Saskatchewan·Point of View

My talk with a Muslim student about reconciliation impacted me, too

My conversation with a 16-year-old student opened her eyes to a history of Canada she had never known before.

School project aimed to build connections between immigrants and their First Nations neighbours

Kerry Benjoe recently shared with a Regina Huda School student her experiences growing up, as part of the student's assignment to learn more about reconciliation. (Submitted by Kerry Benjoe)

This point of view piece was written by Kerry Benjoe who is a journalist with CBC Saskatchewan. She is Saulteaux/Dakota/Cree and is from Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation.

For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.


This piece was originally published on Feb. 4, 2021.

As a fourth-generation residential school survivor, I am always willing to share what I know with those who ask. 

So when a teacher at Regina Huda School asked if I would let a student from his Grade 11 English class interview me for an assignment on reconciliation, I agreed.

The teacher explained the project was meant to build connections between immigrants and their First Nations neighbours. 

He said the students needed to answer how they could aid and support reconciliation as non-Indigenous Canadians. 

It was a lofty goal, but I was impressed with the efforts being made by the school for Muslim students in tackling the issue directly. I knew this was an opportunity for me to share part of Canada's hidden history with someone who had no knowledge of it.

What I wasn't prepared for was how that conversation would impact me.

When 16-year-old Ishmal Akbar reached out to me, she later would say she was scared of going out of her comfort zone, of talking to someone outside of her school and community circle. 

Ishmal Akbar is a 16-year-old student at Regina Huda School, an associate school serving Muslim students. (Fatima Anees photo)

But I opened up to her with the stories of my life, of the conditions I experienced growing up on reserve. I told her about the lack of basic human rights and privileges non-Indigenous Canadians enjoy, such as access to clean drinking water. 

I didn't live in poverty. My father made sure of that, but my reality was very different from those who grew up with running water, indoor plumbing, corner stores, cable TV and phone service. 

As a child, we didn't have a water treatment plant, so we had to harvest our water. Going to get water was a normal part of daily living. 

In the spring and summer, we collected it from sloughs and dugouts, then strained and cleaned it. We also collected rainwater for washing, drinking and cooking. In the winter, we collected clean snow — an all-day task. It was then melted on the stove and processed for daily use. 

Benjoe says as a young girl, she didn't have access to the basics that many Canadians take for granted, including running drinking water. (Submitted by Kerry Benjoe)

Bathing was a cumbersome weekly chore because water was manually heated. Sometimes we visited a relative in the city where we could shower or have a bubble bath. 

Sadly, I didn't live in an isolated community: I grew up a half-hour northwest of Regina. It wasn't until I was 13 or 14 that we got indoor plumbing. However, we couldn't drink water from the tap and still can't. 

I felt it was important to share these stories with Ishmal before talking about residential school and reconciliation. 

I wasn't apprehended and forcibly placed in the school like my parents had been. My mother enrolled me and why she did is quite simple. She had no options. 

High school was not offered on reserve. Even today, many communities still don't provide secondary education. It was either go to a public school and face culture shock and racism or go to residential school. By this time, my father had passed and my mom was a single mother who had to go out and earn a living, and she did. 

I spent most of my time at the school and only went home for some holidays. Being alone in an institution surrounded by 200 other students and being supervised by strangers had an impact on me that I still feel today. The ties to my community were severed and the bonds with my siblings were altered.

It was the price I paid to get an education. 

One good thing from the experience was that I learned to be tough and to harness my skills in order to survive. I graduated high school and went on to university and became the first college graduate in my family. 

Benjoe went on to graduate from high school, and later college. (Submitted by Kerry Benjoe)

Despite what people may think, life as an Indigenous person is still a struggle even for someone like me who holds a graduate degree and has been a journalist for almost 20 years. This is due primarily to ignorance, which breeds racism. 

For me, truth and reconciliation is more of a personal journey. To be able to share my story with Ishmal, who has no knowledge of Canada's hidden history, was very important, because I know she's going to take what she learned from me and share it with her family and friends. I know there will be a ripple effect, and that it can be part of changing the narrative that Indigenous people's lives were easy or pampered. 

The best part of this exercise was receiving an email from Ishmal. She said she was sorry for what I experienced, but that she was proud of everything I accomplished. I had shared these stories only with my children before; hearing her say those words made me, in turn, feel pride in her. 

My story changed one student's perspective on Indigenous people — and that, to me, is the true meaning of reconciliation.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kerry Benjoe

Former CBC reporter

Kerry Benjoe is a journalist who joined the CBC Saskatchewan team from 2020-2021. She is Saulteaux/Dakota/Cree and is from Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation.

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