DAVIDSON, Sask. — After Sunday mass and a potluck meal, parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish in Davidson, Sask., listened as Elder Ruth Cameron shared her experiences of attending residential school, overcoming the trauma of being separated from her family, and finding healing in the traditions of her culture.
“I am honoured to be here today to share with you and help you to know some of the history of the indigenous peoples and how we are looking at truth and reconciliation,” Cameron said, describing how she has now come to a time in her life when she feels “able to speak in my own voice.”
An initiative in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon to respond to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Treaty Elder Series provides an opportunity “to open our minds and our hearts, to listen, and to seek to understand,” explained Myron Rogal of the diocesan Office of Justice and Peace.
Born in Treaty 4 territory, Cameron worked for some 32 years as a home and school liaison in the Catholic school system in Saskatoon, and is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
In the presentation at Davidson, she offered insights into what it is like to be separated from your family at a young age, and some of the challenges she experienced as an Aboriginal child and woman.
At the age of five, Cameron was taken from her home to attend the residential school operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns at Lebret, Sask. The experience left her angry and hurt, unable to understand why her mother left her at the residential school, separated from all but one of her siblings.
The disruption to culture and the family unit had many long-term effects on self-esteem and relationships, said Cameron. Although her mother always told her to be proud of who she was, the racism and denigration she experienced in her life brought profound hurt.
“When people called you Indian, and the way they looked at you, it made you ashamed of who you are,” Cameron said. One of the main teachings in the indigenous culture is “respect — respecting yourself, your parents, your grandparents, everybody that is in your families. In our communities we come to respect our people.”
As a child attending residential school, Cameron did not feel welcome or valued, and was surrounded by unfamiliar ways and by children who were also sad, hurting and angry. She remembered lonely nights in the dormitory looking out the window and trying to look toward home.
At the age of 14, she struggled to integrate into a public school, eventually finding acceptance through athletics. However, something as simple as a class assignment involving a phone book was daunting — her family did not have a phone — and there was little understanding of cultural differences.
She described her fear, her relentless drive to be perfect as a means of staving off negative comments and attitudes, and her struggle to realize her own value and the value of her culture.
“I only learned about treaties later in life. We were not told about them, or that there was anything supposed to be good about me, or about being a gift from our Creator, who is God.”
Cameron described how she gradually came to understand the ways in which the residential school system, colonization and racism affected her. At the same time, she stressed that she was not trying to make anyone feel guilty.
“It is history — but no one had ever known or shared the history of our peoples,” she said, expressing the hope that this and future generations will have a greater understanding. “They will know more about the beginning of the treaties, where they were signed, how they were signed, what was the purpose.
“I believe that each and every one of us is here to represent God, the Creator who gave us each a life on this earth, and a reason for us,” Cameron said. “I believe in truth and reconciliation.”
But reconciliation is not easy, she added. “It is not easy to forgive when you have been caused a lot of pain to your body, your mind, your soul, your spirit — because you know, as a child, when someone is knocking you down, ridiculing you, it becomes habitual, especially when you had no one to say ‘It’s OK, it’s OK to feel, OK to cry.’ ”
Healthy families and individuals come about “when you have a family unit, with love and nurturing and knowing how to do things, and you are not learning in foreign ways,” she said.
Coming to terms with those experiences, beginning to understand one’s self and one’s emotions, and moving forward on a path of healing is an arduous process that many are dealing with, she said. “Many of us have travelled on those journeys.”
Cameron’s own walk has included helping others grow in understanding and healing, including the families she encountered in the Catholic school system, and her own children and grandchildren. It involves finding their own voice: “I can’t change anyone, but I can help them understand how we can take control of our emotions, and how we have to have faith, how we have to have something to build on.”
She stressed the importance of all Canadians coming to a deeper understanding of the experiences of indigenous peoples, to realize why the damage continues in our communities and in ongoing crises in our country, such as the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Cameron pointed to the Scripture and homily heard at Sacred Heart earlier in the day, which was a message of forgiveness and understanding, a message about a loving, merciful God — contrasting it with the image of an angry, punishing God she often heard about as a child at residential school.
“Today I know it is different. I have accepted God into my life, not by force but by choice, and by comparing the teachings we received from my elders, and many different teachings from our culture. We have so much in common as human beings. We haven’t always accepted that gift that we are supposed to be sharing in this life.”
At the conclusion of her talk, Cameron thanked her listeners, saying that she was honoured to come and speak to the parish. Mary Jane Morrison of Sacred Heart Parish expressed thanks to Cameron for her inspiring words, and described plans to follow up the session with the installation and blessing of a treaty plaque in the church.