A Cree woman I’ve known for many years up in Moosonee, Ont., has been in such anguish for months that I fear for her life. This anguish, this word, can’t begin to describe her tortured suffering. She lives every day walking through what most of us would consider our worst nightmare. A year ago, her 17-year-old son, while at a house party full of friends, walked from the kitchen, where he’d found a short indoor extension cord, through the crowded living room, to the bedroom, and eventually into a closet. There, he wrapped the end of the cord around his neck, and, leaving a foot or two, he tied the other around the clothes rod. This thin young man, pimples on his chin and black hair he wore short and spiky, knelt so that his full weight took up all slack. In this way, he slowly strangled himself to death.
If you have the fortitude, think about that for a minute. He could have stopped at any time; he could have simply stood up to take the pressure off. Possibly he did once or twice or three times when the fear of what awaited overcame him, when the happy noise of his friends in the rooms next door drifted in, muffled. But eventually, with unbelievable will, with a drive he’d never exhibited in his young life before, he managed this gruesome act of self-destruction.
Last week I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first annual gathering at the Forks in Winnipeg. Residential school survivors along with their families came together from all across Canada. The first day alone an estimated 20,000 people gathered to speak about their experiences or to see old friends or to soak up the evening concert that included Buffy Sainte-Marie and Blue Rodeo. Despite the rather festive feel of the ﬁrst day, the pain, the same anguish that my Cree friend feels, was palpable just below the surface. The sunny skies turned to rain the next couple of days as if in mimicry.
An Anishnabe medicine man I know, when he speaks of the creation of residential schools, says that a door was opened that should never have been unlocked. For Westerners, his rather poetic view might be comparable to letting a sinister genie out of a bottle. One of the many evils that escaped out that door, the medicine man believes, is the tremendously high Aboriginal youth suicide rate in our country. He believes, as do many, that this suicide epidemic is a direct effect of residential schools where generation after generation of families were torn apart by the system. What’s certainly fact is that suicide among Aboriginal groups before residential schools was almost unheard of.
As I’ve mentioned, this Cree woman in Moosonee, my friend, has lived in anguish since the suicide of her son. Her 15-year-old daughter did, as well. She was close to her brother and went through most all of the stages of grief: disbelief, anger, a stabbing sadness. But she wasn’t able to make it to the last stage: acceptance. Five months after her brother was found hanged at the party, my Cree friend found her daughter hanged, this time in her own closet at home, and this time actually kneeling, leaning slightly forward as if in deep prayer.
How does a mother go on after that? This Cree woman, my friend, she’s from a tiny, isolated James Bay reserve named Kashechewan, 160 km as the bush plane flies north of Moosonee. Kashechewan is like a hundred other northern Canadian reserves. But unlike most, Kashechewan made the papers a handful of years ago when more than 20 youth attempted suicide in a single month. I remember reading about it on page five of the Globe and Mail and not being surprised. I’d lived and taught up there. The reserve’s reputation preceded it.
People in Moosonee warned me each time when I was to travel to Kash and spend a few days, a week, teaching adult community members reading and writing skills. These people said, “Be careful. It’s a dangerous place. It’s a rough reserve. A lot of people up there are crazy.” No warnings ever—and strangely, I might add—more specific than that. What I found were a lot of amazing people who became dear friends.
And I found a sadness difficult to define, lingering just below the surface of day-to-day living. My Cree friend, now the mother of two dead children, she’d left Kashechewan to live in Moosonee years ago, which to her mind was moving to a big town, in part to escape that insidious sadness of her reserve.
It’s the same sadness I can feel seeping from residential school survivors as I wander through this first annual gathering at the Forks. Groups huddle in large tents, rain popping on the roofs. They sit in circles and take turns speaking about their experiences. Some are resigned and speak matter-of-factly, others in hiccups and sobs. There are very few dry eyes and my initial feeling that I’m eavesdropping on something I shouldn’t be dissipates when someone invariably cracks a joke and smiles light up the circle.
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