Article 11: Kiskisomito – Remind One Another
Tansi, good afternoon and welcome. My name is Nateshia Constant-Personius, and my spirit name is Redwing Brown Eagle Woman. I am the daughter of Derek and Linda Constant. I grew up in Opaskwayak Cree Nation. I am the first generation on my dad’s side and the second generation on my mom’s side of the family who was not a student at a residential school or a day school. However, it is worth noting that I was born during the time when residential schools were still in operation. The sorrows of those who had been to residential and day schools are around me. I have and still, witness how the trauma affects their daily lives. The trauma follows our chapans (great grandparents), our nokom (grandmother), nimosom (grandfather), our parents, nitosis (aunties), nisis (uncles), and the children of Aboriginal people.
I attended Joe A. Ross School on the land of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, where I learnt about residential schools and day schools. One quote, “Beat the Indian out of the child,” lives rent-free in my head, and I always ask myself, “Why?” How could anyone be this cruel, especially to children? Another quote I cannot wrap my head around is the one from our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald who reported to the House of Commons on May 9, 1883: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages… He is simply a savage who can read and write” (2023). These words are simple to understand—he wanted to isolate the Aboriginal children and groom them to fit what they thought were society’s customs. Growing up, I heard the horrifying stories of residential school and day school survivors. Some stories I heard were from people in my own family, my friends, and fellow community members. The stories describe criminal acts against children and their families. I remember the suffering from the stories about residential school and day school students: the constant abuse, neglect, starvation, isolation, rape, being kidnapped, beaten, killed, sexually assaulted, and even being wiped from this earth. It was like some children never existed. These stories I was told hurt my heart and affect me to this day emotionally, mentally, and physically. The stories are horrific and I am just listing a few.
I heard the same stories of abuse which happened often to the children in their daily lives at school. But their stories are all different but tell of the abuse they suffered. I was told stories of what had happened in the residential schools. The first stories I remember being told were about how children were forcefully removed from their families. The parents were sometimes held at gunpoint, or if they did not comply and give up their children they would be thrown in jail. The children ranged from four years old and up. Being a mother myself these stories horrify me. Another story I was told about children in residential schools is that the older boys would sleep near the door while the younger boys slept further away. This was because the boy closest to the door was the easiest access for priests, nuns, and employers to grab and do unmentionable things to the children. The older Aboriginal children took it upon themselves to protect the younger children. It was the older boys’ plan to sleep closest to the door to protect the younger children from getting taken in the night.
Another story I recall hearing about children in residential schools was like this: there were some young girls who would have babies as a result of being raped. The rapist would command that these babies be stripped from the girls and burned to death. Or the young girl with a child would be beaten until the child could not be born. There were even stories of how the newly born babies were burnt in the boilers or ovens at residential schools.
One story about day school I heard about is when children had to get immunizations the injection needles would not be sanitized after each use. There was one unsensitized needle shared among the students. The staff in Day School were rough with the children. An anonymous source told me that the person who gave the injection even broke the needle in his arm because the child was scared. The person giving the needle took their frustration out on the child and broke the needle in his arm as a repercussion for moving and hollering. He stated that the person giving the needle was not a nurse, doctor, or an educated healthcare worker. He also thinks he got his TB (Tuberculosis) from those unhygienic practices. The children at Day School also received medicine in the form of pills. The students were never told what the pills were, or what they were for. When the students had terrible side effects, they were not told anything about the pills. He felt like a guinea pig in the lab. What was shocking was that these practices were carried out in my hometown, The Pas, Manitoba.
Other horrendous acts I was told about in residential schools involved children being isolated and beaten for trying to help calm the younger new attendees. The older children would sneak over and comfort the younger children who only knew their language when they first got to school. The older children would speak in their language to comfort the younger ones, or they would guide the students because they did not know English. Unfortunately, the children were punished when they were heard talking in their own language. These repercussions really stand true to what the residential school was trying to do. All the things that were done in residential schools have proved to be a system to reform, control, and obliterate, in their words, the “savage” out of the child.
When I was invited to conduct interviews for Muses from the North (MFTN), my first thought was not yes. I was terrified of the stories of what had happened to Aboriginal people, my own people, my family, and people I knew. I was scared to retraumatize interviewees; I did not want them to re-experience the hurt from the interview questions that led to telling their stories. Another barrier for me to say “yes” was the negatively stereotyped thoughts of Aboriginal students: Aboriginals get told that if we are educated on reservations, our education is not adequate, nor good enough to do anything. For these reasons, I thought to myself that I could not speak honourably enough for our survivors. I could never be good enough to help them with their stories. But at the University College of the North (UCN), my teachers and peers were my supporters. Also, the people from my community and family told me I could do this. They are my biggest supporters. I came to realize that I could do this and I wanted to get the stories out for the public to read. My major is in Northern Aboriginal Studies, which helped me see the gaps in history, between what was written and what was untold. The misleading stories in the written history did not sit right with me. There were a lot of Western perspectives about residential schools and day schools. There are still a lot of questions and misconceptions about the residential school era in Canadian history. I do not want those horrific stories to be silenced or missing. I am a victim of intergenerational trauma, and I know the truth needs to be told. Knowing that there are gaps and misconceptions because the truth was not told helped me answer my own question: how can I help to recover the truth and to help heal our people? Thus, I thought conducting interviews would be a step toward getting stories out, told by my interviewees, which is also an educational process for myself and others. I convince myself that I can contribute to the truth and reconciliation by sharing the truth about the events that happened to my people that changed Aboriginal cultures and traditions. After all, there are two sides to every story am I right?
After interviewing two-day school survivors, I’ve now realized the importance of identifying, collecting, and sharing the truth by telling stories of survivors of the residential and day school systems. It was very hard for the interviewees to share their past about being a student at a residential day school. Sharing their stories with me was as if they were reexperiencing their past. However, they understood that sharing is a step towards healing, and telling their truths is part of their own healing process. They wanted to break the cycles that are now causing intergenerational trauma. They both expressed the importance of healing one’s self as a survivor of residential day school. The goal of sharing their stories is to encourage others to do the same. The survivors I interviewed are Robert Lathlin and Little Ms. an anonymous interviewee. They started healing themselves and are now constantly trying to break the cycle within their family. Their stories are about their experiences and the mistreatment they received from their schools. At an early age, children did not know what was right or wrong. They were forced to accept what residential schools and day schools taught them. The abuse they received was considered the right form of discipline, and their emotions were taught to be bottled up. Children of the survivors see their families trying to hide from the memories of residential school. Some hide in the destructible world of drugs and alcohol. This is how they bottle up their emotions.
The first interview I conducted was with a woman who would like to remain anonymous. She knew that her story needed to be told to help break the cycle. With respect to the interviewee, we came up with the name I used within the interview: Little Ms. It was a hard interview. It was hard for me because I knew the interviewee personally. Little Ms. attended not one but two different day schools. She is a former student of Shoal Lake Elementary School and Red Earth John William Head Memorial High School. It was not easy for Little Ms. to recount those experiences. Those days felt like a blur to her and fogged up her mind forever.
Little Ms. grew up in a small community. Most members of her community attended residential or day schools. It was a tight-knit community where it was a parental-set society where parents thought it was okay to discipline other people’s children. The discipline or punishments could be held in someone else’s house, and there was also punishment waiting when they got home. She believes that kind of discipline or treatment of children dates to residential schools.
Little Ms.’s memory of school was terrible; in her words, she felt lucky to have survived the experience of day school and intergenerational trauma. Her first memory of school was interesting. She had a good memory of her siblings taking her to school; they made it a memorable one for her. When she talked of this memory, she smiled and spoke highly of her siblings for giving her this moment and for being her supporters. It was not long before I saw her emotions switch as fast as turning on a light switch. She paused; it was a soft, momentary pause, but I could tell feelings had changed. She explained that her parents, sadly, could not take her to school because they could not step foot back into school. Due to the trauma, they endured during residential school. It was sad for her. She explained that her parents could never bring themselves to go to a school, even when she had achievements to share. She felt alone because she wanted to see her parents be proud of her receiving an award. It was hard to hear about this because I could not relate. Right away, we had, lumps in our throats. Little Ms. explained how she feels humiliated by these experiences and still feels shame.
Little Ms. shared a story of how teachers would humiliate a child as a way of enforcing discipline. The school’s priority was to control, not educate, she said. I remember how we had to take a break so she could come up with the courage to share her stories with me. She told me this experience has had a dramatic effect on her life. The teachers who were supposed to provide support and a safe space did not do so. At the age of 5, she needed the facilities. They did not let her; it was so bad to the point she urinated herself, then the teacher made her stand in front of the class to be humiliated. When she was telling the story, I could see her remembering the experiences as if they were yesterday or had just happened. I saw the face of a child who was broken; the gloss filled her eyes as she spoke of her experiences. These experiences continued and still impact her life and health today. Her physical growth was stunted due to starvation because she did not want to eat or drink because she was scared of asking to use the facilities during school. The atmosphere of listening to her and her telling the story was heavy. There were many breaks and reassurances that this was her story and no one else to tell. This is her life story. I liked our breaks; they were times between the stories she would reminisce. It brought her to her place with happy thoughts—some of her children, others about growing up with her grandmother. She reminded me of her religion and how it helped her. What really stood out for me in those moments of sharing was that she was able to speak of her good times at school. She was a leader and an ambassador. She took on these roles in school to help others. She needed to find the good in the bad times. She took control of the events she had organized. With the help of some teachers, she was able to become a student leader. She explained that there were times when she would get a nice teacher, which explained that it was like a breath of fresh air in those moments. We had a good time talking about her trips and how she took on many responsibilities. Though it still made me sad because of a young child who had gone through so many bad experiences. She learnt to take control of her surroundings and had too many responsibilities for a child.
Little Ms. also shared about the intergenerational trauma that she endured at home. Her parents would succumb to the callings of alcohol making her dad an angry man. The things she saw as a young child were her mom being beaten to almost death, which was a recurrence in her home. As a child, she had hiding spots to protect herself. These spots held up when her dad would think of an awful memory and all hell would break loose. It makes me sad to think that she lived out of fear because of both experienced and intergenerational trauma.
Thinking back, I never heard anything good about day schools. Until I interviewed Little Ms., I heard about some good experiences she had during her days in Day School. The good that she refers to in the interview about her day schools in Saskatchewan was not because of the day school system but because of her bravery. She was brave because she was strong enough to take control of her surroundings the best, she could. Her positive attitude helped reduce my concerns when I asked the question “Besides the abusive days of your childhood, what are other happy memories of day school?” It was hard to ask such a question because I did not want to bring any source of light to day school. I did not think such a question should be asked. But Little Ms. reminded me that there are good people in the world, and sometimes you meet them in the worst conditions.
An update on Little Ms. is part of the story I want to share with you. She is an educated woman who continued her studies to become a teacher. She wanted to help, to be a part of the change, to help better our education system. She knew that her students deserved better education. Her goal was to make a change for her children. My respect goes out to her because I see her helping the children learn about our culture and traditions. She is now helping her students grow by knowing their identity and forming a new one in our new society’s roles the way a person sees fit; it is never forced.
Little Ms. is also a mother and grandmother of many grandchildren. She did not let her past hold her back so her children could have a good life. She never wants her children to feel or experience the past endeavours of the residential schools and day schools’ hatred. Little Ms. believes in truth and reconciliation. She shared her story because she wants other people to speak out as she did. She wants her people to know that it is okay to ask for help, whether it is now or years down the line. Little Ms. is one of my inspirations to speak on these issues. She is now an educated woman who wanted to bring good to her community by teaching in the schools. She is also in school, working towards her master’s degree in education.
Robert (Bob Stack) Lathlin is my second interviewee. He also took the time to share with me his experiences in the interview as a step toward the process of truth and reconciliation. Bob Stack wanted to share the truth about what happened during his time in day school. He started by talking about growing up in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, living close to the bush in Cow Head.
Bob started his story of how Aboriginal students were stereotyped in school. He felt the teachers did not care about him and the Aboriginal children. He told me that Aboriginals were and still are considered poor. He felt cheated out of the education system. Bob was a student at Big Eddy Day School and later went to Kelsey School, which he felt was run as a day school. There was a lot of abuse in schools during that time. During this interview, there was a lot of emotion, both good and bad. There were times he shared about his friends and how they grew up in Opaskwayak. There were also times when he was mad, and rightfully so. What really resonated with Bob was the lack of support from the school system. He felt cheated out by the education system. When we were discussing this issue, it was a heated moment because of the way he was treated during his school days.
Bob has some learning disabilities. He was treated poorly because of his disabilities. The treatment he received from school, he did not learn how to read or write properly. The teachers there did not feel the need to teach him anything. He was forced to be in a place they called the Romper room away from the other students. They called him derogatory names and demeaned his behaviour in school. Bob would get dragged into the room by a teacher. A form of punishment would be whipping the children on their hands until they bled, and their skin would be punctured while gleaming with the colours of red and blue afterward. These actions scared the students who were treated as nothing.
Another incident Bob recalled is his Grade Seven gym instructor, who disciplined him for speaking with a Caucasian girl. It was against the rules for First Nations children to interact with children of other races. The gym teacher struck Bob after finding him speaking with the Caucasian girl and punched him until he was unconscious. Then Bob was dragged to the office. Later when Bob was sent back to the classroom, the teacher talked to the class as if nothing had happened.
Bob also recalled being punished for being late for school. The principal insulted him maliciously by gripping his neck and pushing him up against the wall. “Do not return to school anymore,” the principal screamed in Bob’s face. That was Bob’s last memory of Day School.
Bob wants to share his stories to help himself and others heal from the atrocities of day school. He explained, “It is a part of our culture to share and heal together.” Bob also thinks that there should be more support for the survivors of residential and day schools. He believes that sharing stories will help others as well so that they won’t feel alone in the healing process.
An update for you about Robert Lathlin. Now he is a dedicated, hard-working man. He worked as a construction worker on several occasions and worked on paving the roads we drive on today. Bob is a devoted husband to Mable Lathlin, and they have children and grandchildren. The couple works hard together for their children and grandchildren so they can have a better life. He assures his children that they will never live the life he had, and endured the shame and insults he had faced.
Writing and speaking about the truth of the past and present was not an easy task for me. It has been a very emotional journey, which I am still on now to learn the truth about our people who have been humbling. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my interviewees, Robert Lathlin, Little Ms., and my immediate family members, who are my biggest supporters and role models for my education and my contribution to the truth and reconciliation. I would also like to acknowledge immediate family members. My nimosom, Grandpa Frank (Baldy) Constant, who was a day school attendee, is known in my community as one of the former bus drivers for Joe A. Ross School. My nokom, Grandma Nelly Constant, also attended day school. Nelly is known for her native crafts. She celebrates her heritage through her well-known beadwork, regalia, and traditional work. Some may recognize her as the designer of some traditional wear, and the crowns she made for the Opaskwayak Indian Days Princess.
I also want to thank my notawi (dad), who attended day school and is now a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation’s chief and council. He is a devoted council member- onawowewiniw. He is a great grandfather to my children. My thanks also go to my late nimosom, Elder Patrick Personius, another day school attendee, who recently passed away in 2023, and also attended day school. My grandpa was an Elder for the chief and council of my community. I recently learned that he had worked alongside eleven chiefs as an Elder of the community. Also, I would like to acknowledge my personal and community supporters, my mom nikawi, Linda Constant, and a wonderful nokom of my children. She is a councillor for the students of Joe A. Ross School. My mother, Linda, loves the stories from children at her school and tries to help them in ways that fit each individual student. My thanks go to my nokom, Grandma Irene Personius, reverend of the Big Eddy Church, who is the wife of the late Patrick Personius. She helps spread the word of the lord and speaks to those needing council.
In closing, I hope our stories help people understand how they survived the trauma and how they will strive for a better life. I believe that it is possible to break the intergenerational trauma cycle. I want to see our nation flourish toward a better future. Our goal is to heal; it will be a long process, but I know there are people willing to help. Remember “the longest journey in the world is from the head to your heart” (J., 2008).
I want you to know the things that have happened to you do not define who you are; history speaks volumes about the person who hurt you. You are strong and brave. You are uniquely beautiful.
Bane, P. (n.d.). Mindful Christianity Today. Retrieved from Patheos: patheos.com
J., M. (2008, 08 12). The longest distance in the world. Retrieved from psychology today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/enlightened-living/200808/the-longest-distance-in-the-world-is-the-head-the-heart#:~:text=The%20longest%20distance%20in%20the%20world%20is%20from%20head%20to,is%20oftentimes%20quite%20the%20hurdle.
Nation, O. C. (2016). Opaskwayak Cree Nation Dictionary. Opaskwayak Cree Nation: Opaskwayak Cree Nation. First Edition 2016.
Residential Schools in Canada- Education Guide. (2023). Retrieved from Historical Canada- Heritage: http://education.historicacanada.ca/files/103/ResidentialSchools_Printable_Pages.pdf
I am Nateshia Constant-Personius, however, I see it as my governmental name. I prefer to be called Teesh, my traditional name, which means Red Wing Brown Eagle Women. I am a student at University College of the North right now but graduating in June 2023. I will be receiving two degrees: a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Education. My ambition is to become a teacher, ideally at Opaskwayak Cree Nation, where I was raised, and graduated. For me, becoming a teacher is a means of giving back to the Opaskwayak Cree Nation Manitoba. I want to help my hometown to recover from the many inquiries about my/our culture. These are a few questions I have: How can Aboriginal people tell stories in our own narrative? Can I learn to practice our own customs? How can I help our children to understand our stories, histories and identities? My personal goal is to become knowledgeable about my culture and traditions so that I can pass them on. My motivation stems from a desire to impart my wisdom about our culture to my kids, future grandchildren, and students. Additionally, I am interested in giving an Aboriginal viewpoint to anyone who wants to listen and learn about it.
Why do I want to write? For myself, I have always aspired to have my poetry published, even as a young child. My inspiration came from the poetry books I read. I have published “The Sorrow for Our Future Generations” in the 8th issue of Muses from the North 2021. I published another poem, “We are not Numbers,” and two interviews in the 10th issue, which makes me a featured contributor to the special issues of “Truth and Reconciliations”.
I have always been curious about my cultural identity, so I sought people with wisdom that could explain cultural teachings to me. Since there was a great deal of knowledge on the Western perspective but little research on the Indigenous perspective, I am determined to keep on writing and telling stories about my people, my culture and my tradition. I will also teach my children and my student how to write and tell their stories. I believe that stories about us can only be told correctly by us.
Please see Instructor’s remarks on pg. 29