Poetry as witness: Rosanna Deerchild shares her mother's residential school story

What started out as a way to tell a residential school story turned into a six year healing journey and a book for a mother and daughter.
Poet and broadcaster Rosanna Deerchild and her mother Edna Ferguson. Together, they wrote a book of poetry, Calling Down the Sky, about her Ferguson's residential school experience. (Supplied)

For most of my life, my mother was a stranger to me.

When I was a wee Deerchild, she showed little physical affection, was quick to anger and suffered from depression. She also struggled with alcohol and an abusive marriage.

She showed her love in other ways; kept the house clean, kept us clean, sheltered and fed us. Every day, my mother brushed and braided my hair while she hummed and sent me off to school with soup and sandwiches.

I know she cared but I never understood her. To me, she was a mystery and it wasn't until I was in high school that I learned her dark secret. It took another 20 years before she shared her story with me.

My mother, Edna Ferguson, is a residential school survivor. Born in 1945 in South Indian Lake, Manitoba, she was raised in the North — on the land with her parents and two older sisters.

But that would all be taken away from her. After her dad died on the trapline and her mom died after getting sick with tuberculosis, she was sent away. Arriving at her first school when she was just five-years-old.

Silence began in school

"You didn't go to school to learn," she said. "All you learned was to be mean. I didn't learn nothing. I didn't know how to read and when I talked Cree they grabbed your hair and bang bang on the floor. I was too young to fight for myself."

She went to three residential schools between the ages of five and 14. After returning to South Indian Lake, she tried to put the past behind her.

"I kept everything to myself. I didn't want to talk about it," she said. "I thought people would laugh at me or say, 'Don't make up a story.' That's what they used to say when we went home after school. They didn't believe what we were talking about. What happened at school. What the nuns were doing. What the priests were doing."

Edna Ferguson shared her residential school story after 50 years of silence. (Supplied)
In 2008 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began travelling across Canada collecting the stories of survivors. When they set up in Winnipeg in 2010 I took a chance and asked my mom if she would come with me, just to listen, to know that she was not alone.

But what started out as a way to tell her residential school story turned into a six year healing journey and a book of poetry, Calling Down the Sky.

Click the Listen button above to hear Rosanna and her mom share more of their story.