Cape Breton Post
Remembering grandmother’s lessons
Woman remembers being taught to hide from government agents
WE’KOQMA’Q FIRST NATION — When Irena Julian-bernard thinks of her beloved grandmother, Irene Herney, she remembers how she smelled — of sweetgrass and sage — and how safe she felt in her embrace.
Julian-bernard, who lives in We’koqma’q First Nation, describes her childhood as hard. Her mother left when she was four, and she was raised by her father and her two grandmothers, being shuffled between them while her father, a carpenter and student at the University College of Cape Breton as it was known at the time, took extra projects on the weekends trying to make ends meet.
Herney, her maternal grandmother, lived in Eskasoni First Nation, more than 60 kilometres away, and Julian-bernard said her softspoken grandmother, who often sang to her in Mi’kmaw, was always happy to have her for weekends and long stretches during the summer months.
“She loved having me there, she never said no. She knew I was hurting because my mom wasn’t there,” she said.
After her mother left, she started a new family in New Brunswick, where Julianbernard has two siblings, but grew up as an only child, just as her grandmother had.
The late Irene “Morning Star” Herney, born in 1931, was the only child of Matthew Morris and Mary Bella Herney (later Denny) and grew up as an only child raised mostly by her grandparents. Her mother and step-father, Michael R. Denny, later had eight more children, who all attended Shubenacadie Indian Residential School after their mother died from cancer when they were young children.
But Herney, growing up with her grandparents in Eskasoni, had a very different childhood experience.
“When her grandfather saw the Indian agent and the RCMP coming toward the house to take her to the residential school, he told his wife to take Irene to the woods, go hide her, and he told the Indian agent, ‘There’s no kids here, you need to leave,’” Julian-bernard said. “And my grandmother told me she remembered being up on the mountain where it gets flat, and there was a fire and she remembered holding onto her grandmother.”
As a child hearing these stories, Julian-bernard wondered why they hid in the woods.
“She told me the white people would take the children and put them in school. I never questioned her more about that, I could tell that she felt hurt so I stopped, I didn’t want to ask her any more,” she said.
TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE AND LANGUAGE
In her later years, Herney was a respected elder, knowledgeable in traditional medicines and cultural teachings, and a renowned Mi’kmaq craftsperson known for her intricate woven baskets and dolls. She was a fluent Mi’kmaw speaker and loved to travel to take part in powwows and loved to share her knowledge with her young granddaughter.
Looking back, Julianbernard said she now sees that her grandmother learned her culture and language, and held onto it throughout her life, because her grandparents protected her from residential school.
“She showed me the traditional spiritual way, and that’s something I will always be grateful for,” she said.
During the warmer months, when she spent weeks at a time with her grandmother, she would often take the young girl into those same woods up the mountain, and would teach her about plants and flowers, and where to find medicinal plants.
“And then she would tell me, ‘OK, hide yourself,’ and I would cover myself in leaves and she would say, ‘OK, I can’t see you.’ It was like a game to me,” she said.
LEARNING TO HIDE
She remembered a time they came across a large, deep hole on the mountain, and her grandmother told her to hide down inside it. She was frightened, but her grandmother assured her she would pull her back out again. She covered herself in dried leaves while her grandmother closed her eyes, and then lay still as her grandmother used a stick to poke around to find her.
Later, after they’d reached the top of the mountain and were sitting in a clearing her grandmother liked to use for ceremonies, she asked her why she was teaching her these things.
“She said, ‘Because one day, if anything happens, anyone white, an RCMP Mountie, when they come, you better hide,’ and I was only four or five and I asked why, and she said, ‘I don’t want you to go away,’ and this is why my grandmother taught me to hide, and she made me promise that I would hide until she came to find me,” Julian-bernard said, remembering that she felt scared at the time, and came to be afraid of the term ‘aklasie’wk’, a word that refers to white people in Mi’kmaw.
She was heartbroken when her grandmother died in 2000, when she was just 13 years old.
LEARNING TO HEAL
Julian-bernard always had many questions about her childhood and couldn’t understand why her mother left her, and said her mother, a survivor of Indian day school, couldn’t answer her questions until a class action settlement was reached in 2019 acknowledging the trauma and abuse experienced in those institutions.
“That’s when she opened up about it, and I’m having a hard time talking about it because that’s something … I feel lost, lost and we don’t know how to parent, we have to teach ourselves because our parents didn’t do it,” Julianbernard, an Indian day school survivor herself, said.
“This was something my grandmother was trying to protect me from, and I never got to tell anyone, not even my grandmother, I never got to tell her how I really felt about everything, my childhood, I hid it when I went to see her and when I was with her everything went away and I felt safe,” she said.
Julian-bernard, a mother of 8 children and 4 stepchildren, said she’s connected with both her parents, who are there for their children and grandchildren and attend family celebrations.
“I appreciate them for doing the best they can.”
She and her partner, the son of a residential school survivors and an Indian day school survivor, continue to work toward healing from the generational trauma they experience as a result of generations of abuse and cultural genocide at the hands of the churches and the federal government that operated those institutions.
The recovery of over 1,300 children’s remains at the site of six former residential schools in Canada, including Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia and Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, in the past month has brought international attention to these experienced atrocities, shared by thousands of witnesses and published in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015.
Many more bodies are expected to be found as First Nations communities across Canada undertake the work of searching the grounds of the more than 130 remaining institutions.