Kermode Friendship Society’s Louisa Gray with the Bachelor of Arts degree she earned after coming out of a long period of suffering.

Time for Truth, Reconciliation

For local Terrace resident Louisa Gray, the social damage caused by residential schools is something she deals with every day

For Lousia Gray, the social damage caused by residential schools is something she deals with every day at her job and in the memories of what they did to her family growing up.

“I still see in other families a lot of alcohol abuse and family violence,” says Gray, a social worker and counsellor with 17 years experience in the area.

“I think it stems from the affects of residential school because many were physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and sexually abused and a lot of them carried on and abused others, including their own children.”

And for herself, it’s difficult to speak of the life she had of drinking every day before earning a Bachelor of Arts degree and then to raise a family where drugs and alcohol aren’t abused and there is no violence.

Gray reflected on both her professional and personal life last week following the release of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s summary of six years of testimony into the effects of more than century of aboriginal children being sent to residential schools.

The commission travelled the country over six years including a stop in Terrace in 2013 where local First Nations had a chance to contribute to the permanent record of residential school experiences which will be archived at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. A total of almost 7,000 statements were made and will be included in the final comprehensive report yet to be released.

Gray, 68, who has witnessed and experienced how the residential schools cut off children from their parents, destroying family and social networks in the process, is nonetheless skeptical about the commission’s ability to bring about change.

Born in Greenville in the Nass Valley, Gray, who is Nisga’a, saw several of her brothers and sisters go through that system, and she herself spent four years at a domestic boarding school in Surrey starting at age 17 where she says she suffered many of the same abuses.

“They were called boarding homes, and that is where the Department of Indian Affairs placed a lot of students that didn’t go to residential schools,” Gray said.

She added that she feels the government should have included those boarding schools in the commission’s work.

“When I contacted tuberculosis I was about 3 or 4 years old,” Gray said. “And I had to stay in Miller Bay [near Prince Rupert] for a year.”

“It was one of the diseases that Europeans brought over with small pox, some of my brothers and sisters died from smallpox.”

Gray said that the federal government’s program to compensate survivors, one that was in the works before and continued after a formal apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to aboriginal peoples in Parliament in 2008, lead to even more of them dying from alcoholism-related health problems.

After seeing many of her generation die from alcoholism and poverty, Gray is skeptical that the recommendations and report can really change anything, though she said the public statements did have a positive influence.

“It was useful for them to tell their story,” she said of her family and friends. “I went with a couple of them…they told their truth, but what good is it if you don’t do anything with that?”

“They haven’t been helped socially, they haven’t progressed,” said Gray who is preparing to enter a master’s program at Trinity Western university.

Specific to Terrace and other communities where housing costs are high, Gray had been hoping the commission report would push harder for more affordable housing policies.

She said having stable accommodation is a crucial first step if people are to wean their way off alcohol and drugs.

Calvin Albright, the friendship society’s chief executive officer, says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission might make some people think that First Nations people aren’t moving forward, which isn’t the case.

“It’s good on a go-forward basis,” he said of the report. “We don’t have to wait for big policy statements. We are taking control already. We are already doing a considerable amount of work in our communities, we are not waiting for government to give us money; we are just doing it ourselves.

“Generally I think it’s a very comprehensive report that reminds me of the [1996] Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Lots of anticipation but it seemed like nothing ever came of it. What I think is interesting is there is already lots of organizing and lots of work being done that the general public isn’t aware of.

Calvin Albright, director of Terrace's Kermode Friendship Society

“We are all impacted by it, but we have been able to maintain who we are and contribute towards working towards being self sustaining as individuals and communities,” said Albright of the residential school legacy.

“There are a lot of people who believe we can overcome [social problems] in all sorts of ways. Just go to the Inspire website, for instance, you will see thousands of aboriginal people getting bursaries to go on to post secondary education.”

Speaking after the initial report was released, Skeena-Bulkley MP Nathan Cullen said that “we want to move forward with this report, we want to move forward with First Nations communities.  Immediately looking at the funding gap for education is incredibly important, as is securing better quality housing.”

Report wants action

Among the 94 recommendations is the call for one or more public memorials to help ensure that the brutal assimilation of one culture by another does not happen again in Canada.

Others aim at everything from boosting childcare on reserves to criminal code amendments. For example, it calls for the amendment of section 43 of the criminal code which permits spanking and other forms of minor physical abuse by legal caregivers.

It also calls on the Catholic Church, which ran many of the schools through which the residential school program was overseen by government, to issue various statements of apology and support for native rights. One is a public apology by the Pope.

Other recommendations called for increased funding for on-reserve education and an inquiry into missing and murdered women.

Another tells government to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereign over Indigenous land and peoples.”