Indian Residential School Survivors Society opens its doors

A ceremony was held to honour residential school survivors and to celebrate the opening of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society

A residential school survivor takes a moment to share her story and embrace an elder at the Indian Residential School Survivors Society's ceremony in Memorial park

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) hosted a ceremony in Memorial Park on Thursday, June 30 to announce its opening on Wallace Street.

Dignitaries, supporters, and the community met to discuss the issue and to host a ceremony in a symbolic effort to heal the damage inflicted on First Nations people by the residential school system; a system that enforced foreign values, and encouraged the victimization of a ‘marginalized people’ in an attempt to homogenize the population by divorcing them from their families and Aboriginal identities.

“I think of a residential school like a stone that’s been dropped in the water and there are ripples from that stone that build throughout the generations, across the country —  in 2008, there were still 86,000 people who were survivors of residential schools, so it’s important that the work of reconciliation continue through society,” said Laurie Throness, MLA Chilliwack-Hope. “I want to express my support for that, and if I can help in any way please let me know. Together, I think we can become reconciled and be more positive in the future, so I want to be a part of that if I can.”

The gathering was to rally support and the approval for the Society’s daily operations from local elders.

“IRSSS has just opened a new office across the street here, and today is a traditional way of announcing our presence in the territory to the local people. We’ve invited the leaders and their chiefs to acknowledge them, and we’re asking permission to do the work we do for their residential school survivors,” said Resolution Health Support Worker for IRSSS, Ross Muehlfarth.

The Society specializes in dealing with the effects of traumatization, which has become an intergenerational cycle within the territory.

“Seven generations of our people were forcibly removed from their homes by the government of Canada and the RCMP. Children were taken away from their parents to attend residential schools, where the goal was to kill the Indian in the child, and essentially, take away the local people’s way of life, their language, their culture, their identities as human beings — so we’re still living with the effects of that trauma,” said Muehlfarth.

According to Muehlfarth, the atrocities suffered by the children were unimaginable and included crimes of rape and brutalization, as well as a high death rate at the schools.

“These effects we struggle with today. When the children were released from the schools and at home, they didn’t know how to be brothers or sisters; they didn’t know how to be parent’s to their children; they had no relationship skills and no parenting skills, but what they did find, was that they wanted to forget and not feel the trauma. Over indulging with alcohol and drugs for a time, helped them to forget, and not to feel,” he said.

Alcohol acts as a disinhibitor, bringing out emotions of anger and bitterness, which were taken out on the children, creating the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

“First Nations people do not hold the corner on suffering, nor do they hold the corner on spirituality. This kind of abuse and trauma is worldwide and we can see the effects of the levels of violence around us,” said Muelfarth. “People are killing people all around the world, and it seems at times as though life has no value or is life is cheap, and that is not our way as a people.”

The day’s event marked a celebration of life, and a nod toward the Society’s philosophy of taking a positive and proactive approach to overcoming the trauma.

“We live in two worlds — we will practice part of our traditional world today, and we also live in this modern world, so, it’s about balancing and living in the traditional way, while living in the modern world with equal opportunity and access to this land and to the economy. We have become delicate and fragile, so we’re looking to become more resilient.”

Residential school survivors also gave testimony at the ceremony.

“The abuses were horrific. There was one place I lived in, full of little beds for boys my age — I was a Catholic at the time. I did a rosary, but that was the last time, and on the last bead, the only thing that could save me from the insanity that was happening all around me, and the terror was that I made a promise to God that for the rest of my life that I would always speak the truth, or I would say nothing at all,”  said Daniel Towsey.