Waycobah First Nation residential school survivors make regalia for youth as part of healing process

After more than a decade of participating in a survivors support group, the elders of Waycobah First Nation in Nova Scotia have gone from being unable to speak about their residential school experience to giving public talks and helping fellow survivors.

Over more than a decade, a peer support group has helped elders break the silence

Sylvia Gould tells Evelyn Bernard that when she was four years old, she was forced to wear a uniform. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

In Waycobah, N.S., 15 years after forming a ground-breaking group, residential school survivors have moved from healing themselves to helping others.

Waycobah is a Mi'kmaq community of about 800 people, stretching along the western shore of the Bras d'Or Lakes in central Cape Breton. Its elders have gone from being unable to speak about their residential school experience to giving public talks and helping fellow survivors. The children in the local kindergarten class are the latest recipients of their good deeds.

This winter, three members of the survivors group, Sylvia Gould, Margaret Pelletier and Isabel Martin, made regalia ribbon skirts or vests for every girl and boy in the class. Today, the children have come to visit to show off their beautiful new skirts and vests and to show the elders the dances and songs they performed while wearing their regalia at the recent graduation.

Evelyn Bernard, Athena Julian, Cait Yoho, Christina Paul, Charity Bernard and Lana Googoo Martin rest after dancing for the elders. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

Sheila Johnson's granddaughter is one of the students.

"Oh my God," she said. "Every time she puts it on, she starts dancing. She is so proud of her skirt."

Gould, 69, said she was excited when the group decided to make regalia for the children because at the age of four she was forced to give up her culture and wear a uniform. Decades later, she still remembers the day she was taken to Shubenacadie Indian Residential School.

Hair cut off

"There was a man all dressed in black and then the nuns dressed in black and white and everything seemed to be dark," she recalled.

"There was no sun coming into the building.

"They took us downstairs and they took all our clothes off and they put some kind of stuff on us which stung like crazy. They put DDT in our hair and they gave us a bath and they cut our hair. I didn't want my hair cut. I broke down and I cried and I cried and I cried. So she took me off the chair and she told me no and she beat me and she put me back up there and she continued to cut my hair."

Mattio Marshall and Kenneth Googoo show off their new vests. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

Listening to Gould talk, Pelletier, 78, marvels at how far her friend has come since the survivors group started in 2003.

"She wouldn't talk. She just cried. It broke my heart every time I went to a meeting."

Pelletier is a nurse and it was her proposal that earned the funding needed to start the group. Two years later she moved to New Brunswick.

"I am a survivor," she said.

"I hadn't started to heal at all when I left. It was just starting. No one was healing."

Gould remembers.

"When we had our first meeting we were so distant from each other. I was angry. I could just cry. I didn't want to talk. I didn't want to be here but I knew I had to be there."

Andrea Currie is a clinical therapist who met with the survivors group once a month for 15 years. She said it took two years before anyone in the group could talk about residential school.

"I have a vivid memory of one survivor who came to the door of the community hall and had to turn around and leave. Just being with the other survivors was too much," she said.

"Many of them coped by not thinking about residential school at all."

'They realized they weren't alone'

Currie said the group was breaking new ground.

"We figured this out as we went along. There was no model. There had never been anything like this before."

Initially, Currie said, the process was just to get together. Eventually, people began to talk about the effects of being in residential school. After a few years, she said, the healing began.

"They realized they weren't alone. They realized there was a reason for a lot of the difficulty they were having in their lives," said Currie.

"Their struggles with addiction… many of them had real difficulties parenting and couldn't help their children."

"You can imagine being 10 years in Shubie, being treated very harshly, possibly being physically abused and sexually abused," she said.

"Everybody [was] emotionally abused, psychologically abused. How is that going to affect the way people parent their families?"

Margaret Pelletier gives her great-great niece Christina Paul a hug after wrapping her in a regalia shawl made by the survivors' group. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

Gould agrees, saying her children felt the effects of both parents going to residential school.

"If they went to touch me here, that was like, 'Oh my God.' Why am I getting so angry that my kid is touching me here and there? I couldn't find the answer. And then one day I found the answer. Because of the priest what he was doing," she said.

"Now you are seven years old and the priest is touching you and that's why through all those years, if somebody touches me, I jump," said Gould. "That's a reminder."

Pelletier said the regalia clothes aren't the only way the group reaches out. She makes friendship pins for fellow survivors with two braided circles of sweetgrass and ribbons.

"The double rings mean 'remember you always have a friend." said Pelletier.

"Sometimes I go to a funeral or a wake and you see somebody with this on in the casket and you know they are a survivor."

Pelletier said her time away from the group has slowed her healing.

"I'm not very free to speak about what happened to me and what my feelings are because it is still inside me and it's just to get it out," she said.

"But sometimes when I listen to Sylvia, she's a healer. She doesn't even know she's healing me because she tells me stories and it heals me. So I think eventually I will get to that point. But I still have a long long way to go."

Now that the skirts and vests are finished, Sylvia Gould is moving on to regalia shawls. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

'We are bringing back what we never had'

Today, Gould can hug the children who have come to visit and they can hug her.

"When I see those little children and they put on those skirts, they come alive," she said.

"They're dancing. We are bringing back what we never had. They're free to have a future as a Mi'kmaq child. I feel happy."

"You're so proud these little kids are getting something about their culture back when it was always told to us, they wanted to assimilate us into the white society," said Pelletier.

"Instead of trying to take it away we are trying to give it back."

As for the survivors, Currie said, "It's amazing to see their resilience. It's amazing to see their capacity for generosity and sharing their love for their culture and sharing with generations to come. I'm incredibly proud of them."

About the Author

Joan Weeks

Reporter

Joan Weeks has been a reporter with CBC in Sydney for over a decade. Many of her stories are investigative with a focus on government spending and accountability, as well as health and economic issues important to Cape Breton.