Road trip with my kokum: A family history of residential school and resilience

When CBC Halifax journalist Kaitlyn Swan asked her grandmother, a residential school survivor, to share her story, she wasn't sure what to expect. But Lorna Standingready agreed, and they headed off on a road trip to retrace the map of her life.
Lorna Standingready stands at the former site of the Indian Hospital, in Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask, where she was born. (Kaitlyn Swan)

I walked up the creaky wooden stairs of Lorna Standingready's home on a dry prairie summer afternoon in Regina, Sask. It's something I've done a hundred times before, I should've felt at ease. 

But this time was different. This was the first day of a week-long road trip with my grandmother, my kokum. 

She was going to take me to significant places that map out her life — including residential schools she went to — and that made me feel uneasy.

I have learned about my kokum's life in second-hand ways. It was never a direct conversation. 

Kaitlyn Swan, centre, with her mom, Donna Standingready, left, and her kokum, Lorna Standingready. (Submitted by Kaitlyn Swan)

What I did know was from eavesdropping over hushed conversations between my mom and her sisters, or by catching fleeting bits of interviews with her on the local news. She's a well-known and respected elder in the prairies. 

If my kokum's life was a book, I only knew the chapter titles, and none of the context. It's like our family's history wasn't necessarily a secret. But you had to ask. 

And for the longest time, I was too frightened to.

Lorna Standingready (far right), Kaitlyn Swan and her sister at a community garden in 1998.

My mom told me my grandmother was a residential school survivor when I was about 10-years-old. I remember going to school the next day and trying to get other kids to understand what that meant, even though I didn't entirely understand it myself. 

A picture of kokum at the piano when she attended Birtle Residential School. (submitted by Lorna Standingready )

The last time I saw my kokum was about three years ago, before I moved to Nova Scotia.

Our relationship over the past 24 years of my life has been lighthearted. We've done a lot of travelling together, from seeing the bright lights of Las Vegas to breathing in the salty air of Halifax.

Lorna Standingready stands, holding sage, where her family home once stood on Peepeekisis First Nation in southern Saskatchewan. (Kaitlyn Swan)

I once saw her stick a foot-long hot dog in her purse, so she could "save it for later."

She's hilarious. We laugh a lot together.

I realized I wanted to hear my kokum's story, and tell it, when I saw her image on the CBC's Beyond 94 cover page, a platform that follows how the Canadian government is responding to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action. 

Residential School survivor Lorna Standingready, left, is comforted during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada closing ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

In the picture, she's wiping tears away during the closing ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. 

Journalists, strangers to my kokum, were telling parts of her story. Parts of her story she's never told me, or her own children.

I found it odd that there might be strangers who know her in more intimate ways than I did. 

Lorna Standingready meets Prince Phillip in Regina, Sask., in full regalia. (Ian Caldwell)

I began doing research on intergenerational trauma, how traumatic responses could be passed down from generation to generation. I began wondering: How has her life affected the way I am? Would I find anything out about myself from hearing her story? Would I understand her better if I knew what her life was like before moving to Regina? 

I wasn't sure if I was ready to ask.

On a bitterly cold February morning, I woke up and knew I couldn't wait any longer. A granddaughter asking her grandmother about her life doesn't sound so daunting, but in a Native family, it can be.

At least, it was for me. 

From an essay Lorna Standingready wrote in university. She is pictured (third from left) with her six children. It appeared in the Leader-Post, a Regina newspaper. (Leader-Post)

When I invited her on a road trip, she replied, "We're going to need a lot of Kleenex!"

Spending this time with her, I still expected to laugh, but this road trip was different. We both knew there were a lot of painful conversations ahead of us. 

We climbed into my big black rental truck, and followed the map of her life. From the reserve she grew up on, to the sanatorium where her father died, to the home she was abused in. 

And then… back again, to Regina, Sask. Where I was born.

I'd later come to realize that asking was the easy part. But seeing her tears, and my fumbling for words that can't fix a lifetime of abuse, that was the hard part.

It just meant holding her hand as we walked through the map of her life, listening. 

Lorna Standingready, left, and Kaitlyn Swan on the first day of their road trip in Prince Albert, Sask. (Kaitlyn Swan)

Click the Listen button above to listen to the documentary. It was produced by Anna Lazowski as part of the Emerging Indigenous Doc Maker Program