Family shares pain of residential schools, moves towards healing

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As the country continues to mourn the loss of 215 Indigenous children, whose bodies were found buried at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. last week, residents here in Parkland County are also grieving  over the trauma suffered by these children.

Parry and Angie Stelter of Stony Plain are sharing their own story of tragedy and loss.

Both are children of residential school survivors and have several other family members who attended residential schools in Alberta. Parry, of Alexander First Nation, was adopted by a family off the reserve, while Angie, of Paul First Nation was raised in a foster home also off the reserve. Both grew up as part of the generation known as the Sixties Scoop.

“Even though many of us were either adopted or in foster care, many of our relatives and our parents were from that (residential school) era, that we believe was a direct connection why our parents couldn’t look after us and why we were in the system,” said Parry Stelter.

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As news of what happened at the country’s former residential schools continues to be exposed, some Indigenous families are asking more questions about their loved ones and their fate, particularly for those who never returned home. Two of Angie’s family members attended a residential school here in Alberta in the 1950’s. She asked that we keep their identities private out of respect for the trauma they may have experienced while attending there. Although Angie does not know which school they were sent to, she has been told they were both under the age of 10 at the time and only one of them returned home.

“They said they had gone there with their younger sibling and then, I don’t know how long it was they were attending the residential school, but they said they never saw them again one day,” said Stelter. “They disappeared, they were gone. (My family member) remembers that they had a younger sibling that disappeared.”

The surviving family member is now in their 70’s and still lives in Alberta. Angie visits with them regularly and has spoken to other family members about what has happened in recent weeks, in light of the Kamloops discovery and said it is important for her family and other Indigenous families to have closure and to have answers about what happened to their loved ones.

“I see them two or three times a month. I visit the family all the time,” she said. “I will be talking to my sisters and finding out if we’re going to be looking into this. They’ll be the ones looking into it, asking questions and making phone calls. That’s definitely the direction we’re heading in for sure.”

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Stories told of trauma and the horrors that took place at residential schools, along with the emotions and experiences residential school survivors and their families went through, are now starting to be believed and listened to. Angie hopes to see some steps taken that will allow families to reconcile and heal.

“It’s an important part of our history we should never forget,” said Stelter. “We really should be passing these stories onto our generations, to our children and grandchildren and let them know what’s happening so they can create an awareness of the past and hopefully not repeat it in the future.”

Two years ago Parry and Angie attended the first annual Sixties Scoop Retreat at Manitou Lake in Saskatchewan. It was hosted by an organization located in Edmonton called the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta (SSISA). It is a non-profit society formed to represent (residential school) survivors in Alberta, create dialogue and engagement and develop true reconciliation. Board members include representatives from Treaty 6, Treaty 7, Treaty 8, as well as Inuit and Métis representatives.

At the end of the retreat they had a special ceremony for the Sixties Scoop children. Parry and Angie were gifted with blankets and wrapped in them by SSISA members. It was a special gesture to welcome Parry and Angie and other children of residential school survivors home, after they spent years in foster care, were adopted or taken from their families.

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“We were in this environment where everything went from below the surface to the surface. So it’s the same thing with these (residential school) issues, said Parry Stelter, adding that a lot of tension exists within the non-indigenous community towards the indigenous community because of such issues that have been spoken about for decades and is now being realized.

“The Indigenous person, I think they don’t even know what to say half the time because the trauma is so deep, but something like this is going to bring that to the surface where, it’s like here’s a snippet of why we haven’t stopped talking about it and why everyone else is talking about it,” said Stelter. “It’s because this was a complete genocide across Canada. It was 500 years of colonialism and this is just one small part of it,” explained Parry. “If somebody was in the war are you going to say to that person, when are you going to stop talking about the war, I’m tired of hearing war stories.”

Stelter spoke about the intergenerational trauma that Indigenous people have suffered and the struggles Indigenous communities have experienced for centuries. With much of Canada now acknowledging and accepting the tragedies and transgressions of years past, Stelter said non-Indigenous people will also go through the grieving process.

“All this is just like a domino effect. It’s just coming in different forms,” he said. “In one form it’s smallpox, in another it’s tuberculosis, in another it’s sterilization and another it’s residential schools and the child welfare system. Our people have just been pummelled with one trauma after another and this is why there is such heavy intergenerational trauma within our people,” explained Stelter. “This is why when the non-indigenous person makes a blanket statement, ‘when are you going to stop talking about it’ they don’t realize this is five hundred years of colonialization…it’s accumulated and accumulated. I think residential schools was the pinnacle and the climax of it all.”

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These days Stelter and his family are quietly mourning the 215 children found last week and others who are still missing. Slowly, he will process it and deal with it piece by piece. The horrors of residential schools has hit close to home for Parry and Angie Stelter, but both are hoping the country, residential school survivors and their families can slowly move forward in healing and reconciliation.

Sharing their story and others like it, is just the first step.

“Definitely when either me or my wife have conversations with our relatives that are older than us, I think more things will start coming out from their experiences at residential schools,” said Stelter. “It’s opened the door that much more for dialogue and for them to be free to speak about maybe other things that they experienced.”

kjean@postmedia.com

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