Mary Hatfield was told not to speak in her native language.
Arriving at the Shubenacadie residential school in 1959 shortly before her 6th birthday, she was miles away from her Pictou Landing Reserve home and everything she knew. The government of the day wanted to assimilate first nations children into the surrounding culture and believed the best way was to send them to residential schools.
The result was children who grew up feeling ties to neither their own community or the one they had studied in. Some recount stories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse the suffered there.
Hatfield is thankful that despite having to go to the school, her grandmother made sure she didn’t forget her roots.
“Our grandmother would sit us down every time we came from the residential school, take us around the reserve and show us all the herbs and the medicines.”
“If you can’t speak our language out loud,” her grandmother told her, “speak it in your mind.”
“That’s what I did, when I was in school,” Hatfield said.
Still there was a culture shock whenever she went to school or came home.
“You didn’t know if you should speak your language or English when you came back on the reserve,” she said.
Hatfield was one of the Pictou Landing Reserve members who was instrumental in forming a support group for others like herself who went to residential schools. About 10 still live on the reserve and meet on a regular basis to talk about their experiences and help each other.
Monday those survivors, as well as the former residential school students who have passed on were honoured and remembered during an Orange Shirt Day ceremony held at the reserve. Orange Shirt Day is now held in communities across the country in recognition of the hardships endured by residential school students.
Chief Andrea Paul, says her father Robert Paul was sent to one, but it wasn’t something she knew about until she was in her 20s.
“He didn’t speak the language when he came back. He was hurt. He had a lot of issues. He had his addictions,” Paul said. “I think if he hadn’t been a victim of a residential school system I think his life would have been so much different. We lost him at the age of 57.”
As a child she felt the impact on her own life and resented her father for his addictions without realizing why he had them.
“People don’t understand how that impacted home life. I became a foster child. My parents split up. My dad couldn’t hold down a job. I was angry with him because he had addictions,” she said. “It was a constant struggle growing up.”
It wasn’t until she went to school in Ontario in 1995 and sat in on a sharing circle that she started to hear about the abuses that happened at residential schools.
“I had a lot of ill feelings towards my dad because of the way he was,” she said. “When I got to hear the stories there was so much understanding, so I kind of wanted to learn more about it and I read more about it.”
She asked her father to share about his experience but he never did.
“Maybe he was sparing me the pain,” she said. “When he passed, I never did hear his story.”
But because she knew more about where he was coming from, she was able to build a good relationship with him.
Someone close to her father has since offered to share with her, her dad’s personal stories, but Paul declined.
“If he wanted me to know, he would have told me,” she said.
But she doesn’t want anyone in Canada to forget what happened and is thankful for people like Hatfield and the survivor group’s newly appointed president David Knockwood who are speaking out.
Knockwood spoke to students from the Pictou Landing Elementary School as part of the ceremony.
He said in an interview that he was part of the experiment that was going on where the native children were essentially starved.
“No wonder I was hungry all the time,” he said when he realized years later what had happened.
He said he never got a proper education and hopes that no one else has to be treated the same way.
“I hope they never experiment on anybody like they did on us,” he said.
Josephine Gould, was also sent to the residential school. Because she was away from her parents, she said she didn’t know how to parent properly when she became a parent herself.
“Thank God my parents were there and helped me raise my two boys,” she said.
She has seen the awful affects on others as well. Many, left with troubled lives as a result of the schooling committed suicide, passing on to the spirit world without an apology.
But it wasn’t just children impacted. It was the community.
“It’s rippling down to our children,” she said.
She hopes that by speaking publically for the first time in their own community about the past, they can change the future.
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