"You can't even imagine how they treated us"

The chief of the New Westminster Indian Band weighs in on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report and shares some her family's stories about what it was like to go through Canada's residential school system.

The chief of the New Westminster Indian Band - also known as Qayqayt First Nation - remains cautiously optimistic that all levels of government will recognize and act on the 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last week.

Whether it's amending the Oath of Citizenship or creating a National Council for Reconciliation, Rhonda Larrabee says each are necessary in moving forward.

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Commissioners released their findings on June 2 after six years of hearings and testimony from thousands of residential school survivors. They used the term "cultural genocide" to describe what happened to 150,000 or so aboriginal children and their families while the schools operated.

Larrabee's mother, Marie Joseph, was no exception. She was sent to residential school after her parents’ death. Ashamed of her roots, Marie never spoke about those dark years again. She moved to Vancouver's Chinatown after high school, married and had a family.

For the first two plus decades of her life, Larrabee thought she was of Chinese-French heritage, half-Chinese from her father's side and half-French from her mother's side.  The truth of once belonging to Qayqayt First Nation, Larrabee says, came out when she was in her mid-20s, after she probed her mother for more information about the family tree.

"She told my brothers and dad to leave the house, and that she was only going to tell me once, and that we would never speak about it again," Larrabee recalls.

The Record recently caught up with the band chief to get her thoughts about the TRC report, how the residential school system has impacted her personally, and more.

Were you satisfied with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report?
Yes. I'm hoping that the government will recognize all the recommendations. I just don't know if they will.

Your mother and many of your cousins were sent to residential schools. Can you describe some of their experiences?
One cousin said that when he spoke his language, they burnt his tongue with a hot iron. He showed me his scars on his tongue and he was … like, shaken. He said, 'You can't even imagine how they treated us.' When my mother told me, she started crying and she said, 'It brings back so many painful memories. I can't even talk about it.' She was ashamed that she was a native woman. I felt really sad that I had put her through this because she was obviously so, so broken up about talking to me, admitting to me that she was native, when she told me her whole life she was something else. I thought 'OK,' and we never spoke about it again.

Even though you didn't go through the residential school system, how has it affected you?
I've talked about it with our family, and (we) all seem to be in agreement that we're a result of residential school survivors. One of the family members (asked), 'Did your mom read you bedtime stories?' And we were thinking and thinking, and I said, 'I don't think so.' It didn't seem important, right? That speaks to (mom) being in residential school and never getting any comfort at bedtime. The ability to be a parent was lost on all those kids because they never had it.

How did your mother's experience influence her parenting style?
She wasn't super-duper affectionate or anything, but you just knew she loved you. She would say she loved you. Birthdays were special, Christmases were special, family dinners were special. Every week when I was a teenager, mom and I would take the bus downtown and we would buy 45s; we would buy Elvis; my dad taught me how to dance. We had a great role model as a mother, and I think she just learned on her own. She just wanted us kids not to have to go through what she went through.

How has this period in Canadian history affected your kids?
My kids and my nieces and nephews, they also didn't know that they were descendants of native grandparents and great-grandparents. They said, 'Wow!' because a lot of them have darker skin, and of course, our family is all intermarried, so they were like, 'Kids used to call me names when I was little and I didn't understand it because my mom was from England or my mom was from Scotland.' When the film came out, A Tribe of One (a short movie about Larrabee's life), the whole family saw it, and I was just inundated with phone calls after that, from my nieces and nephews asking questions.

How have your children embraced their heritage since finding out the truth?
They're all extremely involved. They've all been involved in our (land) claim process and I can't do anything without consensus from the group. We have meetings, we all get together, and everyone's excited about the possibility that we might get a land base and be able to have a community like there was before. It's been really good because now they say they know who they are. They know where they came from.

What does reconciliation mean to you?
It means that hopefully the people of Canada will begin to understand what happened and why there is alcoholism, and why there is abuse of everything, because they were just never taught. It just bugs me that other races were never handled that way when they came here. Like people are allowed to retain all their customs and we were not. I don't understand it. I don't get it why they thought they could just do that to so many people across Canada and the United States and Australia and everywhere else there's aboriginal people.

The report says there's a lack of historical knowledge and many Canadians are unaware about this period in history. It suggests the key to moving forward is education. Talk a little bit about that.
I believe that the education of what happened to First Nations people should be taught in schools, starting at the elementary level. ... My kids were taught nothing about it. ... I have spoken at different events and talked about residential schools, and people come up to me and say, 'I didn't know about that.' It's just a shame. I also greet exchange students from Wales, who come to attend Douglas College, and they know all about it. They know about the residential schools, the Indian Act, they know everything. So why is it taught in Wales, but not in Canada? I realize it's a lot for people to grasp and to understand. ... Aboriginal workers are working really hard to get the aboriginal story into the school system, no matter if it's post-secondary or elementary. It’s coming; it's coming along.

The report also states the relationship between the federal government and aboriginal people is deteriorating. You've been in talks about securing land for the Qayqayt people for years. What's that relationship look like and where are you in the process?
It's good. It's taken years and years of work and trips to Ottawa and archives and research, with little money. We filed a claim in 2012 and the three-year limit is up this year, so we're hoping to be in negotiations soon. It's been a long time because I was granted my status in 1994, so it's been like 21 years since I've been working on this. I think we're doing OK.

This year marks 30 years since your mother passed away. If she was alive today, what do you think she would say about the TRC report?
That's a tough question because, like I said, it was just engrained in her to be ashamed, so I don't know.

Anything else you'd like to add?
I think no matter what culture you're from you should know your identity. One time I was speaking to some elementary school kids and a little boy raised his hand and he said, 'My uncle's an Indian.' I said, 'Is he now?' He said 'Yes,' and I said, 'Is that your mom's brother or dad's brother?' He answered 'My dad's brother.' Then I said 'Your dad must be aboriginal, too.' He said, 'No!' He just said, 'No, no, no.’

TRC report highlights:

-Create a National Council for Reconciliation, an independently-run body composed of aboriginals and non-aboriginals. Its purpose would be to keep tabs on, for example, whether the federal government is boosting funds for aboriginal on-reserve education and whether aboriginal health indicators are improving.

-The federal government should amend the Oath of Citizenship for new citizens. In addition to swearing allegiance to the Queen, new citizens should pledge: “I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada including treaties with indigenous peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”

-Governments should work together to get records on aboriginal students who died and were buried in unmarked graves. That information should be passed along to their loved ones.

-The federal government should eliminate the “funding gap” that discriminates against aboriginal children on reserves. New federal legislation to improve aboriginal education should be drafted with the “full participation and informed consent” of aboriginal people."

-The federal government should enact an Aboriginal Languages Act to help revitalize and preserve aboriginal languages. Residential school survivors and their families should also be enabled to reclaim their names, changed by the residential school system. All levels of government can help with this process by waiving the administrative costs for five years associated with documents such as birth certificates, passports and driver’s licences.

-Federal and provincial governments should commit to reduce the number of aboriginal children in child welfare. Funds should be increased to keep aboriginal families together where it is safe to do so.

-Education should be provided to public servants on the history of aboriginal peoples, including the legacy of residential schools.

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