Indigenous·Reporter's Notebook

Meeting trailblazer and residential school survivor Ann Thomas Callahan a highlight of my year

CBC's Lenard Monkman reflects on meeting Ann Thomas Callahan, a residential school survivor and one of Manitoba's first Indigenous nurses.

Lenard Monkman reflects on meeting one of Manitoba's 1st Indigenous nurses

One thing that sticks out about Ann Thomas Callahan is her sense of humour. She isn't afraid to crack jokes. (Submitted by Lenard Monkman)

Every now and then, we meet people who leave a lasting impression on us.

Earlier this year I went to interview residential school survivor Ann Thomas Callahan for CBC's Beyond 94 project. Her gentle manner reminded me of my late grandma.

We were there to talk about her residential school experience and also her journey to becoming one of the first Indigenous nurses in Manitoba.

I called her before I left for the interview and she specifically asked me to bring her a medium tea and a maple-glazed doughnut. We showed up to her house, handed her her tea and the first thing that I noticed was her colourful ribbon skirt and beautifully beaded moccasins.

Ann Thomas Callahan's parents lived a traditional lifestyle. Her father educated her how to be on the land, and her mother was a traditional knowledge keeper. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

Before we started the interview, she asked me and cameraperson Tyson Koschik if we would like to smudge. After we we passed the sage bowl around, we listened to this grandmother's incredible story of perseverance.

From the heartbreak of her first day being sent to residential schools to the struggles of trying to make it in a post-secondary institution in the '50s, there were no shortage of stories that Thomas shared with us.

Ann Thomas Callahan was a trailblazer for First Nations nurses in Manitoba. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

As she told her story of her being dropped off by her dad on the first day of school, you could still see the hurt and hear the sadness in her voice.

Even though she had accomplished so much in her life, you could still see how this experience had an impact on her.

I knew after interviewing and listening to Ann and other residential school survivors just how important the Beyond 94 project was. I felt a strong sense of responsibility with this project as I knew that we had to tell the story of what it was like inside the schools and the impacts they had on survivors.

The residential school survivor was one of Manitoba's first Indigenous nurses 7:20

Orange Shirt Day

Months later in September I was passed tobacco by Wayne Mason, the director of Eya-Keen healing centre in Winnipeg. He wanted me to come and say a few words at a gathering/walk they were holding for Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30.

Orange Shirt Day is increasingly recognized in communities across the country as a day to honour residential school survivors and their families.

It was sunny but colder than usual for the end of September, but that didn't stop a couple hundred people from gathering at The Forks, just outside the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Within five minutes of arriving, I ran into Ann. She was there with her niece, donning an orange shirt and using an assisted walker.

Prior to walking to Portage and Main for a round dance, an assembly of speakers talked about their residential school stories. They also talked about the importance of Indigenous culture and language. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

She asked how I was doing, and we ended up staying together at the event. ​

There was a fire going outside of the museum and because it was cold, I asked her if she wanted to go closer to the fire. She said she didn't want to, because she didn't want to be "the centre of attention."

I kept asking her if she was warm enough and she insisted to me that she was OK.

I shared some words with the group on why telling the stories of residential schools was important for people in Canada, and Ann shared some words as well.

It was an emotional speech that she gave where she talked about some of her friends who went to the schools she attended.

After people were done talking, I helped Ann on the walk with her assisted walker. It reminded me of helping out my own grandma who was in a wheelchair during her last few years.

Ann said to me, "It looks like you've done this before."

It was almost like I was with my own grandma again.

About the Author

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and has been an associate producer with the CBC's Indigenous unit for three years. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1