WINNIPEG — Dr. Barry Lavallee doesn’t mince words when he talks about residential schools, the health of indigenous people in Canada, and racism.
“Residential schools were the product of the government and institutions like the Catholic Church and the purpose was to kill the proxy to the land. Is it possible to forgive and forget? No. There is no forgiveness until oppression stops.”
Lavallee was part of a panel at St. Ignatius Church in Winnipeg April 20, the third such session of an ongoing Truth and Reconciliation dialogue between parishioners of St. Ignatius and St. Kateri Tekakwitha Aboriginal Church.
Lavallee, a member of the Saulteaux and Métis communities, is a family physician specializing in indigenous health and a member of the University of Manitoba faculty of medicine. His clinical work has focused on the health and healing needs of First Nation and Métis communities.
Residential school survivors entered those institutions in good health but came out anemic and malnourished. “The patterns are no different than Auschwitz,” Lavallee said, adding that students might enter at a grade three level “and exit with grade one.” Today, he said, the life expectancy of an indigenous person in Manitoba is seven to eight years less than a non-indigenous person.
Lavallee said racism can be “interrupted, the next time someone accuses the chiefs of being drunks or says indigenous women are poor moms ask them, ‘Can you explain that to me?’ If you do, you’ve made it safer for an indigenous person to be there.”
Elsie Moar, 71, is a parishioner at St. Kateri and originally from the Skownan First Nation, a Saulteaux community. As a child she felt the effects that residential school had on her mother, a survivor. “She was never happy, and she took it out on us,” Moar said. As the eldest of six, she took care of her siblings when her mother, and her then second husband, would leave the children, “sometimes for days.”
But now she tries to learn what she can about residential schools, in workshops and support groups. Growing up, for her “would have been a lot different without residential schools.”
Christine Cyr is a Cree/Métis woman from Winnipeg and director of the Indigenous Student Centre at the University of Manitoba. She, too, is a child of residential school survivors.
“So much was taken through residential schools and the colonial system,” she said. She tries to recover some of the losses, beginning with continuing to learn her native languages.
“I acknowledge my experience as a child of residential school survivors and I never apologize for my tears. It makes me sad and angry,” Cyr said. “Angry because it has been 25 years of learning and acknowledging my story and that of my community. In so many ways it is both beautiful and horrible.”
She said she and her husband’s parents and both their grandparents are residential school survivors, “and we have been learning about what happened over 500 years. In my family there is a history of abuse and trauma. As grownups we were seven siblings who never hugged, we were raised in a way that it was not acceptable. There has been lots of healing, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Cyr said she does fewer such presentations like these than in the past because of the pain it recreates in her. But she came to this session at the request of Sister Marilyn Gibney, one of the organizers, and one of Cyr’s teachers at St. Mary’s Academy.
To introduce the evening, the pastor at St. Ignatius, Rev. Frank Obrigewitsch, said truth and reconciliation ”happens by getting to know each other better. One can accept and forgive the better one knows the other person.”