Musqueam Elder Kat Norris doesn’t remember how old she was when she was taken to residential school, but she remembers what happened there vividly.
Today she teaches students in Vancouver about First Nations culture and history, but at one point Kat was a scared child being separated from her family and taken to Cooper Island Residential School.
“We got there in the middle of the night,” she recalled. “They made us comfortable. I remember this. They brought us slices of apples and crackers and cheese.”
“But then a nun came in and took my two brothers’ hands.”
Kids in residential school were not allowed to see their siblings.
“They took them down the hall and I ran to the door,” Kat said, with tears forming around her eyes. “The last I saw of my brothers was them looking back me. They were just little guys.”
About 150,000 native children were taken to residential schools between 1876 and 1996. The system was created by the Canadian Government and run by the churches with the goal of ‘killing in the Indian in the child.’
This is why students were not allowed to practice their culture, have contact with their family or speak their language. And the punishments were harsh.
“There’s a lot of talk of how those schools took away our language,” Kat said. “But what they don’t say are little kids just talking, wondering why they’re getting smacked around and punched in the head, whipped and getting pins stuck in their tongues.”
“And if they learn a bit of English, they find out it’s because they’re speaking their own language.”
It’s taken Kat many decades to heal from the trauma she experienced in residential school. From being separated from her family, to being sexually molested by priests and then to struggling with mental health and addiction as an adult because of her experience, the life of a survivor is not easy.
“I used to wonder why me,” she said.
But today, Kat is an inspiration to the native community.
“I realized I wanted to be a voice for my people. People look up to me for my story and because I’m doing something about it.”
“This is my reality, this is what I’ve experienced… and that’s what’s going to help the future generations coming up.”
Do you have a residential school survivor in your family? Learning about the history of what our elders have been through can help us make sense of why things are the way they are today. But survivors can also be a light into the future – showing us strength, resiliency and pride in our identity.
Trevor Jang is a reporter for Roundhouse Radio in Vancouver.