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I had to work late for my day job tonight, and the last thing I ever expected to receive in return was an important lesson on storytelling.

My city is holding the first ever national event of reconciliation for the survivors of residential schools. I’m very proud and honored that my CEO has been asked to speak at this event, and we went today to get a sense of the environment and what other people had to say. (My CEO speaks tomorrow.)

There were many speakers. Some had messages of apology and hope for the future. Some had anger and recriminations that wandered more than slightly off topic. But the last man took my breath away. Unlike the others, who had started their speeches with greetings and salutations, he began

“I remember the day the planes came and took me away from my family. My parents have told me how silent the village was when all the children were gone, when you could no longer hear them playing. The only thing you could hear was the sound of the parents crying.”

The huge tent full of people quieted. It was hot and humid and uncomfortable, but for once, no one fidgeted on their chairs. This man embodied the power of story, and he was using it to hold all of us spellbound.

I’m not doing his story justice–I don’t think anyone else could hope to tell it the way he did. He spoke of how his parents walked for three days from their trap line, and then took an expensive taxi–using all of the money they had in the world–just to see their son again for a few short hours.

If there was a single person in that tent unmoved, that person must have been made of stone. Unfortunately, as with most of these events, this man was using his power on the converted. Those of us in the gathering–both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal–were there because we already get it. Because we already care. How I wish this man’s voice could be carried to those who don’t! How the impact would be magnified!

It was a simple, emotional lesson on the power of story. We can hide our message behind fancy words or lofty academia. We can try to dazzle with rapier wit or alluring alliteration. But when it comes down to it, nothing has the impact of a good tale well told. For years, I will remember this man’s story of being forcibly taken from his parents and confined in a residential school. I will remember it, and I will pass it on.

And that, my friends, was the point.

Well done, Matthew.

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9 Comments

  1. angela

    You’re absolutely right about the people who most need to hear this story weren’t there. I taught high school English in a school division where there were very few Aboriginal students. I often used Aboriginal themes in my lessons. One of the units I taught was on residential schools. Many students told me I was the only teacher who taught them about residential schools, ever.

    It was hard to do. Most of these kids inherited their attitudes from their parents and weren’t eager to change them. An up-hill battle, but in the end, most of them “got it”.

    I taught them not to feel guilty (many did), as that was a waisted emotion. I taught them to remember what they learned and and to change their world starting with themselves. Next time they see a “Main Street Indian” in Winnipeg, think differently of him. Next time they debate the benefits of having a treaty card, think differently. Next time the talk about “government handouts”, think differently…and then teach your kids one day to think differently too.

    The ones who would not change and could not be reached wore me down. I also had colleagues who didn’t like what I was doing either. I was a social pariah in the staff room! I had some students and parents who actually hated me. I could spend a lunch hour in the staff room with out someone ever uttering a word to me.

    I spoke to an elder about this, and he said to let it go. That the burden of hatred and not accepting or understanding was between those individuals and their creator. I shouldn’t let it drag me under. I found his words comforting, but hard to really internalize. I couldn’t completely off-load the responsibility.

    I did have positive feedback too! I did have students thank me for the lesson. I had students tell me it changed their thinking and opened their eyes. I even had one tough nut work as a forest fire fighter with a Aboriginal crew in Northern Manitoba relay back to me via his dad that, “You were right Ms. Fey…I’ve even made some friends up here.” Something that was hard for him to say!

    I quit teaching that year. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to it. I think it burnt me out to be honest. But my point is, it’s the ones who don’t know, or don’t care to know, that need to know the most! Question is, how do you reach them?

    Reply
  2. Ev Bishop

    You share a very moving, powerful truth here, Holli–about story, yes, but also about our collective past (and future, really). Thanks.

    Reply
  3. Kim

    I too am in that category of someone who went through elementary, junior high, high school and then did a minor in history — Canadian History — in University and was NEVER ONCE told about the Residential schools that I recall. I learnt about them for the first time when I took Aboriginal Cultural Awareness while working my first Nursing Job in my late 20s. Kinda sick actually to just ingore it like it didn’t happen.

    Reply
  4. Story Teller

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. I grew up in a community that was very close to a reserve, where half the people in my town had at least some aboriginal blood. Yet, the first I heard of residential schools was when I moved to the city as an adult, and most likely when I was working for an aboriginal paper.

    It astonishes me that our education about the first peoples of this country is still mostly limited to the fish and fur trade. We have people working to change that, but like Angela’s experience, it’s an uphill battle. Everyone who tries to educate the masses, as she did, has my undying respect.

    Reply
  5. Jocé

    Thanks Holli for this poignant reminder of the power of story. I’d like my Facebook friends to be able to read this, how do I link it with my Facebook page? If that is okay with you?

    Reply
  6. Jocé

    Oh, I’ve discovered the button and done it myself, is that techno savvy for a Grannie or what?

    Reply
  7. Story Teller

    You’re welcome, Jocelyn, and you’re a VERY savvy Grannie, in many ways.

    Reply
  8. Rhonda

    Beautiful post Holli! I just had to comment today…
    As an aboriginal, it’s disheartening to hear others telling us to “get over it”. How do you get over something that still has effects even to today?
    It’s so great to hear you and the others commenting here having understanding and empathy of what went on. I don’t think that people should feel guilty by any means (as some people may interpret the message), but to just acknowledge what happened, and to allow aboriginals as a people to heal.
    Hopefully this event brings awareness to those who are ignorant by choice, and healing to those hurting.
    We are trying to get over it, it’s just a long journey and it will take some time.

    Reply
  9. Story Teller

    Thank you so much for your comment, Rhonda. I am honored that you appreciated my post.

    I think that people who make “get over it” comments have no understanding of what “it” actually is. I’m sure there are people who think that everyone should get over the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda, but you don’t hear that sentiment expressed too often. That’s because those tragic events were recognized for what they were, while our residential school crisis has been covered up, ignored, and brushed aside for so long by so many.

    I had an interesting conversation with a woman yesterday who is married to a residential school survivor. Ironically, her husband is one of the people who thinks everyone should just “get over it”. I think it’s great if someone was able to thrive despite that experience, but the truth is that many more did not. How does anyone figure they have the right to tell others how quickly they must heal? It boggles the mind.

    Reply

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