Mary Annette Pember
Suzanne Nottaway, Algonquin, was once a "number" in Canada's residential school system. Today the survivor wears a tattoo of that number in both remembrance and defiance on her road to healing.

Truth and Reconciliation: The Road to Healing Is Long and Arduous

Mary Annette Pember
6/8/15

Kristin Harder couldn’t bear to let her friend photograph the tiny braids that lay curled in their little box. Although dry with age, the hair was clearly that of a child, wispy and innocent.

The little braids in the box could very well have belonged to Harder’s birth mother, who attended Indian residential school and later gave Harder up for adoption during the infamous Sixties Scoop.

Harder’s reaction exemplifies the multi-layered impact of the generational trauma wrought by Indian residential schools on Canada’s indigenous peoples and the depth of the healing process for survivors and their families.

One of the first actions of Indian residential school administrators was to cut the children’s long hair, a terrible indignity for First Nations people that came to symbolize a cut with their cultures and families.

The braids were part of the Witness Blanket, an art installation of reclaimed objects commemorating survivors of Indian residential schools and part of the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work in Ottawa last week. The Witness Blanket will be on display until July 9 in Ottawa City Hall.

RELATED: "Cultural Genocide," Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls Residential Schools

The Sixties Scoop was a period from the 1960s through the late 1980s during which an estimated 16,000 indigenous children were taken—scooped up—from their families and adopted by non-native families. The children experienced a loss of cultural identity, their birth family, history and Indian status. The assimilationist practice formally ended in the 1980s, but the effects are still being felt today, and a number of adoptees are suing the government.

RELATED: Lawsuit Proceeds for Canada’s Lost Generation of Stolen Babies

B.C. Aboriginals File Suit Against Feds for Sixties’ Scoop

Harder, Blackfoot of the Siksika Nation, was physically abused in the foster home where she lived for the first three years of her life. She was finally adopted by a white Mennonite family and raised in the city of Edmonton without any contact with her birth family or culture.

“For years I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was so uncomfortable in my own skin and I didn’t fit in anywhere,” she recalled recently.

Harder described her adoptive parents as fundamentally good people who were unable to understand her often-crippling distress and anger.

“Their eyes are open but their ears are shut,” is how she described it.

As a teenager, Harder found and met her birth mother, an experience she described as “awkward.” Now passed away, her mother was an alcoholic and unable to build a relationship with Harder or any of the other six children she bore.

“I have since learned that she was dealing with her own trauma,” Harder said.

Eventually, Harder was able to not so much forgive her mother as understand her. This knowledge has been essential in her own healing process, said Harder, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She has been seeing a therapist from the Métis Nation who specializes in helping residential school survivors.

The therapy has been provided as part of Canada’s legal obligation under the Indian Residential Settlement School Agreement’s Resolution Health Support Program for survivors.

“In recognition of the intergenerational impacts that the Indian Residential Schools had on families, the Resolution Health Support Program services are also available to family members of former school students,” says the website of Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health branch.

The health support services have been very popular among survivors and their families, according to Valerie Gideon, assistant deputy minister of regional operations for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. In addition to traditional clinical mental health services, the program supports traditional healing practices chosen by clients as well as cultural camps and gatherings and financial support for elders and healers who lead such efforts.

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