First person, by Holly Fortier
"And we all cried for days." That is what the people of Fort McKay First Nation told my mom when she finally returned home.
My mother spent the first six years of her life in the Traditional Territory of the Cree and Dene in northeastern Alberta. Her family was close. My mother was deeply loved.
And then the most traumatic thing happened. The RCMP came, and took her and her two sisters, by force, to escort them to Grouard Indian Residential School. My mom was six years old, my aunties were eight and four. Their family had no idea where they went and their grief was intense.
I can’t imagine the pain of someone taking my kids by force from me and never seeing them again.
I have a passion for sharing my mom’s story of resiliency and determination. I know Canadians have not been taught the true history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
The first Indian residential school opened in 1883 and the last one closed in 1996. There were 139 Indian residential schools across Canada. In 1920, under an amendment to the Indian Act, it became mandatory by law for every Indian child to attend a residential school and illegal for them to attend any other educational institution. An estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children attended these schools. The stories we hear from survivors is that of neglect and abuse.
In June 2008 the national apology was held in the House of Commons and read by prime minister Stephen Harper. Here is an excerpt.
Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove As a country we are healingand isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.
These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, "to kill the Indian in the child." Today we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country.
I grew up with the generational impact of Indian residential schools. This legacy has impacted me. However, we were also raised to love our First Nation heritage, traditions and culture. My mom stressed that residential school took her culture away and she wanted to do the opposite. She wanted to put the culture back into her kids.
Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist and Presbyterian churches ran the Indian residential schools, so we wanted nothing to do with the Church growing up. That changed for me when I was in college. I had a house guest who had just finished going to Bible college in Australia. This kind and gentle friend shared with me his personal relationship with God. We talked extensively about this and about the Bible. It impacted me so much that I started my own journey of faith.
I studied the life and teachings of Jesus, and was in church every time the doors were opened. And this began to heal the anger and hurt I had.
As much as I loved and embraced being First Nation, I experienced people in church who did not appreciate it. I was encouraged to let go of my cultural beliefs. That attitude just didn’t sit right with me as I read what the Bible says in many scriptures, such as Jeremiah 6:16: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."
I really believe as a Church we have to stop saying you must get rid of your ethnicity, your people and your culture. I don’t have to choose one over the other. I can be an Indigenous woman and a Christian.
I did a lot of soul searching, prayer and healing to wrestle through this issue of identity. I am very proud of being a First Nations woman and a believer.
Today I have a business that facilitates Indigenous awareness training. I have been delivering training across Canada since 2007 to hundreds and thousands of participants. I also have a film production company. My businesses do antiracism work and give an authentic Indigenous voice to storytelling. My prayer is to have a much more meaningful and respectful relationship with First Canadians and all other Canadians going forward.
I am hopeful and I see change. As a country we are healing, but it is multigenerational work. Let us all pray for reconciliation and shalom.
Holly Fortier is Cree/Dene from Fort McKay First Nation, Alta., and owner of Nisto Consulting which specializes in the development and delivery of Indigenous Awareness Training.