Ron Nyce was just a five-year-old little boy when he started in Indian Day school in the remote village of Gitwinksihlkw. Not much older, at seven, he was taken away from his mother’s arms in the Nass Valley to St. Albert’s Residential School in Edmonton.
The year was 1956 when Ron, his older brother Harry, and his sister Mae, were transported to the United Church-run school, where they would have almost non-existent contact with each other for five years. He was forced not to speak the only language he had ever heard for it to be replaced with English. When Ron and his siblings returned home years later, they taught English to their parents, who re-taught them their original Nisga’a tongue. As an adult, Ron who is a hereditary chief now teaches First Nations language and culture to others.
During the years Ron was at the school, out of the 144 students, 120 were from Northern B.C. Only 24 were from Alberta.
According to the website thechildrenremembered.ca, which uses residential school records of the United Church Archives, rumours had been circulating about ‘immorality’ at the school. A visiting missionary reported his suspicions to the church officials that the minister was sexually abusing students. In 1960, the school’s minister was convicted of gross indecency and received a one-year suspended sentence with psychiatric treatment.
Ron told Black Press Media that it was necessary to hear some of his experiences before answering what ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ means to him.
“Reconciliation is a loaded word,” he said.
“First of all, I’ll tell you what I’ve gone through in my life. That would be the most appropriate place to start,” he said.
He was 12 years old before returning to his family and going to Prince Rupert’s high school, graduating in 1969.
“I was treated badly in every aspect … I was treated pretty badly, but I managed to live through it. I lived through the treatment I received, through the experiences of day school, residential school, then into the regular elementary school on to high school. All the way through I was treated badly because I was a First Nations person.”
“We are getting to a time when, finally, there’s got to be some sort of healing amongst all people. Not just First Nations. Every single one of us, in Canada and in the world.”
What needs to happen, is the government, the federal government, provincial government, the municipal governments need to really be honest with that and how this is going to come about and be respectful of it. That’s what reconciliation means, as a little part to me.”
Ron said reconciliation should not be just a word that is floundered about to make governments look good or that they are trying to do something. He said it needs to expand to every citizen.
“The public at large within Canada also needs to embrace this. They need to know our history … the majority of the public does not know how the First Nations were treated over centuries.”
Racism is rampant, Ron said, even today, citing examples of racism targeting the Jewish and Black communities.
“We are all the same. No matter who we are, we’re all the same. We need to be respectful of one another. With truth and reconciliation, we need to come to a point where we embrace each other and use that word [reconciliation].”
It’s like with sexual abuse, Ron said. The victim needs to forgive the abuser. The same is for the First Nations.
“The First Nations people need to forgive the governments, the non-natives, for treating us the way they have been. People need to forgive the abuser.”
However, there is a caveat to that, Ron said.
“At the same time, the abuser has to be very earnest.
“The way I look at it, we as First Nations people are having a very difficult time trusting because of what happened. We’re having difficulty trusting the governments because they have lied to us. Cheated us. Stolen from us. How can you trust people like that?”
“It’s in the past, a little bit is still happening today, but the forgiveness part is the tough part … Forgive. You can’t forget, unfortunately. It will never be forgotten. It will always be a shadow. A black shadow in the past.”
Another aspect of truth and reconciliation is understanding, he said.
“We’ve been misunderstood all these years, with our totem poles, our regalia, our tribes or clans. We have been misunderstood because of ignorance. Because of ignorance, people just don’t want to pick up books written by First Nations people,” he said.
“So people misunderstand us. The prejudice comes in. The mistreatment comes in. That’s why we are in the state we are in today.”
Asked if reconciliation should be made in ‘small steps and nuances over time’ or if it should be ‘all and now’, Ron said a government apology could be done all at once, but the rest can’t be due to the number of the tribes and nations and issues across Canada.
Respect is needed to be shown daily in everyday life for people to feel accepted as who they really are, and this extends to the youth of today, the First Nations language teacher said.
“When I speak of my treatment in residential schools to my children or my grandchildren, they can’t comprehend it. They can’t believe people could treat you like that.”
Youth need to be informed that there was mistreatment and that it was due to negligence, he said.
“It is a very deep, deep wound. In order to heal that, it’s going to take quite some doing on everybody’s part.”
K-J Millar | Journalist
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