Yvonne Rigsby-Jones, ambassador with Reconciliation Canada. Image Credit: Barry Gerding/Black Press

Reconciling cultural genocide

Aboriginal community leaders address difficult issues

The call for truth and reconciliation for aboriginal people from the abuses imposed on them through the residential school program will take generations to repair, says the executive director of the Kelowna Friendship Centre.

Edna Terbasket says the emotional impact on aboriginal families by the residential school program lasted for eight generations, the last of the schools officially closing down in the mid-1990s.

Today, what went on in the schools has been subjected to scorn and ridicule, legal lawsuits and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling on the Pope to offer a formal apology on behalf of the Catholic Church, which ran the schools.

“You can’t expect to reverse all the harm that was done in one generation,” Terbasket said. “If this went on for seven or eight generations, it will take that long to repair the damage that was caused.”

She was one of one five panel speakers and a keynote speaker who participated in a public forum in Kelowna at the Laurel Packinghouse about the concept of reconciliation, understanding the past and coming together for the future of aboriginal children on Thursday.

Among those in attendance were area aboriginal band members, child development workers and politicians including Lake Country Mayor James Baker and local MLAs Norm Letnick and Steve Thomson.

Terbasket talked about how her aboriginal culture was torn apart on two fronts—a federal government seemingly intent on wiping out their culture and facilitating the public stereotypes of aboriginal people being lazy and stupid, coupled with residential schools where students were subjected to horrible acts of sexual and violent abuse.

“Can you imagine your five-year-old child forcibly being taken from your home and sent away to a school. Can you see, can you imagine the impact that would have on any family?” Terbasket said.

Terbasket said that scenario would have played out for her mom except for her grandfather putting a stop to it

“The RCMP officer and Catholic church priest came to the house to get her, and my dad confronted them armed with his shotgun and said, ‘Get out of the car. Go ahead.’

“They backed off and my mom didn’t have to go to the residential school. But there was another story as well, the one about her wondering where all her cousins were, they were taken away to residential schools, and why her aunts and uncles seemed consumed by emotional pain and drank so much.

“We need to think about that trauma that so many of our people went through, the impact that has on their lives and subsequent generations, their children, that followed.”

As a result, her mom, while fluent in her own language, disengaged from her own culture, “wanting her children to just fit in, not feel like they are any less than anyone else.”

The keynote speaker, Reconciliation Canada ambassador Yvonne Rigsby-Jones, said she was not exposed to residential schools as a child, but her husband was.

“I had no idea up to that point what had been going on, and I could see in our blended family how it was affecting the relationship with his daughter,” Rigsby-Jones recalled.

She said the challenge for residential school survivors is to break the cycle of pain, to understand what was robbed from them in childhood, to learn how to be kind and loving to others.

“There is so much work yet to repair the harm that has been done to our culture, but it starts with awareness,” said Rigsby-Jones. “We need acknowledgement for our past, and find positive ways to move forward to help build a better place for our children.”