Sask. residential school survivors recall trauma on first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

On the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, some Saskatchewan residential school survivors are remembering the trauma they endured. 

 A.J. Felix is one of them. Three generations of his family attended residential schools. While he openly talks aboutit, his parents don't like to talk about their experience at the school.

“They did state it was a very, very lonely place, and they had very strict rules. Their rules were worse than mine,” said Felix

Felix, 75, is from Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. He said his parents went to school in the 1930s and he still remembers the first time he was taken from his home on the reservation in the back of a farm truck to go to residential school.

“And they were loading us up like cattle, I didn’t know what to think. I was too young. I know we were going for a ride,” Felix said.

“And then I noticed my mom was crying and then I seen the policemen, I seen the priest and I seen the Indian agent there.”

Felix says his parents were told that their children had to go to school, and if they didn’t, they’d have to “go to jail.”

The intimacy and bond between his parents was lost while attending residential school. Felix’s wife Patricia also attended residential school and so did their daughters.

Today, Felix travels to pow wows and other gatherings including residential school survivor gatherings to speak, offer prayers and attend traditional ceremonies. Knowledge, he said, was almost lost because of residential schools separating him from learning the ways of his ancestors.

“I didn’t get that training, that early dawn of training of making me helper,” said Felix.

RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL TRAUMA

Nael Kewistep, 40, lives in Saskatoon and is from Yellow Quill First Nation. He was one of the last teenagers to set foot in a residential school during the 1995 - 1996 school year. As a 15-year-old he only spent about a week at Lebret Residential School and said that was enough for him to figure out a way to leave and never go back there.

“It’s important for me to share some of those details with folks, especially today, just so we have an appreciation so this doesn’t happen again,” said Kewistep.

Kewistep is now facing the effects of intergenerational trauma. He said his dad would tell him about his experience at residential school when he was under the influence of alcohol. Racism and a loss of identity plagued his early years.

“I had such hatred for the colour of my skin. I did everything I could to be white,” Kewistep said. He wants the stories of residential school survivors included in Canadian history.

Today, Kewistep is the executive-in-residence at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and wants the public to know the recent history many Indigenous people struggle with.

“You’re going to be living, working and playing, besides many people that have been impacted by those schools that have never set foot in one. But they’re going to be still living with the same patterns and the same cycles that those schools introduced to them,” said Kewistep.

Kewistep’s children are the first generation in his family not to attend residential school.

“What I want for my kids is that they grow up to love themselves…and to know they belong,” 

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.