By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
It was late fall in 2005 when Alma Jane Bruyere appeared at the door of her grandson’s house in Fort Frances, Ont., carrying in her left hand a lawyer’s letter stating she had qualified for compensation for the abuse she faced while attending an Indian residential school.
She handed the letter to her grandson, Ryan McMahon who is now a well known Indigenous comedian.
“She came, as she often did, unannounced and sort of quietly,” said McMahon. “We sat down at the table and put the tea on.”
She told McMahon her story.
“She told me what happened,” he said.
And she cried.
Bruyere described the darkness of the experience, the repeated sexual, physical and emotional abuse at St. Margaret’s Indian Residential School in Fort Frances.
But it was only part of the story.
“The most difficult thing for me is that some of what she said was contradictory to what you would expect,” he said. “She endured these traumas, the most horrific traumas a human being can survive; she experienced those, and yet volunteered at the church and found herself at times talking about the positive things that residential schools brought to her. Things like the square meals every day, the friends and the beading and the sewing she learned inside the schools from the nuns. She talked about the poverty that her family faced on the reserve…and the difficulties found on reserves and the poverty and the struggle.
“I can’t wrap my head around what that had to have been like to live with those paradoxical understandings in your life,” said McMahon.
Before that autumn visit, McMahon’s grandmother had travelled to Thunder Bay for a hearing through the alternative dispute resolution program which pre-dated the multi-billion dollar Indian Residential School settlement agreement. While the letter informed her she had qualified for compensation, it also told her she would have to retell her experiences to get any money.
It was something she wouldn’t do, said McMahon.
“She stated she didn’t want to go back and wondered why they would make her go back. She felt insulted and hurt again. She had already proven that she qualified and she had to go back and tell her story,” he said. “Her rejection was a statement that they can’t take it back, there is no way to change what happened and how it happened and she didn’t feel a financial payment was ever going to remove the trauma.”
Bruyere died on Jan. 14, 2007. She was 72 and never heard Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s June 11, 2008, apology to residential school survivors. She never got to the chance to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her story now lives only in her grandson.
“I know part of her sharing that with me was so that we can honour that past and walk with that knowledge and never let people forget,” he said.
And so, this Tuesday, June 11, 2013, on the anniversary of Harper’s apology which was delivered in the House of Commons, McMahon took to Twitter to tell fragments of his grandmother’s story.
“She went to Thunder Bay. She brought a feather with her. I’d never seen carry a feather before then. She told me she was scared,” tweeted McMahon, through his handle @RMComedy. “Those hearings changed her forever. She cried, told me her story. ‘You’re strong enough to use this pain for good.’ I carry her story.”
McMahon said Harper’s apology has done little to change the reality facing Indigenous peoples in Canada.
“We kind of see it for what it was. It was necessary the country was at a boiling point. We also see what is coming from it, more funding cuts than ever. The situation we are now in its way worse than it was five years ago,” he said. “If you are blindly saying reconciliation is here, let’s all work together and hold hands, well that’s not the reality.”
McMahon said the anniversary of the apology shouldn’t be about moving on, but about remembering and ensuring the darkness is never forgotten.
“As a father…it is my job to break that cycle and free (my children) of the burden of the past and to teach them,” he said. “On Remembrance Day (Nov. 11)…we say, ‘lest we forget.’ But in Canada, (when discussing residential schools) we are always saying, can’t we just all move on? Can’t we just forget it already, can’t you let it go? But, if we are never supposed to forget those other traumas, why should we forget these ones…It is our responsibility to remind people that it is an ugly past and we have to be willing to put it on the line because of that past.”
Bruyere’s story also taught her grandson about the resilience of his culture.
“She was a Catholic and a pretty devout Catholic, but when she went to those hearings she brought that eagle feather with her,” he said. “She was a lot more traditional than any of us even knew. She spoke the language and carried the histories of her community in her, but rarely talked about it.”
But it was one of her last requests that left a permanent mark.
“When she passed, in her will, she requested new moccasins. In our traditional funerals, you put on new moccasins on those that pass so when they are on that journey and are greeted by our ancestors, our ancestors know they are ready to take that journey with then,” said McMahon. “That is not something found in any scripture or part of the Bible…She went back home with our ancestors in the way that she really wanted.”