North·In Depth

'Read that report': How to keep being an ally from the perspective of 2 Indigenous N.W.T.'ers

Lawrence Norbert, an outspoken residential school survivor, says non-Indigenous people can be allies by researching and understanding the impact of residential schools. 'If people want to be our allies, please, get informed, be aware.'

'If people want to be our allies, please, get informed, be aware,' says Lawrence Norbert

Lawrence Norbert was among the first Grollier Hall students to come forward with the truth about abuse at residential schools. In 1998, Norbert and others who attended the residential school formed the Grollier Hall Residential School Healing Society. (Submitted by Lawrence Norbert)

When Lawrence Norbert, a Gwichʼin from Tsiigehtchic in N.W.T., attended a Roman Catholic-run residential school as a child, he remembers having very little say in what he did, and he said it limited how much he could think for himself.

"Everything [was] all regimented. You wake up at this time, you have breakfast at this time, you have your chores at this time, you go to school at this time, you have your prayers again, supper and then you go back. And then you go to bed," he said.

"So, you get into this thinking that everything is being done for me. So there's no encouragement of thinking, there's no encouragement of questioning," he said. "It's all dependency thinking."

He said that was a part of the trauma and violence he and many others faced at residential schools, and that he had to work to overcome.

On Thursday, Canada observed its first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which helped bring more attention to the ongoing trauma that Indigenous people faced and continue to face.

Norbert, who spoke with CBC's Loren McGinnis, host of The Trailbreaker, leading up to the day, said if non-Indigenous people want to be allies, they need to do their research to start fully understanding the impact the schools had.

And, he says, they can start by reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's final report. (Find all of the commission's multiple volumes of reports here or read the summary of the final report (585 pages) here. Paper copies are available at local libraries.)

'Read the whole report'

"If you want to be allies, read that report," Norbert said.

"Read the whole report so that you get that real understanding of why we as Indigenous people who have gone through the residential school policy, have such a hard time dealing with your culture, your bureaucracy, your policies, your religion."

Norbert and other students who attended Grollier Hall, a residential school in Inuvik, N.W.T., formed a group in the late 90s to speak up about the abuses at residential school, and the injustices of that system. They fought for compensation for that abuse and became one of 10 groups in Canada whose efforts eventually led to the Indian residential school settlement agreement, which included the common experience payment, the independent assessment process and the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He suggests if people don't want to or can't read the full report, then they can try to read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (full text here, 18 pages).

"If people want to be our allies, please, get informed, be aware. You don't have to atone for the sins of your father, but you know, I think the first step is not to repeat the sins of your fathers."

Pauline Tardiff is a residential school survivor living in Fort Smith, N.W.T. (Submitted by Pauline Tardiff)

Pauline Tardiff, a residential school survivor living in Fort Smith, N.W.T., said it's not enough for non-Indigenous people to just hear what happened at the residential schools.

"My thoughts is that when a settler hears about what really happened in Canadian history, I think they should take on the responsibility of learning what that meant," she told The Trailbreaker.

That includes understanding the lasting trauma today that can cause other problems including addiction.

She pointed to the conflict in Yellowknife involving business owners, the city, the territorial government and other organizations over where a shelter should be located. Many shop owners have said having a shelter on the same street as them would drive away business.

"That's why I have a hard time understanding why the Yellowknife businesses don't think that it's important to acknowledge that this is a part of what happened to us," she said.

"People need to understand that residential schools ... isn't just about what happened long ago, it's still very prevalent today."

Reconciliation not just one thing

Marie Wilson, a former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said as a non-Indigenous person, it's important to always "turn back to the survivors themselves."

"I know there's a lot of disdain and sometimes growing discouragement around whether reconciliation is even possible, or whether it even has meaning or whether people believe in it and all that sort of thing," she said.

"What I know is that it was the survivors through their courageous court case and settlement agreement, that's the wording they used. They asked for truth, they said, the purpose of the truth was to contribute to the freeing of spirits and to the healing of individuals and families and community."

Marie Wilson, former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, places a bundle of beaver skin on the ceremonial cloth with the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools and were identified in the National Student Memorial Register, during the Honouring National Day for Truth and Reconciliation ceremony in Gatineau, Quebec on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

She also pointed out that the survivors say reconciliation is not just one thing.

"It's way more complicated than that," she said. "But what they said is that it is an ongoing, individual and collective process." 

She added that involves survivors and their families, all levels of the government, the churches and the people of Canada.

"All of us," she said. 

September 30th marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It's the fulfillment of one of the 94 calls to action laid out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions final report. Marie Wilson was one of the commissioners who heard thousands of stories from survivors during the 4 years the commission did it's work.

For now, Norbert said he's grateful that younger generations in his community won't face that same trauma he and countless others did.

"Here in Tsiigehtchic, I see young parents, they spend so much time with their kids out on the land, just about every weekend. You see boats going up or down the rivers," he said.

"It just warms my heart because you know, their kids don't have to experience what we've experienced."

Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) 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. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

The NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.

In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason. 

In Yukon, mental health services are available to those in both Whitehorse and in rural Yukon communities through Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services. Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling supports in Whitehorse and all MWSU community hubs by calling 1-867-456-3838.

Written by Amy Tucker with files from Loren McGinnis and Joanne Stassen