TORONTO / COWESSESS — Ivy Lynn Bear, a residential school survivor from Cowessess First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, says she and her family members continue to feel the shame that was “instilled in them” by the priests and nuns at the school.
Bear told CTV National News that she attended the Marieval Residential School while she was in Grade 3, around 1975 or 1976. While she only attended the school for roughly four months, she said she witnessed terrible abuse.
“It was short lived, but there was trauma,” Bear said.
In June, Cowessess announced that 751 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of the former Marieval Residential School using ground-penetrating radar. Work to identify those children buried on the site continues, and community leaders say markers will be made in the near future.
Bear is the fifth generation in her family to survive attending the school. She recalled the painful memories of comforting her youngest sister at night, until she was barred from doing so.
“I was hearing her at night crying ‘Mommy, Mommy,’ and on one particular night I saw one of the nuns come and take her away to another room, thinking that the nun was supporting her and consoling her,” she said.
“I had no idea she was abusing her.”
Speaking on the grounds of the former school during Cowessess’ ceremony in honour of Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Bear said the horrors she experienced at Marieval stole her innocence.
Bear added that the abuse her parents experienced at the school rippled through the rest of her family.
“Children had to depend on each other and not be able to depend on their parents because their parents were so affected by residential school that there was no love there,” Bear said. “Nobody told me that they loved me. Nobody told me that they cared about me.”
Bear said she decided to get help in dealing with the trauma she experienced, as well as the intergenerational trauma her parents and grandparents passed down to her, in 1995 and checked herself into a treatment centre.
She said she is proud that her children have since seen the “peace” she has found.
“I couldn’t find peace with somebody, I had to go find that peace on my own and that peace comes from the Creator. That’s my savior, that’s my guide, that’s who I follow,” Bear said.
At Cowessess, leaders held a community feast and powwow on the grounds of the former school to mark Thursday’s annual holiday. Other survivors also shared stories, while performers offered strength and healing through dance.
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an important step for Canadians to better understand the pain and trauma many Indigenous people went through at these facilities.
Speaking during Thursday’s ceremony, Delorme told those who gathered at Cowessess that the day is an emotional one. Delorme acknowledged that Canadians want to stand with Indigenous people in recognizing the harm experienced at residential schools.
“You’re putting your shield down and you’re starting to admit that you really don’t know much about the true history between Cowesses and Indigenous people and all of Canada,” he said.
“We gather here today to have a better understanding,” he added.
Delorme said getting to reconciliation will not take one day, but rather “one day at a time.”
“The truth is hard to accept, even as Indigenous people, the truth is even hard for us to reimagine it because we try to bury it in a way. But we cannot move to reconciliation until we accept the truth,” he said.
Communities across Canada took part in ceremonies and events to honour Indigenous survivors and children who disappeared from the residential school system on Thursday.
The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, with more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children forced to attend the facilities between the 1870s and 1996, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The facilities were designed to strip Indigenous people of their culture and language, and replace them with a Christian faith and the English language. There were 139 residential schools in the federally funded program, many of which were run by the Catholic Church.
The TRC’s final report estimates that 6,000 children died while attending the schools, although many say the number could be as high as 15,000.
If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.