(The Shubenacadie Residential school in Nova Scotia closed its doors in 1967)
APTN National News
A Mi’kmaq grassroots grandmother and residential school survivor says an historic milestone for the Mi’kmaq is passing unnoticed as Canada gears up for its 150th birthday celebrations,
Fifty years ago, in June of 1967, the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School closed its doors. Over the course of close to four decades, 1,000 Mi’kmaw children were taught in the school that was run by the Catholic church.
“It’s so sad,” said Dorene Bernard, in an interview from her home in Sipekne’Katik, Nova Scotia. “Why don’t they take the millions of dollars being spent on Canada’s 150th birthday and put it towards the services, programs, and resources needed in our communities to address the legacy of residential school and how it’s impacted our people. Even today after 50 years, we’re still dealing with the trauma and pain.”
Bernard was surprised to find out that no events were planned and no money available to commemorate the anniversary of the closing of the Shubenacadie residential school.
So Bernard decided to invite people to a ceremony she’s planned herself for the morning of June 21, National Aboriginal Day.
“It’s short notice, but only because nobody noticed,” said Bernard. “Something needed to be done, and I’m going to try to do it in a sacred good way. I’m going to offer my prayers for all my ancestors, to honour the survivors who went to the residential school…For healing. For a better life for their families.”
Bernard attended the school for four years in the 1960s. Many of her family attended in generations before.
“The same policies that ran the school in 1929, were the ones that ran the school in 1967,” said Bernard. “It was the same assimilation policy, us not being able to practice our culture, our traditions, and our language.”
(Dorene Bernard at a pow wow. Bernard went to the Shubenacadie school for four years in the 1960’s. Photo courtesy Dorene Bernard)
She recounts the stories of abuse, varying depending on the priests that headed the school.
“One priest put on boxing gloves and beat the kids with boxing gloves,” said Bernard. “There was one priest that used the strap, and other methods of punishment. It was all still child abuse.”
In 2005, the Canadian Government reached an historic settlement worth $2 billion dollars to compensate the tens of thousands of residential school survivors. In 2008, the Harper Government offered an apology for government’s role in the schools. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 calls to action.
But Bernard credits the resiliency of Indigenous people for their healing, not the government.
“Canada is failing,” she said. “I don’t think they should be celebrating as much as they should be making things right.”
She is frustrated by the slow pace of progress on Indigenous issues, many of which tie into the legacy of residential schools.
“The TRC recommendations. The United Nations Declarations on the rights of Indigenous People; there’s things that are written down but haven’t seen much action,” said Bernard. “Missing and murdered Indigenous women, child welfare…We have to realize, we only got human rights applied to us on reserve in 2008.”
“That wasn’t 50 years ago,” she added. “That was nine years, so we’re slow. Canada is slow. They keep apologizing, yet continuing on with the status quo.”
The Shubenacadie residential school burned down in 1986. It was located only 8 kilometres from the Sipekne’Katik band at the Indian Brook First Nation. It’s now farmland.
“When I pass by that site, I can still visualize what it looked like, all the children that went through there. I think about them. I think about their families and where they are today,” said Bernard. “Even though the building isn’t physically there, the spirit of that school is still there. It has not been reconciled.”
While many Indigenous people are kicking off National Aboriginal Day, Bernard will lead a quiet ceremony to celebrate the survivors and their families at the site where the school stood, overlooking the Shubenacadie River.
“When we see the benefits of Canada’s apology then we won’t have to go there and remember the tragedy,” said Bernard. “We’ll be there to celebrate.”
But the controversy is far from over.
Bernard wants to one day be able to hold a ceremony at a monument to honour residential school survivors.
She’s been waiting for five years to see it built.
In 2012, the federal government awarded $500,000 for a Shubenacadie Residential School Commemoration Project but plans for a monument were never fulfilled.
The Sipekne’Katik band filed a lawsuit against the board overseeing the project in late 2016 to find out if the money was misspent.