National Day for Truth and Reconciliation sparks hope for these residential school survivors

Sept. 30 is the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Three residential school survivors shared their thoughts on what the day means to them, and what Canadians should be reflecting on.

Dene National Chief hopes Sept. 30 will help shed light and bring people together

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya says the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30 is a time to shed light on what happened to Indigenous people at Canadian residential schools. (Randall Mackenzie/CBC)

On Thursday, Sept. 30, Norman Yakeleya will be thinking of his mother, her strength and the sacrifices she made for her family.

Thursday will be Canada's first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Yakeleya, who is the Dene National Chief, says it will be a day of hope for residential school survivors, though the darkness and hurt many of them went through will also make the day bittersweet.

Yakeleya has been reflecting on the good things that have come into his life — lifelong friendships forged at residential school despite everything, and the people who survived residential schools and went on to become world-class leaders, teachers and athletes.

"I think about my mother on the 30th, God bless her soul, and how hard it was for her to let her children go to residential school," he said.

"I want to tell my mom, 'I went for a reason, Mom.' My reason is to stand up to the churches and to the government and say, 'What you did to us wasn't right.' "

Shedding light on dark corners

Yakeleya said the fact that the national day now exists means there's an opportunity to shed light on the darkest corners of the residential school experience.

It will be hard for some people to hear about what happened, he said, but it will be a relief for others to be able to share their stories.

"When you go into the dark chapter of the residential schools, it's like going into a room with no light … and there's lots of fear and anxiety," he explained.

"When you turn the light on, you get to see where you are. You get to see what's in the room — you know what you have to deal with. There may be other people there who are going to walk with you. There's people there that (are) going to support you."

Alice Rigney, a Fort Chipewyan elder, says Sept. 30 symbolizes hope. (David Thurton/CBC News)

Symbol of hope

Alice Rigney, a residential school survivor in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., says Sept. 30 is a tangible symbol of hope for Indigenous people.

It gives her hope that younger generations and people across Canada will understand that the struggles of Indigenous people are real, and that truth and reconciliation is the stepping stone toward healing.

She spent 10 years at the residential school in Fort Chipewyan, and though she doesn't think about the school much, she said she is still affected by that experience every day.

"I firmly believe that in order to move forward, you have to deal with your past. And as unpleasant and hurtful as it is, I do not think of the past with bitterness or hatred, because if I did, I would still be a prisoner of those feelings," she said.

"I have learned to let go of it, and try to continue to be a better person by living a good example for my grandchildren and sharing the stories of what we went through, of what we lost."

Fort McPherson elder Mary Teya told CBC News a national day is important so people can heal from the trauma they experienced at residential schools. (David Thurton/CBC)

Addressing trauma

Mary Teya, an elder in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., told CBC News it's important to set aside a day for truth and reconciliation because the trauma of residential schools needs to be talked about.

"I think people should think about it … so that we can continue to help each other, to be able to talk about it and to eventually keep going on, and be able to forgive," she said.

"What we had to go through, it's something that we will never forget if we don't do anything about it. So I feel this would be a big part of [healing], a national day.

"Finally, we're being heard. Finally, it did happen, and it's a trauma that needs to be dealt with."