• MP recounts toll of residential school
Apr 30, 2013

MONTREAL — Romeo Saganash says he has accepted that he’ll never regain the childhood that was taken away from him.


Saganash spent the most formative decade of his life in residential school. And while he survived and went on to become a lawyer and member of Parliament for the NDP, his brother never made it out of the Moose Factory residential school alive.


“Every day I ask myself what I would have been like if I hadn’t attended a residential school,” Saganash said Friday at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Montreal. “I look normal but I’m not normal, I’ll never be normal.”

Sitting with a group of fellow residential school survivors and Canadians who want to help reconcile the horrors that were visited upon the nation’s aboriginal children for 150 years, Saganash spoke of the struggle to move forward.


The conversation didn’t dwell on the horrific details of abuse that about 150,000 aboriginal children suffered when they were forcibly taken from their homes by the federal government and indoctrinated in a language and religion that was foreign to them. Instead, the talk was about forgiveness, redemption and what it will take for Canada to mend the terrible wound of residential schools.


“I want to commend the work of the TRC, but Canadians need to know what continues to go on,” said Sheila Fraser, the auditor general of Canada from 2001 to 2011. “I did a great number of audits of the programs and services delivered to First Nations people living on reserves. Every one of those audits spoke to inequity, inequality and conditions that most people would not accept. People who do not have access to clean water, decent housing, to proper education, health care services. Quite frankly, if this were happening in a community other than First Nations, there would be hell to pay.”


Fraser says she doesn’t believe there can be reconciliation without mutual respect and that respect will only come when the country’s First Nations are treated equitably.


“There’s an education that has to occur, there’s a need to dispel a lot of the myths that Canadians have come to believe,” she continued. “I dealt a lot with money and there’s a lot of misconceptions and untruths told about how money is spent on reserves ... If we really got to know each other better, we would appreciate that these inequities are unacceptable.”


Every panellist at Friday’s discussion agreed that for First Nations to move forward, there needs to be an acknowledgement by Canadians of the untold damage caused by the residential school system.


“It’s a dirty truth, it gives us an image of ourselves that we don’t like but it’s still the truth,” said Pierre Golberger, a Montreal-based theologian. “We can’t move forward until we recognize that Native children are our children, that the reality we enjoy today is founded on cultural genocide.”


After the panel, Saganash took to the main stage at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel and officially gave his statement to the TRC about his time at the La Tuque residential school in the late 1970s.


He tearfully spoke about his brother Johnny who died under mysterious circumstances when he was just 6 years old. Johnny was buried in an unmarked grave near the residential school in Moose Factory, Ont. There was no explanation given to his parents, no death certificate, no physical record that the little Cree boy had ever existed under the care of the federal government.


It took 40 years for the Saganash family to find Johnny’s grave and they did so not with the help of authorities but rather through the work of Saganash’s journalist sister Emma. When his mother finally saw footage of the burial site, Saganash said she wept like he had never seen her weep before.


The NDP MP has also struggled with the legacy of pain from his stolen childhood. The struggle caused Saganash to seek treatment for his alcoholism last December after he was kicked off an Air Canada flight for being heavily intoxicated.


But Saganash spent little time focusing on the past, choosing rather to divert the attention to the private members bill he tabled before the House of Commons in January. The bill would force the federal government to ensure all its laws are consistent with the UN’s declaration of indigenous rights — a document the Cree politician helped draft before being elected to public office.


He concluded his emotional address on a hopeful note, quoting a passage from a speech South African leader Nelson Mandela gave after his 27-year stint as a political prisoner.

“It was during those long and lonely years that the hunger for freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people — white and black. I knew, as I knew anything, that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. For all have been robbed of their humanity.

ccurtis@montrealgazette.com



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