Click below to listen to Noela and Vicki.
[Vicki] I am a woman with white skin and a descendant of prairie settler farmers from Saskatchewan, in Treaty Six territory. I am a treaty land citizen, currently residing in Treaty One territory, and Noela’s Canadian prairie neighbour. In my professional work, I spend a lot of time walking with people on the path of trauma healing and resilience.
[Noela] In the summer of 2021, the news of unmarked graves at the sites of several former residential schools was deeply distressing for many Canadians. For former students and their families, it triggered past traumas and instilled feelings of anger or shame – anger at the outrage without the rage that went on for years, as many First Nations people already knew about these unmarked graves; and shame over the indecencies that occurred at many of the schools and the resulting intergenerational trauma.
[Vicki] When these stories reached the mainstream media, there were multilayered responses from non-Indigenous people – shock, sadness, surprise, denial, anger, grief, doubt, helplessness, and motivation to do something to name a few. A vast array of responses spilled out on social media, as well as in community conversations and the private echo chambers of people’s minds. Some non-Indigenous people seemed to reel and struggle to respond; others were not as surprised, aware of the violent history; for some it was a revelation to a hidden truth.
[Noela] On June 24th, 2021, Cowessess First Nation announced that there were 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Residential School. I was delivering an online trauma training when I heard the news, and I immediately felt shocked – I was disturbed by this feeling because I had already been aware of these unmarked graves for several years. I also knew that my birth mother was buried adjacent to that site, so I reached out to CTRI, and the training was postponed considering the news.
Over the next few days, I felt aspects of trauma and grief. I was able to take time away from my routine work, and I responded to friends and others who were former students at residential schools in Treaty Four. Being trauma aware, I tried to let my feelings be, accepting them and letting them flow without stopping anything that came up. I held curiosity and tried to meditate, but I couldn’t focus. If I had to pick a colour to represent my feelings, it would be red – a deep, dark red. While red is described by some nêhiyawak knowledge keepers as the colour of our people, the nêhiyawak people, for me it expressed a feeling I could not come to terms with or readily identify.
If I had to pick a colour to represent my feelings, it would be red – a deep, dark red.
I went to a few counselling sessions, which helped me identify my feeling as rage. Rage. I was appalled to consider that this was what I was feeling, and my inability to accept this emotion also meant I wasn’t processing it. It filled my entire body in complete silence. Rage is one of the most insidious feelings we can experience. It reminds me of a sinister shadow, lurking but so deeply silent that we cannot be fully aware of its presence.
[Vicki] A swell of sadness came over me as I heard the news. It was followed by rumbling waves of multiple tangled emotions: anger, shame, and anticipation of all the complex reactions this would stir in people. I felt a deep compassion for those impacted by residential schools, anticipating that this would trigger and resurface many memories. There was a sense of a secret being popped – a long held truth that came to the surface. And an almost disturbing, numbed sense of non-surprise.
I could feel a pull to shut down and blunt the impact of the stories and the conflict because I could sense a different level of collective anger. There was also a sharpened awareness of the importance of staying “awake” to this. I remember thinking people are thawing from the frozen silence of trauma, and that we are going to really feel this. But the presence of strong emotion is a sign of health.
I listened to Chief Cadmus Delorme from Cowessess First Nation speak to reporters and felt gratitude toward the strength, the leadership, and the movement underway. Similar to Noela’s processing, I tried to let the feelings just be while remaining aware of my breath and opening my chest, my lungs, my heart, and my mind – taking in more breath and exhaling to let things move.
One of the deepest scars from this residential school trauma has been the culture of silence it has created in many First Nations families and communities.
[Noela] One of the deepest scars from this residential school trauma has been the culture of silence it has created in many First Nations families and communities.
When I was in my twenties, I met my birth father. I can still see his sunlit face as he walked up to my house, about to meet me for the first time. He brought me a blanket as a gift. I hadn’t seen him since I was two months old.
My dad has been the light in my life – I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for him. Although he says he’s not traditional, it’s clear he has had good parenting skills with me, and he relays them in a way we now describe as “traditional parenting.”
My dad handled my adoption reunion like an expert extremely well versed in carrying out such an event. He easily instilled acceptance in an adult who has experienced childhood trauma and abandonment, and I’m fortunate enough to have been blessed to have him as my parent for more than half my life now. Our experience, however, has been largely silent.
[Vicki] Silence toward the broken promises and fractured relationships has been the loudest response from non-Indigenous people for many decades. I think many of us don’t want to believe that such horrible stories can be true; some do believe and want things to be better. Others carry a knowing that has been numbed by helplessness. Their guilt causes the stories of buried children to feel like a slap in the face, resonating with a pang of recognition held deep in their bodies.
Silence toward the broken promises and fractured relationships has been the loudest response from non-Indigenous people for many decades.
I think silence is often meant to be protective, but it can also be disconnecting. I felt this disconnection while growing up, living as a neighbour to many Indigenous people but having almost no sense of who they were or their stories – and my own community silently endorsed this as “normal.” The silence amplified difference, separation, and avoidance.
[Noela] Within weeks of our reunion, my dad took me to the site of Lebret Residential School and the graveyard at Piapot First Nation. He told me that children died, but he did not know what happened to them. I felt the depth of his statement, hearing it in his tone and seeing the pain in his expression. We never spoke of it again.
Why is there a culture of silence?
This question came up last year with an Elder from a neighbouring community to my dad’s. In the 1930s and 40s, the priests and the Indian agents had enormous control over what happened on a First Nation. If any of the abuses that occurred were shared, families or individuals could be punished. The Elder I spoke with said that her mother told her, “We don’t talk about that.” She reflected on how that one sentence impacted her life and her early years of being a parent, and how it still impacts her family today.
The silence runs even deeper, all the way down to the acts of physical and sexual violence that occurred at many of the former residential schools. In The Education of Augie Merasty, the author is clear that the children knew what was happening. The depth of that silence is terrifying to me. It’s terrifying because I regularly sit with people who have been deeply impacted for several generations by the abuses that began in these schools. I see the damage it has done. I sit with parents and families who, on the surface, lose their children by drug overdoses or suicide, but the real causes are the atrocities that occurred in the residential schools, which have been exacerbated by a deafening culture of silence among our people.
I have learned to accept the silence and trauma of my own family experience and the experiences of others by the gift of sitting with First Nations individuals and families who are on their healing journeys. I processed the rage I felt last summer by remembering my dad and his stories. I recognized the need to feel the grief of his experience and accept it meant he could not be my dad for all my life, but he has been my father in a way that has been meaningful to us for over half my life now. I took time to reflect on silence, and how silence during ceremony or in meditation is healing.
[Vicki & Noela] “Silence has two sides.”
[Vicki] This phrase rings true in my core. Silence can protect us from the threat of knowing, and can possibly evade further unwanted attention. It can carry the hope that things will improve, and that we can potentially reach another side without seeing, hearing, or feeling it fully. Silence shows up in so many stories of trauma – of resilience – as a way to survive.
Silence shows up in so many stories of trauma – of resilience – as a way to survive.
However, silence over time becomes a contraposition. It starts to do the opposite of protection. It’s like a fluffy packing foam around truths in our minds, hearts, and bodies. Over time, we mistake the packing foam for our real thoughts and feelings, and we are left numb. There is always pressure in the silence – pressure that comes to the surface until we choke on its need to get out.
[Noela] I know that trauma lives in our body, in our central nervous system. I have learned most of my triggers to the past and can often readily resume coming to a point of feeling well and good. At times, I can feel like a child. I learned from my adoption record (post child apprehension) and my dad (preapprehension) that I was moved seven times during the first year of my life. It’s an unconscious trauma that doesn’t have any memory, but it has been a work in progress for me for several decades now.
When I hear news like the unmarked graves or the more recent apology from the Pope, I give that ambulant child some space. I let her do some writing, or I walk and have a talk with her. And when I finally open my door to come home, I say, “It’s not your fault you were moved so many times in your first year, and you are loveable.”
[Vicki] Healing happens in steps and stages. Thawing from frozen silence can happen in many ways – it is an act of self-respect and self-care to take it slowly and allow nurture, connection, and time to be there alongside the emotions, memories, and beliefs that emerge. In this way, all the different parts and memories can find their way into a fully connected sense of self.
This process is true for all of us. We are all a part of this history and this present, myself included as I work on this piece. I read a small amount, reflect, and write a small amount. Then I find my attention has jumped elsewhere. I check an email, or I get up and move to a different room before realizing I’m walking in another direction. Allowing myself time to sleep, to move closer, then move away from this process has created the opportunity to digest and navigate some of my own thoughts and feelings. There is still much to understand; much to learn; much to heal. I feel immense gratitude to Noela, for her strength, her vulnerability, and her openness.
[Noela] On June 30th, 2021, my first grandchild was born. In Kylen is strength. With his birth, I was more able to let go of the rage I felt earlier that month. In his first weeks of life, I made sure I was present with him daily. I whispered our story to him while his parents took reprieve from sleep deprivation and napped. I played him songs in Cree and took great healing in holding him while he slept. He is a gift from the Creator. In him and the generation before us is our strength and revitalization. But it is not just in isolation of the new generation. I talk of the space between Kylen’s future grandchildren and my great grandfather Megwan. I hold responsibility now to all those generations.
I find great peace in knowing that we all hold responsibility for the spaces between us, our great grandparents, and the grandchildren of our own grandchildren.
I find great peace in knowing that we all hold responsibility for the spaces between us, our great grandparents, and the grandchildren of our own grandchildren. Each step I take must be in respect to each of these generations. To me, that means I choose what I do daily and how I give back. I share our experience not for what I gain, but for the seed of hope or understanding it may grow in others. Most of all, I hold gratitude – and at moments when I feel low, I put a gratitude jar on the counter and let my teenagers and I fill it for a few weeks. Most recently, we are grateful for Fortnite, for music, and I said I am grateful for the 1:00 AM just-because phone calls from my now 20-year-old son because they remind me that I am still needed.
[Vicki] “We all hold responsibility for the spaces between us.”
Amen to that. Ekosi.
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