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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Lawyer and residential school survivor Delia Opekokew fights for justice, reflects on her journey

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TORONTO — Delia Opekokew is a woman of firsts. She was the first Indigenous women to be admitted to the bar in both Saskatchewan and Ontario, and the first women to run for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. And she’s also been an advocate, fighting for justice for residential school survivors such as herself.

“I’m most proud of that I have been able to retain my language. I still speak Cree. I have a very strong relationship with my family,” Opekokew told CTV National News.

At age seven, she was sent to Beauval Residential School in Saskatchewan, but says she’s blocked away her memories of her early years there.

“I have no memory of that. And I have since talked to a psychiatrist and he told me I probably disassociated, and it’s better that I don’t recall because whatever happened to me must have been not good,” Opekokew said.

Opekokew’s mother also went to the same school and passed down horrifying stories. In 1927, a fire at Beauval killed 19 boys after they were locked in a dormitory.

These experiences have driven Opekokew to become the advocate she is today.

After decades of practising law, she became an adjudicator with the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Process, tasked with putting a dollar amount on the abuse after the federal government reached a class-action settlement agreement with residential school survivors.

“The stories that I heard were just mind-boggling, even though I had gone through residential school,” she said. “I had hundreds of hearings. I had hearings right from the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, each province to Nova Scotia. I’ve heard hundreds of stories.”

Opekokew says her own healing journey gave her the strength to help other survivors, as she continues to fight to ensure they receive proper support.

“I had dealt with a lot of my issues, and so I was able to handle hearing these very tragic stories of physical and sexual abuse and other abuses, because of the counselling I have taken and continue to take,” she said.

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