North·FEATURE

Former RCMP officer seeks healing from residential school guilt

A former RCMP officer says he boxed away his feelings after his experience taking two children from their family in Fort Smith, N.W.T., and off to residential school. Fifty years later, he sought help from an aboriginal healing program.

'I had to take one of the girls from her mother's arms,' says former N.W.T. Mountie Ron Shortt

Ron Shortt, a former RCMP officer, carries an eagle stick he was given by a First Nations elder. He walked with a group of 10 people from Cochrane, Ont., to the TRC final event in Ottawa. (submitted by Ron Shortt )

Ron Shortt says it didn't feel right, taking two young girls away from their mother and putting them in an Indian Agent's car, in which they were whisked off to residential school.  

It was 1964 or 1965, he says. Shortt was an RCMP officer posted in Fort Smith, N.W.T., and following an order.

"At the time I didn't like what I was doing," he said.

"We got to the home and of course the mother was crying and the two girls were crying and I had to take one of the girls from her mother's arms."

I felt these guys should be taking me out back and pounding the hell out of me and they were welcoming me with open arms.- Ron Shortt

Had he refused the order, Shortt says he would have been charged under the Police Act and fired. At the time he didn't know about the abuses at many residential schools, but he says he felt it was wrong to take the children from their families. 

"'Course being an RCMP I had no emotions — I don't show any feelings — and there was no one I could turn to at the time. So I put it in a box, put in on a shelf and buried it."

A flood of emotion, and a battle with depression

But the box wasn't buried and 50 years later, it burst open.

Shortt says he was left shaking and crying at the very mention of residential schools, during a United Church committee meeting in February 2014.

Now 73, Shortt says he was diagnosed with depression and referred to a counsellor by his doctor.

"It took her about 20 minutes to determine that this incident in Fort Smith was part of the cause of my problem."

That counsellor referred him to a program at the Indian Friendship Centre in North Bay, Ont.

Smudges, sharing circles, and acceptance

Shortt joined a men's program there and says his healing started at his very first smudge, at a gathering where he was the only non-aboriginal person, and most or all of the other men were former students of residential schools.  

Former RCMP officer Ron Shortt, 73, says for 50 years he boxed up his feelings of guilt. As a young officer in Fort Smith, N.W.T., he followed orders to take two children away from their mother, and off to residential school. (submitted by Ron Shortt)

 "I was nervous but there was no hesitation on their part," he said. 

"Here I felt these guys should be taking me out back and pounding the hell out of me and they were welcoming me with open arms.

"The acceptance by them, of me who…" his voice trails off. "It was just unreal."  

Rick Dokis works with the friendship centre, co-ordinating men's programs like the one Shortt joined.

"I think people have welcomed him with open arms," Dokis said. 

"He knew what he was doing was wrong, and he was looking for healing in the aboriginal way.

"I think it helped the people who were there. It helped the healing, to understand where he was coming from and that he was forced into doing this, it wasn't by choice."

A treasured gift

Shortt says one of the pivotal moments in his healing happened just before the final event for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa this spring. 

His church hosted elders and other leaders who were walking from Cochrane, Ont., to Ottawa for the event.

"I was able to tell one of the elders my story," he said.

"There was another elder who was part of it, who had to drop out because of his health. He left his eagle staff behind. And this elder said, 'Now I know why he left it behind. This is yours.'"

Shortt carried the eagle staff to Ottawa and shared his story there. It's now one of his most prized possessions and hangs on a wall in his home. He continues to tell his story in schools and churches.  

'There's people like Ron out there'

After his talks, Shortt says he's often approached by former students who share their residential school stories with him.

He says he's also approached by a non-aboriginal people who thank him for sharing his story. He finds himself wondering if perhaps they have some connection to residential schools they are not quite ready to talk about.

"Those people are out there someplace," says Shortt.

He says he suspects many, like him, didn't know the extent of what was happening in the schools.

"Until two years ago I didn't know what was going on," he said.

"It bothered me, taking these children out of their family. But I didn't know what the residential schools were about, I had no knowledge of that."

Rick Dokis says they've never had anyone else who worked in or for the residential school system come forward, which is why Shortt's story matters. 

"There's people like Ron out there, and maybe it will bring other people forward. Maybe that's the most important thing of what Ron's doing is encouraging those people to do the same thing."