kill the Indian in Indian children. 

Even with the extended times away from my family, I never forgot who I was. I never forgot my first language, Denesuline.  I never forgot the smell of drying pelts, drying meat, and the taste of caribou.  I never forgot our songs, our culture, and my ancestors. I never blamed anyone for anything that happened to me as a child. And, I am most proud of the fact that alcohol or drugs never became a narrative in my story.  I am proud to be breaking the cycle of destruction.

How you tell your story, how you interpret these past events becomes you. The more you tell your story the more you strengthen that image of yourself.  Your story IS you. I don’t want to, and I shouldn't have to, feel shame because my story is different.

I may be a product of residential school, but I am not a "survivor"of residential school. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review – Firewater: How Alcohol is killing my People (And Yours), Harold R Johnson

Harold Johnson, a self-declared, former drunk Indian, is the author of this book. In spite of his struggles with alcohol he achieved a standard of notable worthiness, as a lawyer and writer, a Harvard educated one at that.

Firewater is a very insightful and entertaining book.  I highly recommend EVERYONE read it, whether you drink alcohol or not, whether you’re Indigenous or not. Read it all the way to the end!  There are nuggets of wisdom in this book for everyone! Yes, this has been the subject of books before but I promise you Johnson brings a fresh perspective to this topic.

For example he writes that Treaty No. 6 signed in 1876 included a provision to disallow intoxicating liquor to be introduced or sold to the Indians.  I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve read that particular Treaty and yet I never paid attention to that section. It appears that Treaty No. 6 was breached as soon as it was signed, and nobody noticed!  I was also surprised to learn that The Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples Report (RCAP) 1996 only dedicated less than 8 pages to the subject of alcoholism.  Their report was 4,000 pages long!  Clearly they didn’t want to look too closely at this topic.
Johnson writes that first and foremost a call for ACTION…begins with an honest conversation about alcohol. He is not talking about addictions - he is talking about alcohol.  Hence, the book’s title Firewater.  I imagine some of you might be thinking but they are the same thing, right?  No, Johnson makes a clear distinction that they are not.

He doesn’t beat around the bush either, but instead addresses his topic directly with such intensity that it can’t be ignored. The stories he describes in his book are tough, brutal, and powerfully illustrated. The stories will touch you deeply and make you cry (at least they made me cry). He states unequivocally, “None of this is easy to write, to speak of. We want to hide it away.”  Indeed, many of us continue to turn a blind eye to this problem as we watch our relatives being led to jail or tearfully bury others whose lives end up in a too early and tragic death.
He also draws a convincing correlation between alcohol and its financial impact on society. I am sure you’ve heard statistics regarding alcohol and the impact it has on Indigenous people. But Johnson shocks you with statistics. He states that alcohol not only impacts the individual, but its impact is far more reaching than we have considered.

Furthermore, he skillfully steers the reader through a logical sequence of traditional storytelling, which allows for the possibility of creating a new story about alcohol.  About changing the ‘drunken Indian’ story… a story that is killing us. He writes, “We can think about those of us who walk in a sober way, people who create their own paths and have freed their minds from the alcohol story.” He goes further and makes strong recommendations on moving forward for the communities and the individual on how to change this story.

Community leaders, grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, the conversation on alcohol has shifted.  It is not the same recycled ‘drunken Indian story’ – but a different one - one which will serve us properly. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

24 Hours

Sometimes life is uncomfortable...
This is what happened to me in a 24 hour period!

I helped a friend look for her adult son. They were visiting and it was his first time to Ottawa.  He went downtown to do some shopping.  He said he would call her when he was done.  She waited for his call all evening.  No call.  She knew, she knew --- that he must have given into his addiction.  He had been sober for 15 days. On his facebook that morning he wrote… “Chillin in Ottawa!  15 days sober, doing great. Going shopping!”

I offered to take her downtown to the men’s shelters to look for him.  We drove down the streets. Her eyes scanned the faces, carefully, looking, searching.  Searching for a glimpse of him.  She was worried, quietly, deep in thought.

As we approached an area with street people hanging about, she said, this would be the place where he would be. She pointed in the direction of street people beside a grocery store.  I slowed and asked her, is he there?  She looked again, and yelled, there he is!

Her son was on the ground beside the curb. He was unconscious. 

People walked by not even looking at him. There were 3 street people sitting on curb beside him.
They stood up as we approached.  I immediately went to his side; I checked for a pulse, it was strong.  I looked at him carefully, studying his breathing, checking his face.  

She started talking to the street people, one man and two young girls.  He was Cree from James Bay, Quebec. He was maybe in his early thirties.  The shortest girl, maybe in her twenties said she was from Iqaluit, Nunavut. She reminded me of an another Inuit artist whose body was found in the river earlier that week just a couple of blocks away.  And the other girl, also in her twenties, was from Peru. 

One of the girls said, we are watching over him.  He is ok.  But clearly, he was not ok.  My friend asked questions, how long had he been there?  What was he drinking? Were they with him long?  The girls kept looking down at him on the ground.  He is ok she kept saying.  He was not unconscious for too long, maybe an hour, he said.  She said, he fell and hit his head. The man said, he had been robbed of his phone, cash and Id.

What I realize is that these street people who just met him the day before were concerned about him and they watched over him the best they could.  They kept looking at him, checking to make sure he was ok. They reassured the mom that nothing bad would happen to him. Not being aware that something bad had already happened to him because this, what was happening, was normal to them. For anyone else, an unconscious man lying on the street for over an hour would not be perceived as normal.  

As the mother was asking the young people questions, her son said, mom! I am ok. All I could think was on some level when he heard her voice, he felt comforted by the sound of her voice.  And maybe thought, my mom is here and I am going to be ok.
The mother tried to get her son up off the ground to walk to the car but he was unresponsive.  She said to the street people.  Maybe, I should just let him sleep whatever is in his system off.  I will come back in an hour.  The three said, don’t worry about him.  We will watch him.

We returned over an hour later, but he was no longer there and neither were the street people.  My friend decided to go into the store to get something to drink.  She bumped into the man we met earlier.  He said, we waited for you to come back.  But the ambulance took your son to the Shepherds of Good Hope triage; they will take care of him there.
He gave her directions and we went directly there.  When she got there, she was told he was sleeping. They assured her they were monitoring him.  She left her number in the event he woke up and needed a ride.  Again, she waited for a call from him that didn’t come.

The next morning I said I would go with her to pick him up.  I could see the worry on her face, I know she was thinking, what if he was not there.  I could see her relief when she was told he was still there sleeping.   He was unstable and somewhat incoherent but able to walk to the car on his own accord.  By this time, he had not had any alcohol in his system for over 24 hours.  

We had breakfast, but he didn't come in, instead choosing to stay in the car. She decided they should just head back home, I watched as she drove away--- the fact that he was still so out of it concerned me.
I realized two things  
  • An addictive mind will always find their drug of choice
  • Street people looked after each other, even if it is a stranger from a different city

Saturday, September 10, 2016

He is a Freshman!!!

Andrew, Patric, Gabriel, Philip, Quebec Aug. 2016 
I am excited for what the year ahead holds for my son, Andrew.  He begins the next phase of his life as a university student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.  He is embarking on a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and he is living in residence.

Last year we decided to defer sending him to university for a year and I think this was the best decision for him. He spent the year taking critical writing and physics courses. He even got his drivers license, I think it was time well spent.

Andrew  Chipman House, Acadia, Aug.2016
I can see already, that he is much more mature and self-assured than he was last fall. I am confident that he will be able to navigate through the next year with less trepidation and more confidence. For sure, he was plenty nervous the day we dropped him off at his residence, as were all the other freshmen students.  He said, could you just take me back home with you?  I told him every experience he had leading up to this day was to prepare him for university.  During his high school years we enrolled him in summer courses at various universities across Canada.

Laval University was five long weeks of intensive French immersion, which he survived.  Quest University, located in picturesque British Columbia was four weeks in the study of music and writing, which involved outdoor excursions to take advantage of the scenic environment.  He really enjoyed his time there.  University of Toronto, right dab in the middle of the city provided him with an opportunity to see what it would be like to study law when he completed the Aboriginal Youth Summer Program at the faculty of Law.  Something he is thinking of pursuing after undergrad.

All these experiences provided him with leadership, spiritual and emotional growth.Still, it was not easy leaving him. He promises me a blog on his first week impressions of university life, which I will post here.

We drove to Nova Scotia, it took us two days!  
I was a sad mama, leaving him behind for the long drive back home.  L Thankfully texting keeps us in contact on a daily basis.  As he becomes more comfortable at university, I know his texting will become less frequent. But at the moment I am enjoying this new way of communicating with him and I am excited for the amazing possibilities and growth that university will afford him.  

Andrew will be back for Thanksgiving and I can’t wait.   

Monday, August 8, 2016


A Denesuline Warrior!  

Yesterday, August 7, 2016, I received bad news.  First I heard my uncle passed at 92 years old. While I was still processing this news, I got the dreaded phone call telling me the tragic news of my older brother’s passing. He was only 58 years old. Born in Uranium City, Saskatchewan and was raised in Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray Alberta. He died from complications due to his injury last year and excessive drinking. The medical examiner said, that he died from complications from COPD. Since my brother was not a smoker, he indicated that it may have been duress from the forest fire in May.  

This hit me harder because Rossi's health was improving. We were very close and he had so much life to be lived yet.

I’ve had a day to process what has happened. I think I am in the anger stage of the grief spectrum.  He was too young to die, damn it! (I could hear Rossi saying here, if you want me to swear for you sis, I will – I never swear!)

If I were to be honest, I would say he died of heartbreak.  The last year of his life I saw him give up. He gave up on waiting for the type of love he deeply craved, an unconditional love, from some of his children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters.  He gave up on the travel that he yearned to do and the ‘60s car he would buy to take him on his travels.  He abandoned his plans of going travelling to Europe on a freighter and going to NASCAR races.  But when I noticed that he gave up on music, which has always lit up his life no matter what was happening, I knew he had also given up on life.

I could see it in his eyes when I last saw him just a couple of weeks ago.  The abject sadness overshadowed his smiles and laughter.  The withdrawing.  The spark he had was gone.  He was tired.  He could not fight any longer. And he simply gave up trying.

In January 2015 I wrote a blog about him after he was beaten into unconsciousness after he intervened to help a woman who was being assaulted by her boyfriend.  This act of selflessness caused him to lose some of his mobility and left him with permanent brain damage, which made him dependent on others for the first time.  I think that was the day he died, but it took his spirit longer to let go.  That is how much he craved love and he was willing to keep alive until he got it, but sadly it eluded him. 

Rossi second on the left, next to his brother Roger
Rossi didn’t have an easy life.  He was a product of the Indian Residential School system. He entered it when he was just 5 years old. He was haunted by the memories of what he experienced over the twelve years of his life he gave there.  For years he kept his feelings and memories hidden masked by his jokes and laughter.  Until one day he decided to go to therapy; and that is when he started drinking. Some therapists are not equipped to handle the type of trauma Rossi and other residential school survivors endured.

He was an intelligent man and knew so much about politics, genealogy, human behaviour, and music.  He loved flying so he became a pilot; it gave him a freedom he couldn’t get on the ground. And when he couldn’t do that, he loved to drive. He also had an innate ability to navigate, I think, he had a built in GPS in his DNA.  He was my compass, my navigator, when we were together I knew I would never be lost. He was also my protector. When I need him he was always there and I hope I was also there for him.

He is gone.  A deep integral part of me is also gone.  Who I was to him and who I was around him. We never had an argument, never used harsh words with one another, and never judged one another. That is not to say he didn’t have a quick temper or was moody, I just knew when to stop pushing him and leave him be.  Our familial bond is gone and I am left alone without an anchor and no navigator.  Floating and lost.
Ultimately, what took his life - which people often skirt and make excuses around - is ALCOHOL.  ALCOHOL killed my brother, sucked his spirit and left him empty. This is where my anger is hovering.

ALCOHOL is the reason he intervened in breaking up that fight over a year ago. The man who attacked him was drunk or on drugs. 

ALCOHOL took away his reason for living and broke a beautiful human being.
In Canada, many Indigenous people are dying an untimely death due to ALCOHOL.  We have to change the conversation we as a nation are having about why this is happening. We have to change our story and our belief. In particular, we have to change our belief that once people are adults we can’t influence them to stop drinking.    I don’t have the answer on how but I have a commitment to change that belief.
Rossi’s death will not be in vain.
I am challenging, you the reader, to do something about this too because everyone is impacted by alcohol abuse in some form or another.

There already exist, and has for over 40 years an institution in Alberta that has transformed many lives. Maybe we’ve forgotten about it. But it is there. Please have another look at Supporting Nechi Institution: Centre for Indigenous learning, the only Indigenous institute that uses culture and experiential learning as a gateway to reach the spirit of its indigenous and non-indigenous students.

Rossi was a game changer.  He over came and fought his ghosts, maybe not successfully, but they didn’t own him.  He never became bitter nor twisted. He was not an angry person; he was always a kind and gentleman and held his head high with integrity. 

May 2016, Fort McMurray, Alberta (Fire) 
Our world has loss a great human being when Rossi Samuel Deranger died, August 7th, 2016. 

There are many other Rossis out there; maybe there is one in your family.  There is hope to help those people, and that hope is you.

My friend and writer, wrote this wonderful piece on my brother Rossi for the Fort McMurrayToday paper.  Thank you Therese.  :)  

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