Residential school survivors in Nova Scotia are sharing their stories in a new video to mark National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30th.
They say the project serves as a testament to the resiliency of survivors and ensures the legacy of residential schools is not forgotten.
“Mikwite’tmek, We remember: Shubenacadie Indian Residential School” was created through a partnership between the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre and Parks Canada. The video features the voices of several survivors, including Dorene Bernard.
She was a student at the Shubenacadie Residential School from age 4 to 10. The facility was in operation from 1929 to 1967 and was the only residential school in the Maritimes.
It was created by the Canadian government and run by the Catholic Church under a national, colonial policy aimed at assimilating students through prohibiting their culture and languages.
Bernard and her siblings — older and younger — were at the school, Bernard says.
“We came in stages, but we all left together, and we stayed together. We’re very close.”
She says the new film is a way to honor the resiliency of all the children who survived the schools and the people who kept their culture and language alive.
“In my family alone, there were 53 survivors from my grandmother’s family, from my mom’s family, and my dad’s family and all our cousins and all our first cousins that went to the residential school,” she says.
“Collectively we spent 153 years in the residential school just in Shubenacadie. I can imagine over those 38 years how many families were impacted similarly, where whole families, on both sides of their family, were taken away as children and spending that much time away from family and traditions and language, their culture.”
She says imagine the far-reaching impacts on Indigenous people across Canada where residential schools were operating over 100 years.
Ahead of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Bernard sees education as an important tool.
“The lack of education for generations of Canadians on the true history of Canada, on Indigenous peoples, has contributed to the the ignorance, the racism, and the violence,” she says. “With this education, people will see and know what it is that we’re healing from. They’ll understand and promote that understanding, compassion — that friendship.”
The power of sharing residential school survivor stories: ‘They got away with it all these years’
Mary Hatfield agrees there is power in sharing the stories of survivors and honouring the memories of the many children who never made it home. She also speaks in the new film.
“This being kept underwraps all these years, hoping it wouldn’t surface,” she says. “They got away with it all these years.”
Hatfield was born in 1953 and attended the Shubenacadie school from 1959 to 1964.
She was from a family of sixteen. Most of her siblings were students. Her mom was also a residential school survivor.
“I remember arriving there and we had to go up this big flight of stairs and two big oak doors, that we had to go through to get reigistered” she recalls. “From there you were given a number and you were no longer Mary Hatfield. You were number 57.”
Her personal belongings were taken away, she was deloused, and handed a uniform, which also carried the same number. Hatfield says many children — including her brothers and sisters — were separated from their siblings because the school was segregated by gender.
“Where we ate, the one side would be the boys and the other side would be the girls, so I would see them from a distance but you weren’t allowed to wave or say ‘Hi,’ or anything to them,” she explains. “You were supposed to look directly at what you’re eating or looking at the nuns.”
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Despite her time at the school, Hatfield is fluent in Mi’kmaw. Her grandmother encouraged her to keep her language close to her heart.
“She would say ‘Now that you’re going back to the residential school, you’re going to have to speak English again, and I don’t want you to ever forget your language or you culture.’,” Hatfield recalls. “‘If you can’t speak it through your mouth, speak it in your head.’, so that’s what I did.”
She says there was one time she spoke the words aloud.
“The teacher slapped me,” Hatfield says. “So I never spoke the language there again, but I sure spoke my language in my head.”
She hopes to see big crowds at the truth and reconciliation events. Education, she believes, is one of the best ways to shine a light on the “dark history” of residential schools.
Healing from intergenerational trauma
It’s not just survivors who were impacted by the schools, but also their descendants. Michael R. Denny sits down in the video to talk about intergenerational trauma. His father was a survivor.
Denny says he’s honouring his dad’s resiliency and healing journey.
“I felt that it was it was important to talk about my family, to talk about my family connection,” he says. “Breaking generational curses, breaking generational things that are bad, and passing on the good things to my children and passing on culture, passing on our language.”
He describes one of the first experiences his father had at the residential school during the 1950s. He was there for nearly a decade.
“They just throw delousing powder on his head and throw him in a tub. He doesn’t know what’s going on. He just remembers that stuff burning his eyes, burning his mouth, his nose,” says Denny. “They scrubbed him because he was so dark. His skin was very dark. The nuns were trying to scrub the dark off him because they thought it was dirt.”
He says despite the dark history and battling addiction, his father overcame his demons.
“He found healing in our our traditional ways and our traditional ceremonies and also some incorporated things from other other nations, other tribes, such as powwows and Sundance,” says Denny. “That’s what saved him. It took him to sobriety. It took him to learning.”
He is passing those traditions on to his three young daughters.
“As soon as they were born, the first voice they heard was me speaking to them and welcoming them to this world in our language,” says Denny. “I want that to be my legacy. I want that to be my father’s legacy, my mother’s legacy.”