A Mixed Blessing, Part 4: After Residential School, a Broken Home, and Struggling to Fit In
On Tuesday June 25 we introduced Ben Powless, whose family is riven with aftereffects of Canada’s residential schools system. In this fourth installment of A Mixed Blessing: Stories by Intergenerational Residential School Survivors, we see the effect of the schools on relationships as Powless's parents break up. We also meet Gloria Ranger, another child of school survivors. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.
Rose and Richard Powless separated after just two years of marriage. Ben went to live with his mother, visiting his father on weekends at Six Nations. His mom raised the boy on social assistance, living in subsidized housing.
“I did my best to try to fit in and not be seen as different,” said Powless. “Already growing up in poverty during that time, and having my mother on welfare, that was the biggest taboo in school. You didn't want to be seen as the poor kid.”
Despite attending a culturally diverse school, Powless felt embarrassed about his race and feared questions about his background. But he does recall moments of pride. Like the day his parents took him to a rally at the Ottawa courthouse and his picture appeared in a local newspaper. Ben proudly shared the clip with his peers.
“Sometimes it was other people that made you feel proud about being Native,” he said. “Someone would say, 'Oh hey, you're native, that's cool.' ”
When Ben was six, his mother’s sister killed herself. He believes it was because of the treatment she received from his grandmother. The suicide threw his mother into a deep depression.
"I would try to hold her hand, try to hug her. But being a young boy, I didn't know what to do,” he said quietly. “I couldn't bring people home. My mom was going through a period of manic depression. She had covered all the windows.”
It led to conflicting emotions ranging from sympathy to confusion and resentment.
“You feel embarrassed as a child, but then at the same time, you cannot really comprehend and understand what is happening,” Powless said.
As if to compensate, Powless believes, his mother became consumed with work. She co-founded Minwaashin Lodge, a non-profit organization for women and children who are survivors of family violence and the residential school system. But it may not have been enough to help her.
“She spent some time in a mental institution,” Powless said. “She was diagnosed with depression, amongst other things.”
During the difficult times, Ben lived with his father. He remembers little healthy communication from his years growing up.
“You don't know how to express your emotions. Especially as children, it's kinda necessary,” he said. “There were a lot of inter-family trauma and dynamics. Those kind of things are directly related to residential school.”
Adams, the Sliammon Band Coast Salish doctor, concurred.
‘If you have a family already under distress and trying to cope with previous trauma, their capacity to deal with current trauma is shortened,” he explained.
Gloria Ranger is a long-time resident of Thunder Bay and an Ojibwe whose family hails from Neskantaga First Nation (Lansdowne House) in northwestern Ontario.The 36-year-old works at the Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre, where she is an Urban Aboriginal Healthy Living Worker, promoting events and activities.
Her mother, Francine Pellerin, attended residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, more than 700 km away from her home and family.
“She grew very distant from my grandmother,” said Gloria. “I always felt like there was a lack of a deep connection with my parents. There is a distance between my mom and I.”
The gulf, Gloria said, extends to her sister and brother.
Growing up, Gloria often asked her mom about her time ‘down south.’
“My vision of a boarding school was similar to the book ‘Madeline,’ ” she said. “It was more of an idealized version when I was small. I didn't really get to grow up in my community. I can go back to visit but I would never make it a home.”
As a young adult, Gloria resented residential school survivors themselves, blaming them for her sense of disconnect. She lashed out at a group of residential school survivors attending a reunion, but an Elder pulled her aside, telling her, 'You can't lead out of anger.”
“Those words have stuck with me,” she said.
Next: Sharing Their Stories, Activism and Apology: Coming Full Circle