Stop asking how you can help — and listen, says B.C. residential school survivor
'I just want people to sit, hear the story about residential schools, don't try to respond'
WARNING: This story contains distressing details
It's been 50 years since Eddy Charlie left the Kuper Island Residential School, just off the east coast of Vancouver Island, and the pain he experienced while forced to attend, he says, has stayed with him throughout his life.
He turned to alcohol as a way of coping, which led to anger and damaged relationships — with his community and his family.
As the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School makes headlines around the world, political leaders, activists and allies have taken to social media to offer support and ask how non-Indigenous people can help.
But Charlie says he would rather people just listen.
"I just want people to sit, hear the story about residential school, don't try to respond," he said during an interview with All Points West host Kathryn Marlow.
"Don't try to see what can [you] do. We want people to hear this story for us. It's not a fairy tale. It's not something from one of the Stephen King novels. This truly, really happened to 150,000 children."
LISTEN | Kamloops residential school survivor Marylin Adolph recites a poem she wrote upon hearing of the discovery of the remains at her former school:
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend residential schools from the 1870s until the last school closed in 1997. To date the Truth and Reconcilation Commission has identified more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school.
"Finding these 215 children buried at Kamloops residential school is one of the biggest wake-up calls in all of Canada," Charlie said. "It's time for [people] to take their turn, to listen and hear the stories of residential school survivors."
Charlie said survivors often carry so much shame and anger that it makes it impossible to talk about their experiences. And if they do talk about it, Charlie said, they're worried how others will react.
"What they did to us, the physical abuse, the starvation, the emotional abuse and sex abuse, built so much anger and shame inside that we are too scared to talk about what happened," he said.
"No man wants to talk about the things the priests ... did to them as a child."
Clayton Peters kept his story secret, he says, until the news out of Kamloops moved him to share it.
Peters, who was forced to attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School in 1967, recounted the abuse he and his peers suffered to the Canadian Press: children were beaten and molested, forced to scrub their arms with soap containing lye in an effort to "take the brown off them," had soap forced into their mouths if they spoke their own language and were denied access to medicine when they were sick.
He said he used alcohol to cope with his trauma, and struggled with anger, similar to what Charlie described.
"I was sad all my life," he said.
"When I left that school, I fought everybody. I fought every white man that bumped into me. I was so angry."
It's not just the trauma from being physically abused in residential school, Charlie said. The trauma began the moment a child was taken from their family.
"People say not every one of the children were traumatized. Well, that is so much crap. The very fact that they took 150,000 children away from their homes, that is the very first act of trauma."
Charlie says it continued after they left residential school, when they returned to their communities and faced stigma from their neighbours and continues to affect survivors and their families through their lives.
"Residential school survivors, when they tried to get back into the community, they were universally not fully taken back into the community, and a lot of them were rejected by their own family and they were outcasts in their own community.
"I have to carry the scars in my heart for the rest of my life. I have to remember what we witnessed and I have to remember what I experienced as a child."
Listen to Eddy Charlie's story here:
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous-specific crisis line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's toll free and can be reached at 1-800-588-8717 or online at kuu-uscrisisline.com.
With files from All Points West, Daybreak Kamloops and Canadian Press