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Rosanna Deerchild shares her mother's residential school story through poetry

The Unreserved host talks about her new poetry collection.

The Unreserved host talks about her new poetry collection.

The poet and host of CBC Radio's Unreserved talks about sharing her mother's story of residential school in her latest poetry collection. (CBC/Unreserved)

Rosanna Deerchild is the host of CBC Radio's Unreserved, and hails from the O-Pipon-Na-Piwan Cree Nation at South Indian Lake in northern Manitoba. Her latest poetry collection, Calling Down the Sky, is about the impact of the residential school system on her mother, and how the experience affects families over generations.

How she learned her mother went to residential school

I didn't actually know my mother had gone to residential school. I hadn't even heard the words "Indian residential school" until I was in high school and that's only because my teacher was Indigenous. He came into our class and started teaching the true history of Canada, and one of those things was residential school. He was taking attendance and he called my name. I said "Here." He looked up, paused and said, "I know you who are. I went to residential school with your mother," which was a punch in the gut. I had no idea what he was talking about. My mother never spoke about her childhood. Ever. This was a door opening for me. A huge, huge landslide, landing on top of me.

Rosanna Deerchild with her mother, Edna Ferguson. (Rosanna Deerchild/Facebook)

How she got her mother to share her story

It would be many years before my mother would share that story with me. I had this silent mother who was always silent. I grew up with no mother, really. I grew up with a person who fed me and clothed me and made sure all my boo-boos were bandaged, but at the same time she didn't hug me every day or call me beautiful. She didn't say "I love you" every day. She wasn't there in many, many ways and there was always alcohol and violence in our home. My mother was always a mystery to me and this was another mystery to me.

I started asking her a lot more. "What was that like? Where did you go?" She wouldn't. She just wouldn't. But the more I asked her, the more she would shut down. I had to stop myself and realize I couldn't ask her that way. I had to ask her to share her story the way she wanted to share her story. So instead of asking her about residential school, I asked her how she was feeling that day. I asked her about her diabetes. I asked her about her hearing aid. I asked her about who won on The Price Is Right today. And in that way, in getting to know my mother as a person, she trusted me enough to share her story, at last. Very slowly, very haltingly, very cautiously, very painfully. 

Rosanna Deerchild's comments have been edited and condensed.

Listen to Rosanna Deerchild read a poem in her mother's voice from Calling Down the Sky:

Rosanna Deerchild reads her poem "On the First Day" 1:50

The photos in this video are archival images taken of residential school students across the country between the 1920s and 1970s. The students are not identified in the sources. 

Here's a description of where and when each was taken, in the order in which they appear: 

St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, British Columbia, in 1970. (REUTERS/Department of Citizenship and Immigration-Information Division/Library and Archives Canada)

Frobish Bay Federal Hostel in Iqaluit, Nunavut, in 1959 (REUTERS/H. Leclair/Canada. Health and Welfare Canada collection/Library and Archives Canada)

Fort Resolution Indian Residential School in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories, undated photo. (REUTERS/Library and Archives Canada)

St. Anthony's Indian Residential School in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, in 1950. (REUTERS/Canada. Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development/Library and Archives Canada)  

Fort Resolution Indian Residential School in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories, undated photo. (REUTERS/Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys/Library and Archives Canada)

Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, in 1960. (REUTERS/Department of Citizenship and Immigration-Information Division/Library and Archives Canada)

This photo is from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is described as a "typical" classroom. (Anglican Church Archives) 

Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba, in 1940. (REUTERS/Canada. Dept. Indian and Northern Affairs/Library and Archives Canada)

Fort Resolution Indian Residential School in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories, in 1928. (REUTERS/J.F. Moran/Library and Archives Canada)

Pukatawagan Residential School in Pukatawagan, Manitoba, in 1960. (REUTERS/Sister Liliane/Library and Archives Canada) 

Eskimo Point Federal Hostel in Arviat, Nunavut. (REUTERS/D.B. Marsh/Library and Archives Canada) 

Fort Simpson Indian Residential School in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, in 1922. (REUTERS/J.F. Moran/Library and Archives Canada)