Healing is at the heart of Poundmaker’s Lodge, a drug treatment centre that used to be a residential school. Healing is also at the heart of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Years before it went up in flames, something good happened at the Edmonton Indian Residential School.
Between its closure in 1968 and destruction 32 years later, a group of Edmonton-area aboriginals gave it a new purpose, turning the red-bricked, greenroofed building into a fledgling substance abuse recovery centre.
Over the next decade, St. Albert’s Poundmaker’s Lodge offered those with drug and alcohol problems a place to come clean.
“At the time, we were facing a lot of addictions,” said Willie Littlechild, a former residential school student himself and one of five signatories to the society’s bylaws in 1973. “We weren’t really sure at the time the connection it had with residential school. But now we know.”
This week, Edmonton will host the seventh and final event of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in a four-day public event beginning Thursday at the Shaw Conference Centre.
The commissioners hope this last chance for public testimony draws those who weren’t ready to speak at previous events in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia.
They also hope the rest of the country will be listening.
Littlechild, who went on to a successful law career and a stint in Parliament, is one of three commissioners tasked with leading the five-year, $60-million quest to uncover what happened between the 1870s and 1996, when more than 150,000 aboriginal children were placed in federally funded, church-run schools, mostly in the northern and western portion of the country.
According to the commission’s estimates, about 12,000 survivors still live in Alberta, a significant number of those in Edmonton. Hundreds will tell their stories.
Reconciliation is a big word, an impossibly broad and ambitious goal. It can’t be ratified through a microphone or guaranteed with a signature, apology or proclamation. For those grappling with the residential school legacy, it’s less of a burgeoning fire than a slow, painful recovery.
Over the past 4.8 years — Littlechild is precise on that number — the Maskwac isborn commissioner has become intimately linked with 138 other places like the Edmonton Indian Residential School, a farm and school run for nearly half a century by the United Church of Canada.
He has listened to roughly 7,000 stories of hunger and thirst, of homesickness and isolation, of brutal discipline and inappropriate touching.
In the next year, the commission will begin its culminating work, a final report due in July 2015 that will weave the stories with millions of government and church documents.
It may take more than the seven generations the schools were open, commissioners often say. But reconciliation has to start somewhere.
Last week, Littlechild sat at the centre of the table at the University of Alberta, sandwiched between academics and a leader of the Idle No More movement for a panel discussion about the TRC.
Even before the residential schools, aboriginals living on the changing Prairies had been reduced from the tallest people in the world, one panellist noted, to a starving population susceptible to tuberculosis. Ian Mosby, a University of Guelph researcher, reiterated explosive findings of evidence in the 1940s of nutrition experiments at residential schools across the country.
Keavy Martin, a non-aboriginal English professor at the U of A, worried aloud that in the eyes of many Canadians, reconciliation might too easily become equated with forgiving and forgetting.
The burden can’t solely rest on aboriginal shoulders, she said, but is bound up with treaties written to last “as long as the sun shines and the waters flow.”
“Canadians are really interested in closure around these issues and resolving them,” said Martin. “Arguably, that was part of the impetus behind the residential school system was to kind of settle these issues so everybody can move on.”
In 1984, Poundmaker’s Lodge Treatment Centre, as it’s now called, moved out of the old school and into a new building on the same site. It operates 90-day and 42day addictions programs, a healing lodge and there are plans for a detox program and family treatment.
In the early hours of July 16, 2000, two arsonists walked into the old boarded-up school and set the blaze that destroyed it.
That sparked a series of commemorative events. Over the next four years, former students — originally drawn from reserves in northern Alberta and the B.C. coast — began gathering at the site each summer to remember fellow students and their time there.
A committee is currently deliberating on what to do on the site of the former red-brick structure. There’s talk of a memorial garden to house the bronze, drum-shaped monument unveiled earlier this month as part of the National Commemorative Marker Project.
That project, undertaken by the TRC, the Assembly of First Nations and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, aims to leave a marker near every school.
Littlechild will return to Poundmaker’s Tuesday for a ceremony involving smoking the pipe belonging to Big Bear, the 19th-century Plains Cree chief who resisted the federal government’s offers of a treaty. They will pray that the TRC sessions at the Shaw will go well.
Virgil Ermineskin, Littlechild’s nephew, is a cultural adviser at the centre. Ermineskin’s own parents both attended residential schools and had an abusive relationship. His father left when he was five.
Now, he regularly sees the direct and indirect effects of residential schools, generations struggling under the cycles of abuse.
“It does affect the children, and the children’s children,” Ermineskin said.
At Pound maker’s, Ermineskine leads morning prayer sessions and talks about the residential schools during group lectures. Learn the history, but don’t let it control you, he teaches. Forgiveness is the way forward.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the byproduct of the biggest legal settlement in Canadian history, an approximately $5-billion lawsuit that granted a “common experience payment” of roughly $28,000 for students who attended, along with additional payments for those who suffered sexual and physical abuse.
The money must be of solace for some former students, but Ermineskin said he often sees people who are back at square one, still unable to move on.
He isn’t any kind of mental health professional. In one-on-one spiritual direction meetings, Ermineskin tries to stop clients from telling stories of abuse and trauma, encouraging them to save those memories for counselling sessions.
“A lot of times they will not stop, they need to let go,” he said.
In the early 1970s, when the idea of Poundmaker’s took shape, Littlechild was one of only five aboriginal students at the University of Alberta, a hockey coach who was worried about alcoholism in his community. At the time, he believed firmly in the power of sports, which became his way out of the residential school system and what led him to the U of A. If it wasn’t for that, he said, he wouldn’t have survived.
In the decades since they began closing, residential school buildings across the country were reshaped into many different things. Some properties were sold, others were bulldozed, some have been effectively lost, artifacts of the time left in the ground.
The other Edmonton-area school, the Catholic-run Youville school in St. Albert, burned down in 1949. Elsewhere in the Edmonton area, the gymnasium of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School is part of a new junior and senior high school in Maskwacis. Blue Quills First Nations College, west of St. Paul, is a band-run tribal college.
Across Canada, there are other treatment centres like Poundmaker’s. The Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., is now a cultural, administrative and archival centre. And the St. Eugene Mission, a residential school in Cranbrook, B.C. was converted into a hotel, with a golf course and casino attached.
Littlechild now sees these places as other ways out, small way stations between truth and reconciliation.
“It’s not only a step in reconciliation, but in healing,” Littlechild said. “A tremendous amount of healing, I think, is happening throughout the country.”