“Genocide has taken a different form over an extended period for the Aboriginal Peoples of the Americas, in comparison to Rwandan Tutsis or Jews and Roma in Nazi-dominated Europe. In many areas of the two continents, those First Nations Peoples who survived first contact with European diseases were often worked to death or murdered.
In Canada, the story was different. In Canada, First Nations Peoples were relocated to reserves –under the rule of “Indian Agents” who were required to approve their every move. The lands were often in marginal areas. It wasn’t until 1960 that First Nations Peoples were given the right to vote and to move about freely.
In many cases, First Nations Peoples on the reserves had their children taken away from them to be placed in Residential Schools where the mission was the often brutal forced assimilation of the children into European-Christian culture. The Residential School experience has left scars on generations of First Nations people.
Victoria Macintosh is one of the survivors of the Residential School experience. This is her story.
“My family is from the Sagkeeng First Nation southeast of Winnipeg. That used to be called Fort Alexander. We were proud of our history and heritage."
“Before I was taken away, I lived with my mother, three siblings and my grandparents. Life was tough but we were never dependent. We found a way to survive.
I have good memories of my grandmother telling me stories of our history and culture. Those were my bedtime stories. I was comfortable speaking our own language.
“I also remember subtle examples of racism. I remember there was a road sign forbidding us to pass a certain point and go to the nearby Pine Falls without permission. I remember helping my grandmother put on shoes one time and seeing a tattoo on her leg. She didn’t want to talk about it but, I learned later, that her generation was all tattooed for identification purposes.
“I was taken away to residential school when I was four years old. A scout would come around to the reserves and look for kids he thought would benefit from being Christianized. The bus came for me that day in 1963 when (American President) Kennedy was shot. I remember I was sitting on our big green couch in our tiny house watching our black and white TV.
“I felt abandoned when I was taken. I learned more of what happened from my mom just before she passed away. She felt guilty but didn’t think she had a choice. She felt that if she didn’t let me go to the church school, there would be nothing else provided for my three siblings. After I came out of residential school at the age of 12, I had a real hard time connecting with my mom. I didn’t know how to communicate with her.
“The first time I entered the residential school was the first time that I was called a savage. The nun took the coat I was wearing and threw it at my mom’s feet. I felt us ripping away.
Then the nuns cut our hair. I felt so empty, so lonely. ”
“Because I spoke Anishnaabe and knew very little English, I didn’t understand what the nuns were saying. I was told to get some new clothes in a cubbyhole and get dressed. I didn’t understand and got slapped really hard on the side of the head. I felt stupid because I didn’t understand. The nun had a real mean look on her face. We were given numbers instead of our names. I didn’t feel human anymore. There were no feelings of love, no hugging from the nuns. There was no regard for how we felt. There was a lot of slapping of hands, hitting and hair pulling. They would wash us in big tubs. The nuns scrubbed us until it hurt. I remember my grandmother on the reserve bathing me. I didn’t remember it hurting then. It was really degrading having the nuns check under our armpits, pull on our ears and make us bend over. I felt so hurt and humiliated. I couldn’t understand why they were treating us like that.
“I was always scared. I had trouble sleeping at night. We were always being threatened with hell fire. We were told that brown and dark-skinned people had no chance of going to heaven. I felt a lot of anger.
“We always had a lot of chores to do. Every day, we had to look at the list to see what our chores were. Sometimes, we didn’t go to school because we had extra chores to do.
“I remember that I was six the first time I was strapped by one of the nuns. Her name was Sister Ferdinand. It is still hard for me to say her name. How dare she treat a six-year-old like that. She should go to hell. I remember an older girl trying to tell the nun to leave me alone. Afterwards I was in a haze. Another older girl took me to the bathroom and put my hands under cold water. It was a shock to the system feeling the pain and seeing my red hands. I felt broken.”
“I went to public school in Red Lake, Ontario. It was totally different from what I thought school was. I didn’t know what to tell my teachers about where I had gone to school before. How could I tell anyone what I went through? Who would believe me?
“After Residential school, I felt that I had to be tough all the time. I felt that I had to be on my guard with White people. I’m not racist. I love to talk to people. But it took me a long time to be comfortable about lowering my guard.
Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with “post-traumatic stress disorder. I became an artist and my art helped me deal with a lot of my pain. But I knew that I needed to educate myself about PTSD, how to deal with the affects and how it has affected my kids.
“I became a mom at 18. I didn’t know what to do. I asked my mom. She said that I could figure it out on my own. She didn’t help too much other than to advise me to clean my house clean. I had a hard time hugging my children.
“I went to university later in life because I wanted to educate myself. I didn’t want to be angry the rest of my life.
“Forgiveness is a word with many different meanings. I had to learn first to forgive myself. What happened to me was not my fault. I had to turn back to my people’s traditions to forgive some other people.
“I learned to become proud of my heritage, myself and what I had become.
In all of it, there was one teacher who treated us with respect. I want to say thank you to Mr. Finlayson if he is still alive. He praised us. He did a lot of art with us. I became an artist because of him. He was soft spoken and showed us kindness. We felt safe in his classroom. He was the only one I that place with a good heart.”