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Part Four: Life with Truth, Reconciliation and Calls to Action

The Survivors’ Flag that flies over Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The Canadian Press

Life with Truth, Reconciliation and Calls to Action

‘If you want to talk about reconciliation, you better know what you’re talking about. The truth has to come first.’

By Eugene Arcand

One day — it was a long time ago; more than 30 years — I was in a bar with my friend, Ted Quewezance, a chief here in Saskatchewan, and he said to me: “Bird, they [the government] are going to deal with the residential school stuff.”

I said to him: “Buddy, dream on. It’s not going to happen in our lifetime.” And it wasn’t quickly but over time, it did start to happen. And Ted was part of making it happen.

Now, if you look at the history of residential schools in Canada, I had good reason to be skeptical.

Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, authorized residential schools in 1883. When he was beginning his vision for Canada, they went down to the United States, to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, and brought back the residential school template from there, including laws that were made to take us away from our families and homes. That led to 139 federally recognized residential schools in Canada; there were more than 500 in the U.S.

If you go onto the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website, you’ll see a historical timeline of residential schools. They were introduced in 1883, but in 1907 a government medical inspector called residential school health conditions a “national crime.” In 1958, regional government inspectors for Indian Affairs recommended the abolition of residential schools; between 1986 and 1994 various religious groups — notably the United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches — offered formal apologies for their participation in residential schools.

And yet, the last residential school in Canada still did not close its doors until 1996.

That was the same year of the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which included a call for a public inquiry into the effects of residential schools on generations of my people.

But it took until 2005 — a good 15 years after I was sitting in that bar with Ted — for something, or someone, to force the government to address residential school survivors.

That is when Phil Fontaine, then the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, launched a billion-dollar class-action lawsuit against the federal government. It was way back in 1990 when Phil (then the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs) first revealed in a CBC interview with Barbara Frum that he was physically and sexually abused in a residential school. It generated national headlines.

Before Phil made that revelation in 1990, it was in the 1980s when Ted Quewezance became the first Chief in Saskatchewan to publicly reveal he, too, had been abused at residential school. And that was the start of a snowball of Canada’s darkest secret coming to light. But it took the class-action lawsuit launched by Phil Fontaine and the Assembly of First Nations 15 years later to make something happen. The government didn’t want to go to court because it knew it didn’t have a leg to stand on. In 2007, the government settled, and the billion-dollar Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was reached. The government was forced to distribute more than $2 billion to residential school survivors. 

As the process of the IRSSA unfolded, I applied for a job with the Assembly of First Nations. As part of that job, I went to every reserve in south Saskatchewan and north to the Saskatoon area. I had community meetings with survivors, explaining what the agreement was all about and how you had to choose to either opt in or opt out.

Of the 150,000 children that went to residential schools, 90,000 of us applied for what was called the Common Experience Payment. That amounted to a $10,000 payment plus $3,000 for each year spent at residential school. For my 11 years, I received $43,000. The price we paid — the destruction of our lives we experienced — was worth far more than that. But happiness can’t be bought.

As part of my job, I also visited the jail in Drumheller, Alta., Regina Correctional Centre, and the women’s jail in Nekaneet. Ninety-five per cent of the people in those jails were of Indigenous ancestry, mostly residential school survivors or the children of survivors. That’s when the hereditary dysfunction of our people became really apparent to me.

That was when I began this horrible but, for me, necessary journey of reconstruction. Part of the IRSSA included a formal apology from the government, but what it really meant to a lot of us was that we would be re-victimized. We were being forced to remember in a very short period of time what we spent a lifetime trying to forget.

I had to dig out these darkest demons, these darkest secrets, not only to expose the perverts and the deviants who traumatized us, but to expose my own spirit. The night before the official apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I was in Ottawa, and I had a serious meltdown. I was crying like that little five-year-old boy from Duck Lake who was hyperventilating and bawling his eyes out when he experienced that ice-cold shower.

I phoned home to my wife that night. I was a mess. I told her I didn’t want to be there. Why? Because I knew I was going to be lied to again. And the next day, on June 11, 2008, when Mr. Harper apologized, I have to say it was the phoniest apology I ever heard. The only time I heard any emotion from him was when he talked about his own children. The rest of the time it was cold, calculated propaganda.

I say that because a few weeks after the apology, an equal amount of money was committed to build and renovate more jails in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I’m not that smart, but it didn’t take me long to figure out who was going to occupy those jails and institutions. The conclusion I’ve come to regarding the apology was that it was for the media. It was to try to make Canada look good.

The IRSSA should have been a positive thing, but for many of us it was a horrible experience. As part of the settlement, there was something called the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), which could provide additional compensation for those abused at residential school. We were told residential school survivors would get the benefit of the doubt in the IAP process. That was another lie. A big one.

The IAP process starts with discovery, which is when you lay out your darkest secrets to your lawyer. It was horrendous. The second phase was your hearing. I waited two years between discovery and my hearing, so it was two years of dread for me.

We didn’t get any benefit of the doubt. We were called liars. We were called out for making up stories. It was a really hurtful process. Many of my people broke. They either didn’t go (to their hearing), or they just couldn’t do it. The system broke them.

I managed to get through it, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. You have to relive all your trauma again. It made me feel like the interrogators and people working for the IAP were perverts and deviants themselves. They wanted to hear the graphic nature of what we experienced, even though there was no need for it. They wanted to know how many times you were sexually assaulted; how many times you were penetrated. It was a process of re-victimization to the max.

In 2009, as part of the IRSSA follow-up, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed, to go across Canada, host forums and listen to residential school survivors who wanted to tell their stories. I applied to be on the Residential School Survivor Committee that was an advisory body to the TRC. I had the great honour of repping Saskatchewan on that committee, but we didn’t have the skill or the ability to do TRC work, much less advise them.

Truth and Reconciliation Report and Calls to Action

So, we became more of a support mechanism for the survivors. In my travels across the country, it was a wellness journey for me. You have to understand that none of us talked about what was done to us. For the longest time, I never talked about it with my wife, or my family. We had too much shame. That journey across the country — meeting other survivors who carried equal amounts of shame and trauma — made me realize how many more people were like me.

We are damaged goods, and we are just trying to reconstruct ourselves. It was important that we share what we experienced – not necessarily the graphic nature of it, but the impact on our people today.

Because it’s not a pretty picture.

There are still academics and other so-called experts out there debating whether what happened to our people was genocide. Well, I would ask any of those academics, “Would you like to trade places? I think you’ll figure out genocide in a helluva hurry.” So don’t come to me with that was-it-genocide-or-not crap.

I was a part of, and witness to, the destruction of a people. It will forever stay with me. I cannot deny or censor or sanitize what I experienced; what we experienced. Just take a moment to think of your child; put them in the environment we were in. Simple, innocent little children. Traumatized. Some didn’t make it home. No funerals. No sense of anything that anyone ever really gave a s–t about you.

I was simply 781. It’s not a number I’m proud of. But it’s a number I want people to know; to understand it was not just the Jews, but the first people of this country, who were part of a systemic government-sponsored extermination plan. Let’s call it what it was. Now, some of that plan may have had a few principles of co-existence in it, but the majority was to “take the Indian out of the child.”

I want people to know how destructive that was; how your community goes silent because all your children were picked up and taken off to a residential school. If you’re a parent of a child taken away, what do you resort to? Booze. It turned our families into boozers. And drugs. What comes with booze and drugs? Violence. We started experiencing that kind of violence and it’s still there today.

The government started residential schools to “civilize” us. Well, it did the opposite. They turned us into animals; they tore our communities apart. And now many Canadians have accepted our dysfunction as the norms of our society.

That’s what’s wrong. I’m not here to turn every one of you into an Indian lover in one day. But I am here to tell you the truth of what I experienced; what others experienced. I want to be part of the solution, but I have to be honest, too. In my journey with the TRC, I had to question, “Why do I do this?” I look at the picture of my class of 32 students from Duck Lake and ask, “Why do we this? What are we reconciling? What did I do wrong? What did we do wrong?” I’m almost 70 years old and I’m putting myself through all this trauma under the guise of reconciliation and truth-telling. Would you want to reconcile if you went through what we went through?

So, let me ask you this: What are the impacts of reconciliation? Does it mean less of my people will be in jail? Does it mean more of my people will graduate with college degrees? With professions? Does it mean less of our children will be picked up by social services and put in homes?  Does it mean the scourge of suicide will be less? I think about these things when I’m talking about reconciliation. What exactly am I reconciling?

Think about that when you see one of our people in the downtown streets of Western Canada, in Edmonton or Saskatoon or Regina or Winnipeg; every one of them has a story of how they got there. They’re so deeply addicted to opioids and other drugs and solvents. Who’s enforcing the selling of those substances to our people? No one. The only enforcement you see is incarceration of our people; the drunk tank. Pile on charges. Criminalize kids.

One of the most destructive behaviours in all of society is by police and prosecutors who don’t use their discretionary powers on first-time offenders and instead criminalize our young people. Pile on so many charges that they’ll plea bargain and come out of there with a criminal record, which basically destroys the life of that young person, and it criminalizes their future. It’s a no-win. It’s all normalized; and it’s systemic.

What are the economic impacts of reconciliation? In Saskatchewan, commodities like potash, oil, gas, uranium – they’re all down. Even with drought, Saskatchewan’s economy is booming. I’ve been asked why that is. I say, “Open your eyes.” There are entire economic sectors in Saskatchewan and my people aren’t players in them. What is worse is those sectors thrive because of the dysfunction of First Nations people. The police, the courts, corrections, the health care system, education — we can’t have one segment, or multiple segments, of society making a living off the backs of the misery of others. We are at the bottom of the ladder in all areas of the economy. We are just trying to climb up to some level of equity. It’s not a pretty picture, but it a picture that has to be fixed.

So, if you want to talk about reconciliation, you better know what it is you’re talking about. The truth has to come first. The truth is not there to hurt you. The truth is there to educate you. Look, this is what happened. We can fix this. It’s not beyond repair.

So, we have truth; we have reconciliation; now we have to get to the Calls to Action.

Eugene Arcand and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Survivors flag ceremony in Ottawa. Photo Credit: The Canadian Press

In 2015, the TRC came out with a booklet that contains the 94 Calls to Action, plus 46 articles from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as 10 other principles of reconciliation, no one greater or more important than the other. They’re all intertwined.

These Calls to Action are not recommendations, even though 10 minutes after they were introduced by the then Minister of Indian Affairs, he called them ‘recommendations.’ He did that consciously because he knew recommendations are optional. Calls to Action are not optional. Well, they shouldn’t be. These Calls to Action deal with every sector of society and it is ongoing work. In 2021, three Calls to Action were accomplished, bringing the total to 11 completed in six years. That’s it; 11 of 94 Calls to Action completed in six years.

It’s no coincidence that the three Calls to Action were completed in 2021; it’s no doubt due to what happened on May 27, 2021, when an initial discovery reported there were as many as 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. In July of that year, the number was revised to around 200. Those 200 kids woke up the province of B.C., woke up Canada and woke up the world.

When we talked truth and reconciliation prior to the disturbances in Kamloops, I had noticed a real complacency had set in. Well, that complacency disappeared very quickly, but it only took six to nine months for it to creep back in. The only way to keep the TRC agenda alive is to keep people thinking about it; hit them right in the heart; right in the head.

I would like getting rid of complacency as the 95th Call to Action. The discovery of 215 woke us up. My wife was witness to it. Anger. I was so hurt and so mad. Those feelings were consistent right across the survivor world. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. People were texting and emailing me because they know who I am and what I do. It didn’t matter. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I was so mad. I was so hateful. I was so angry. I was so wounded. We all were. I was crying at a minute’s notice.

I was like that for three or four days. And then we started getting stronger after all those negative emotions. We started contacting one another. And when more unmarked graves were found in Cowessess in southern Saskatchewan just days later, we didn’t hate. We didn’t cry. We just realized, “Now we know. Now they believe us.” They’ve been calling us liars for so many years; saying that we made up these stories. Well, in the 10 months after the discovery of 200 in Kamloops in May of 2021, there were more nine more locations with unmarked graves, with more than 1,200 of our children, in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.

In 2022, another Call to Action was realized when Pope Francis finally apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement in residential schools. The Pope’s apology — delivered after First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegations met with the Pope in the Vatican — was supposed to happen within one year of the Calls to Action (in 2015) and it was supposed to happen in Canada. And the Pope did follow up that apology with a trip to Canada in July of 2022, when he delivered the apology again, this time in person in Canada. The apology was long overdue but greatly welcomed by the survivors. It means a lot. 

I’ve been bombarded in the past 11 years with tokenism and paternalism. I’m not one to waste time changing the name of a street for appearances. I have no time for hollow gestures or performative things done to make people feel like they’re doing good. I want real change. I want to see more of my people employed in responsible positions. Not because they’re brown, not because they’re First Nations, but because I know they have the skills and ability to help change the world to be a better place. But those opportunities are few and far between.

I’m pushing more of our people to regain their language, even if it takes years to do it. I’m pushing more of our people to reconnect with our culture and heritage. We have to reprogram ourselves. And the process I’m going through includes all of that. I said at the outset that hockey, my wife and reconnecting to my culture saved my life. And it did. Rediscovering our ways can help to save lives of our people.

Eugene Arcand (left) and other members of the Survivors’ Circle at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg.

Because the purpose of the residential school was to brainwash me into thinking I had lost my language; they brainwashed me into thinking that living like a moniyaw, as a Settler person, is the way to go in life. Well, obviously that didn’t work for me. I’ve just been trying to figure out life and in doing that I have responsibilities to relearn my culture, relearn my ceremonies.

I am not one that thinks I have to go back to the days of Grey Owl, but I have a responsibility to blend what I’m learning today with what’s always been there, not only for a better life for me and my community, but also for the Settler community to understand that differences between our peoples are okay.

We all pray to the same Creator. But we should not be taking advantage of one sector of society that is mired in the effects of genocide, colonialism and poverty. So, what do we do about that? Make work doesn’t work. Incarceration doesn’t work. Children in care doesn’t work. It takes all of us in society to raise a child. That’s what I’ve been taught. Well, what happened to me? What happened to my classmates? Is that the society you want to raise your child? I think not.

That’s why these Calls to Action are important. Change will happen only if we want it to happen, because there’s still a lot of pushback out there. I know because I get a lot of pushback. I have to stay off Facebook and social media because I’ll get triggered.

Is it really that hard for people in the Settler community to have some respectful behaviour towards us; some common sense and respectful change? You don’t have to be an Indian lover but there’s nothing to say you can’t walk by an Indigenous person on the street and just say, “Good morning.”  That’s a good first step.

I’ve seen great changes in our residential school survivors. They may not be doing what I’m doing, but they’re well on their way. I’ve strongly tried to empower and encourage them. We have to tell our stories. Of the 150,000 who went to residential school and the 90,000 who received Common Experience Payments as part of the IRSSA, the estimate is there are only 45,000 of us who are still alive. We are dying off. We are like Holocaust survivors. Pretty soon there will be none of us left to tell the truth of what happened.

I want to share one more thing with you about truth. In 2017, we lost a court case where the records from the Independent Assessment Process, which I talked about earlier, were permitted to be destroyed. The government wanted the ability to destroy the records of abuse, all under the guise of “right to privacy.” They cited student-on-student abuse as the reason and how it wasn’t fair to violate the privacy of those students.

Well, I was privy to a government document that showed 65 per cent of sexual abuse that happened to students in residential school was done by the clergy and/or staff in those institutions. And 35 per cent was student-on-student abuse. We need to tell the truth of who the real perpetrators and demons were in that 65 per cent. If you’re going to bring up student-on-student abuse as a reason for right to privacy, you better bring up that 65 per cent that you’re protecting with the destruction of records — the priests, the bishops, the brothers, nuns and other perverts who worked at those institutions. So, we’re pushing for a moratorium on the destruction of records, because as soon as a residential school survivor who went through the IAP process passes away, the government can destroy their records. They’re trying to erase their shameful history.

I’m not proud of my actions in residential school. I was a bad boy; I did a lot of bad things. But it couldn’t be any worse than what the supervisors and those perverts and deviants were doing to my people. My records are not a secret. I don’t care what’s in them. You want to protect my privacy? It’s a bunch of crap. Show them to the world. I want my grandchildren and great grandchildren to know what happened to their grandpa. I want everyone to know what happened to all of our people. So, no more crap about right to privacy. We know who abused who. There’s no privacy in that.

We can’t depend on all of my fellow residential school survivors to fix things now because many of them are not yet ready for that. Some are; many aren’t. They didn’t have the luxury I had to share so many experiences across the land and be able to gauge where my people are and how we feel about life; about living in such a dysfunctional world. So those of us who are able to work for change, we will do that. And it would be nice if our public education on these issues makes you want to work for change too.

I have three children, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren. I am no different than you; I want no more than each of you. I want a safe space for my children. I want a safe space for my grandchildren. And I really want a safe space for my great grandchildren. I don’t want them to experience what I did in any way.

So, I tell my story for the sake of public education; to help my fellow survivors heal and the Settler community to better understand us. I’m not one to sensationalize things. That’s why I’ve set my own rules regarding how I assist in public education. This is a human-interest story. Nothing bothers me more than seeing sensational headlines where we are used as fodder to sell newspapers, television ads or online clicks and ads.

I have taken the mental toughness I learned at residential school and applied it to this (public education) forum. I’m usually a mess afterwards but that’s okay. It sometimes takes days for me to recover. But it also allows me to continue to assist my fellow residential school survivors in understanding the process of re-victimization; in understanding that there are ways to repair the damage that was inflicted on us. Not necessarily in our lifetimes, but hopefully in the lifetimes of our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Which, in the end, is why we do what we do.

And I want to encourage my fellow residential school survivors to seek out that safe space we have when we are amongst one another.

My name is Eugene Arcand, 781, and I am a residential school survivor.

hai hai…

Kamloops Residential School a year ago around Orange Shirt Day. (Photo: Getty Images)

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NCTR’s spirit name – bezhig miigwan, meaning “one feather”.

Bezhig miigwan calls upon us to see each Survivor coming to the NCTR as a single eagle feather and to show those Survivors the same respect and attention an eagle feather deserves. It also teaches we are all in this together — we are all one, connected, and it is vital to work together to achieve reconciliation.