Now Or Never

How a Truth and Reconciliation commissioner learned to say 'I love you' after residential school

Two men, one a survivor of residential school, and another whose parents survived it, had to learn how to say "I love you" to their families after years of not hearing those words.

‘Many of us came out of there not knowing love,’ says Wilton Littlechild

Chief Wilton Littlechild was one of three commissioners who gathered testimonies about residential school from more than 6,750 witnesses in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Ahead of National Indigenous Peoples Day, Chief Wilton Littlechild sat in his office, a short distance from the grounds of his old residential school, and reflected on what it means to be a survivor.

At age six, Littlechild was sent to the Ermineskin Residential School in northern Alberta, which was one of the largest in Canada.

He spent 14 years in residential schools, including Ermineskin. He can still remember how a teacher would beat him with a hockey stick while he was on the ground in a pushup position. In the evenings, he would run around the gravel road at school and cry, wishing that he could run home to his grandparents' home, only five kilometres away. 

"I didn't know what it was like to be loved by your mom or dad, or your brother or sister," he said. 

After he left school, he said he would run away from any expression of love. 

"When you talked about love, I would take off," he said. 

Despite the years of abuse, Littlechild has not only survived, but thrived.

He's since served as an Alberta Treaty Six chief and a federal member of parliament for the Progressive Conservatives from from 1988 to 1993. He's also a member of the Order of Canada and an inductee of the Canada Sports Hall of Fame.

Littlechild has worked with the United Nations for four decades and he worked on legislation to bring Canadian law into alignment with the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).

Littlechild was taken from his grandparents at age six and sent to the Ermineskin Residential School, one of the largest residential schools in Canada. (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre/ University of British Columbia)

But he carries with him the knowledge that thousands of children died at these schools, and many of those who lived never recovered from their experience. 

"Many of us came out of there not knowing love," Littlechild said, "but we knew what punishment was like."

As a commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Littlechild heard testimonies from thousands of survivors, many who face lasting trauma from the scars of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. 

Survivors were taken from their homes and families as children. When they came back, they had often lost the only language their parents or grandparents knew. 

Finding family again

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission travelled to Halifax for a public hearing, the theme they chose for the event was love, one of the Seven Sacred Teachings. 

Littlechild said he doubted it would work out, believing the topic would be too difficult to reconcile with the accounts of witnesses. 

But after hearing the stories of survivors in Halifax, he changed his mind.  

He heard from survivors who reconnected with members of their families years or decades later, or others said they had finally learned to say "I love you" after years of not hearing it.

It emboldened Littlechild to do the same. Now, he tells his family he loves them every day. 

'Of course, my boy. I love you'

Littlechild's nephew Al Wolfe said he could relate. The pair met in his law office a few days after their community in Maskwacis, Alta. held a ceremony to honour the children whose remains were found at the Kamloops Residential School in May.

Wolfe's mother and father both attended the same residential school as Littlechild in Ermineskin.

Littlechild , left, and his nephew Al Wolfe, whose parents also attended Ermineskin Residential School. Both said it was difficult to start saying 'I love you' to their families. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

Growing up, he would often wonder why his parents seemed to never say "I love you" to their kids. When he was about 10 years old he asked his mother whether she loved him. 

"She just looked at me with a real surprised look and then she said, 'Of course, my boy. I love you,'" he said. 

He asked why she so rarely said those words. His mother was silent. 

After that day, Wolfe began saying, "I love you" to his parents, even if they wouldn't respond. 

Then one day, as he left to get on the bus for a high school field trip, he yelled to his parents in the kitchen "I love you." From the front door, he heard them both say it back.

When Wolfe met up with Littlechild, they agreed it was healing to mourn together, steps from where the residential school once stood.

And when they said goodbye that day, Wolfe hugged his uncle. They each said "I love you."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

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.


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