Intergenerational survivors of residential school

University of Winnipeg Indigenous studies Prof. Lorena Sekwan Fontaine said her work on the intergenerational impacts of Indian Residential Schools was life changing.

Coming from two generations of survivors on both sides of her family, Fontaine was unaware about her family’s involvement until the early 1990s, when she attended a keynote conference presentation given by her mother. Her mother spoke of the impact of Indian Residential Schools on being a mother and raising children.

Fontaine reflects that after that experience, it became clear that the “dysfunctional behaviours happening in my home” during her childhood were a direct result of the legacy of Indian Residential Schools. She noted her own loss of language, as her father was a fluent Ojibway speaker and her mother fluent in Cree. “They would never speak in front of me… They would immediately stop and start speaking English.”

When asked in 2010 to be a research participant in the project kiskinohamâtôtâpânâsk: Intergenerational Effects on Professional First Nations Women Whose Mothers are Residential School Survivors, Fontaine jumped at the opportunity. At the time, there was very limited research on the intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools. The project involved six women, who told their stories within a sharing circle and later through digital storytelling. The success of the project, both personally for the women and in terms of interest by other groups, led the women to work on three more projects.

The second project involved eight women, although this time women could be the children of either male or female survivors. The third project involved seven First Nations men. Fontaine discussed the gender divide, noting that sharing about intergenerational effects was harder for men. The men were involved in a sharing circle and produced digital stories but also travelled to northern communities to share their involvement in the project.

Due to the success of the projects, a toolkit was produced and a summer institute was established. The toolkit was designed to allow First Nations communities to lead these projects in their own communities, and the toolkit was first tested on the summer institute participants.

Fontaine says digital storytelling breaks the silence surrounding Indian Residential Schools. Find the project, the tool kit and the participants’ stories online.

Questions:

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process can be quite traumatic. What makes this a healing project?

It’s not an easy process to share your story. TRC events can be very overwhelming and public. These projects involve a small number of people, who voluntarily participated. As well, they are intergenerational, not actual survivors. Within the projects, we show our vulnerability but give people time to prepare and choose select things to say. It’s a process, not a one-day event. We meet, reflect, meet again and create our digital stories.

Storytelling is telling truth. Do you think if you had to do your story again it would be the same? And why?

I told a story of hope. I wouldn’t change my story, but would like to add to that story with other stories. The story I told was reflective of that time period, and how I felt during my involvement in the project.

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