Thomas Samuels and Louis Roger Grey have been friends for decades.
They share a good sense of humour, a love for Terrace where they reside, people watching outside the Skeena Mall, familiarity of a common culture and a very similar past – both of them are residential school survivors
Grey, at 77-years is older than Samuels who is 73 and therefore the “boss” and the “crazier” according to the younger of the duo.
Whereas Samuels – who became friends with Grey at his sister’s “orders” to “watch over him” – has made him jump a couple red lights, said the older one.
A conversation with Samuels and Grey is filled with stories, jokes and numerous innocuous witty jabs at each other. Samuels hails from Haida Gwaii and Grey is from the Nisga’a First Nation.
They met in Vancouver back in the days when both of them were “young, angry, violent men,” said Samuels, who was friends with Grey’s sister. They didn’t get along too well that time and didn’t know they would end up in Terrace in the near future.
Grey, who grew up in Terrace “even before the roads were paved,” came back and settled in the city where he worked at Skeena Sawmills for 40 years until he retired. Samuels found himself in Terrace on his way back to Haida Gwaii, after he wrapped up his life in Vancouver. He worked at Ksan Society’s homeless shelter for a while before he left.
“After many many moons, we became friends,” said Grey about him and Samuels. But how a Haida and a Nisga’a man became friends is something that still baffles him, said Grey jokingly. “In our history, Haida and Nisga’a were at always at war at each other.”
Beneath the camaraderie, when the jokes and stories fade, both men still store dormant grief and anger.
On some occasions, the grief spills out to the tune of drum beats and songs that Samuels sings, and on some occasions, the anger spills out in Grey’s retelling of stories from his time in residential schools in Port Alberni and Edmonton.
In their 70s both men are still politically active and participate in almost all events organized in the city by various Indigenous groups. They share their experience, again and again for those who come to listen. Retelling the story is a part of healing, they say. And healing, is a life-long process for people like them who’ve been mentally, physically, sexually and spiritually abused.
Grey was part of one of the first groups of residential school survivors who went to court in the late 1990s and recounted his experience in Nanaimo for an inquiry into residential schools, he said. And since then, he has retold the story quite a few times.
“People keep asking why do we talk about it still, why bring it up now, but the more we talk, it becomes easier, it makes us stronger, it helps us heal,” said Grey.
“I don’t have a rug at home to sweep my story under it,” said Samuels.
What happened in residential schools shaped a lot of events in their lives, disrupted their family lives and cost them many relationships. Both Grey and Samuels had a long battle with alcoholism in their journey toward sobriety.
“Anybody who went to residential schools are on a streak,” said Grey, explaining how a lot of survivors go to jail, deal with substance abuse and end up hurting themselves and their loved ones. Grey said that he underwent years of therapy and still talks to someone when he finds himself in triggering situations.
But even then, despite years and decades of therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, chanting serenity prayers – the anger and the pain never really goes away. It can always be triggered,” said Grey.
“The other day, in the mall I saw a kid getting spanked by his mother, something about that boy getting a beating left me very disturbed,” he said.
Samuels went to a residential school in Edmonton, and said anger cost him his younger brother’s life. That was also when he realized that he needed a change – mostly from hating people.
“I felt guilty, I not only hurt my family but an entire village,” said Samuels while talking about his brother’s loss.
“But love was an alien word to me. It was not a part of my language – I don’t think that I have ever told my family, friends or children that I love them. Whereas it was easier for people like us to say, ‘I hate you,’ because that was something we were familiar with,” said Samuels.
Over the years, Samuels says that he was eventually able to forgive himself after he realized that his people forgave him. That is also when he started paying it forward.
“A lot of people paid a price and sacrificed for me, the least I can do it pay it forward,” said Samuel.
Grey shares a similar experience too when it comes to the cycle of generational trauma, where his history of abuse made him bitter towards his own children most of his life. “I don’t remember ever buying Christmas presents for my kids,” he said.
Talking about the strong ripple effects of trauma, Grey said that one affected person can affect 10 people and more.
Recent findings of the remains of 215 children buried near a former residential school in Kamloops, brought up a lot of painful memories for Grey and Samuels. As survivors of that system, Grey and Samuels both told stories at memorial events in Terrace, about young boys and girls who went to school with them – some of whom disappeared without a trace into the night.
But they were also quick to condemn the violent chain of events that followed throughout Canada when churches were set on fire and vandalism was on rise.
Grey quotes the words of one of the elders he heard, “It’s not God who did these things, it’s just the bad people they hired.”
An advice both older men give to the younger generation is to seek and get help when needed. Similarly – as they continue to journey through the waves of emotions, that come and go – Grey and Samuels also want people to know that healing is not a one-time event.
It is a life long a process, which is why they continue to tell their stories, as they heal time and again.