OUTLOOK - You are the adjudicator. You will be the one deciding how much is fair to compensate residential school survivors. What would you give them? What is their experience worth?
That was the challenge given by guest speaker Tony Stevenson at the Outlook Library last week as he introduced the film “We Were Children” a powerful docudrama telling the story of two elders; Glen Anaquod and Lyna Hart, who were taken from their homes and sent to live at government-funded schools. More than 150,000 of Canada’s First Nations children were sent to one of these school across the country over a time span of 113 years. The film was part of an evening with knowledge sharer Tony Stevenson on his speaking tour “The Legacy of Residential Schools.”
"It hurt my potential"
Tony is a member of the Anishnaabee First Nation from Treaty 4 land. He attended the Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School in Lebret, Saskatchewan from grades 5-12. Abuse he experienced from 1984-1988 included numerous sexual assaults, the pain of which impacted every area of his life as well as his future. “I was an athlete,” Tony shared. “I was on my way. I had letters from five different hockey teams. But because of what had happened to me it skewed my ability to grow. It skewed my ability to be who I could have become. It hurt my potential, as it did many other people.”
In 1994 Tony was incarcerated and discovered that the majority of the population where he was serving his four-month sentence were people from his old reserve or one of three adjacent reserves. It was an epiphany for him as he considered the impact of intergenerational trauma on his peers at the hands of the residential system. “Even though it wasn’t the same people running the schools,” he remarked, “their footprint of abuse was very much there.”
That same year, Tony was physically attacked after launching a private prosecution against the man who had victimized him at the school. “When I started speaking out and was in the court system I got attacked by gangsters, First Nations gangsters, who were related to the pedophile,” he explained. “Five guys attacked me. I got stabbed and just about died that night in Regina.” Lying on the ground he said he was ready to die, but asked for one more chance. “Keep me here. Let me finish my job,” he pleaded. “Let me do something.” The next thing he remembers is being in the hospital. “It woke me up. That’s why I can stand here and talk about this.”
Tony has travelled and worked extensively to educate communities on the history and truth of residential schools but he said it was the discovery of the unmarked graves that has given his work a wider audience. “If not for the uncovering of the bodies of the children in Kamloops, we would probably not be here right now,” he remarked.
For too long he said survivors were not believed and so he became an advocate to give voice to their stories and help them through the IAP; the individual assessment process meant to compensate survivors financially for what they had experienced. He has represented peers and elders in these hearings, a process that is often painful and overwhelming. Law firms took note of his work and he was offered positions with two different firms. He acknowledges it was certainly a compliment to the work he was doing, but after giving it a try he decided he could better serve his people by offering expertise on his own and for free. “I didn’t like how the applicants were being treated. It was very upsetting so I decided to go pro bono and that I was going to do this on my own.”
Using the settlement money he received from his own residential school compensation, Tony established the website QIRS.com to give former students help in navigating the complicated IAP process, and dedicated himself to the work of trying to bring hope and healing. “When I was a little boy, the reserve where I lived had the highest suicide rate in Canada. I always wondered why,” he remarked. “Why would they hang themselves or overdose? Why did they drink themselves to death? What is going on and what can I do to help?”
After working with many survivors, he learned how the legacy of the schools has impacted subsequent generations. “The young ones don’t understand what happened to their parents and grandparents and why they are the way they are. I have seen how these cycles of abuse keep going. Now I know this is what affects our people,” he explained.
Breaking the Silence
But breaking the silence and getting people to listen has been difficult. “Nobody believed that this happened, that this was going on,” Tony shared. He compared the response of the nation to the sexual abuse revelations by hockey player Sheldon Kennedy who was victimized by a coach, to the revelations shared by students who were in the residential schools. “The country embraced his story. Don’t get me wrong, Sheldon Kennedy is a beautiful man and his story has helped a lot of people. It helped me. But nobody believed what happened in the schools until the unearthing of the children.”
Fearing they wouldn’t be believed was one part of the struggle in speaking out. The other goes back to something they were taught as children. When asked what happened to them, they remembered not to speak badly about God’s children so they lost the ability to say anything. “A lot of our people are still stuck in that sense not to speak about it, not to say anything, not to tell anyone,” Tony said.
Tony knows first-hand how emotionally overwhelming it can be to reveal what happened at the schools. His response to speaking at his own IAP hearing evidenced that. “As soon as I walked in the room I was asked how I was doing. After waiting six and a half months for this to start the emotion just released. Out of the 11 hours I sat in the room there were six hours of tears. Six hours of crying and of anger—released. The other five I spent telling my story.”
One of the people Tony helped through the IAP was his uncle Charlie, a man he loved deeply and looked up to, particularly since Tony lost his father at the tender age of four. In preparing his uncle to share his story, Tony told him he needed to be clear and explain everything that had happened to him. But as he told his story, Charlie’s body would contort in involuntary spasms. “That’s why he never spoke about it,” Tony explained. “That’s why he never told anyone. He had all that displaced aggression over the years. That was the reason he did the things he did.”
Tony, who himself found help through a psychiatrist as well as getting in touch with his cultural roots, stressed the importance to his uncle of getting support from someone who specializes in repressed memories and the psychological damage that is suffered as a result. Sadly, Tony’s uncle passed away last month. “After we did his narrative and the submission of his story, he started to get sick,” Tony shared. “He started to physically deteriorate and I believe it’s because of that story he held for so long. Finally, after so many years and finally letting it go, he got sick. It killed him.”
Tony returned the audience’s thoughts to the question posed earlier in the evening regarding what financial settlement could compensate a survivor. The conclusion was there isn’t enough money, leading to the question of what the non-Indigenous community can do to help. Tony encourages people to contact their MLA, tell them what they’ve learned and what they want to see happen. “It’s the grassroots people that talk to leaders that gets it done. So what’s why I say all people have the power to send that message and create that change.”
Truth and Reconciliation Report
In 2007, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established to begin the process of reconciling former students, families, communities and all Canadians. In December 2015 the commission released its final report, a 6-volume record which included 94 calls to action in areas of child welfare, education, language and culture, health, justice, and reconciliation.
September 30, 2021 marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada; a day to honor the lost children and the survivors of the residential school system. Tony said, “Honestly I wish that everybody, every Canadian takes the time to learn and understand the real truth of what reconciliation means. Reconciliating is learning the truth and making the change, instead of just talking about it.”
Tony Stevenson’s commitment to the work he is doing is evident in the passion he displays as he speaks to the history and shares the stories of those whose voices have not been heard. Speaking in Outlook to a group that wanted to hear what he had to say was clearly moving to him. “All of you are here voluntarily. It gives me hope that we’re all willing to learn and understand this. We have to understand where we all come from. We want friendship, a relationship and respectful, meaningful dialogue just like we’re having here tonight. We’re on the way to that and you all have a part in it. I consider you family now.”