"She refused to let go of who she was, no matter how hard they tried to take it away."
—David Robertson on the woman who inspired "Sugar Falls".
It doesn't seem too long ago that I was in the round room at elder Betty Ross's work listening to her describe her residential school experience. It was the first time she had ever told her story.
I had just gotten back from Ottawa, where I had spent time in the archives researching residential school documents, things like letters between INAC and the schools, attendance records, death records.Before that I'd clocked several hours in the library reading history books on the schools, A National Crime being the best of them.
All this had given me a lot of background and knowledge, enough that I felt comfortable in writing about the residential school system. You see, I had been planning my next graphic novel, one that was to be dedicated solely to the residential school system. The problem was, up until my meeting Betty, I was having trouble thinking of the right story to tell. I had all this information, all these facts, but not a clear idea on how to relay them in the most powerful way possible.
As I sat with Betty, however, my task became clear as each word escaped her lips. I needed to tell her story. Her experience encapsulated every aspect of the schools I wanted to tackle: she was taken to Cross Lake Residential School as a young girl without any say in the matter, her adopted parents without one either; she was abused in horrific ways; she was kept from seeing her parents in any significant way; she was punished for speaking her language; and there were times where the pain and the indignity were too much.
But there was something more, something I have seen in so many of our First Nations people. It was resilience. It was courage. She refused to let go of who she was, no matter how hard they tried to take it away.
I think we all need to be this resilient, and part of that resiliency is the empowerment we find in telling our stories. We need to look at the past to teach others, and ourselves, and then look forward together with knowledge and healing. To paraphrase Betty: there is an ember in us that will one day ignite to burn as bright as the sacred fire.
David Robertson launches Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story Thursday night at McNally Robinson in Grant Park Shopping Centre at 7:30 p.m.
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