Gathering Resurrects Old Memories

By Kerry Benjoe
September 21, 2007

The first day of the provincial healing gathering was greeted with mixed emotions by those in attendance, many of whom revisited old memories.

The Cowessess First Nation is hosting the gathering to help residential school survivors who are applying for their Common Experience Payments under the government-approved settlement.

Carol Lavallee, 56, has a unique perspective of residential schools. She lived through the bad times as a student and as an employee she worked to make it a happy experience for others.

Everyone can recall their first day of school and the excitement surrounding that big day, but for many residential school survivors their memories are not so cheery.

"When they came and took me to residential school at six years old they came and got us in a cattle truck," Lavallee recalled Thursday. "I remember I was so small that I couldn't see over the box. My sister was standing right tight against me to hold me still so I wouldn't be bounced around in the back of this cattle truck."

Although that was the only time she and her siblings were transported by cattle truck to the Marieval Residential School, it's a memory that has stuck with her. It was in the back of that cattle truck she was taken from a loving and safe home to face years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

"I always wonder how a person who's supposed to be a Christian person, a priest, can abuse a seven-year-old girl," said Lavallee.

After she spent 10 years in residential schools, she went on to have four children. All of them graduated from residential school, but she noted they all had a very different experience. Lavallee said when First Nations took over control of the residential schools it was a totally different environment.

"I had very bad things happen to me when I went to residential school and very happy things happen to me when I worked in residential schools," said Lavallee, who spent approximately 20 years supervising at three different residential schools.

"The parents put me in charge of parenting their children and I tried to do it the way I parented my own children. I scolded them, talked to them, laughed with them and loved them."

She said being a surrogate parent to many over the years has had its advantages because she runs into her "girls" everywhere and revels in their successes.

Lavallee is currently a council member of the Cowessess First Nation and as a leader she's happy the reserve's urban office undertook the initiative to help residential school survivors.

"What was in the closet now is all out. We're going to face it. We're going to live with it. We're going to deal with it. We're going to accept what happened to us and we're going to make things better," said Lavallee.

She said exposing her wounds has allowed her to heal and become a stronger person. She encourages others to also face their past.

"We have realized what we lost and we're trying to reclaim it. We are reclaiming what we lost with a vengeance, our language, our history, our culture," said Lavallee.

Vice-Chief Lyle Whitefish of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations said the gathering should help residential school survivors on their healing journey. It's also an acknowledgement of the abuse that occurred in the schools.

"It's a turning point where we start to try put the past behind us and find ways within ourselves spiritually with the help and support of the healers here," he said.

He commended the Cowessess First Nation for putting the gathering together and believes it will benefit many survivors.

Several booths are set up at the gathering to help survivors fill out application forms, receive counselling, and obtain financial advice.

"Our goal is to help them understand how to do basic banking and get them client cards," said Dave Gareau, a branch manager with Royal Bank of Canada. "It's about building relations one client at a time."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.