Fort Albany’s Edmund Metatawabin was surprised about being appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette on June 29.
“It’s surprising and at the same time it is a big honour,” Metatawabin says. “It’s a big acknowledgement from the country itself, from Canada, that they recognize what the (residential school) survivors are trying to do. The survivors have been the only ones that have talked about child abuse and abuse of power and also the hesitancy of the court to enforce their duty to ensure that everyone is safe.”
Metatawabin was one of about 82 people from across the country who were recognized with Members of the Order of Canada. A survivor of St. Anne’s residential school, he was recognized for his advocacy work on behalf of residential school survivors and for his courage in sharing his own journey of survival as an author, speaker and teacher. Some of the abuses reported at St. Anne’s residential school include students being shocked in a homemade electric chair and students being forced to eat their own vomit.
“We have a survivors group called Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin,” Metatawabin says, noting that means Peetabeck Back to Healing. “We formed that group in 1992 to talk about residential school, not so much compensation — that was never discussed among our discussions. It was more a recovery, a reclamation of things lost, because we were looking at our children and grandchildren being uninformed about the simple rules of behaviour.”
Metatawabin says the residential school process resulted in children who were “terrified” with no knowledge of their background, minimal use of their language and no ceremonial activity.
“Everything is stripped away, so all you have is an empty individual,” Metatawabin says. “And tragically, you saw (them) downtown or wherever staggering down the road. That was the empty individual.”
Metatawabin says it will likely take about 100 years for First Nations people to recover from the abuses and loss of language, culture and identity they suffered through during the 100-plus years that residential schools were operated across the country.
“It’s going to be 100 years trying to recover from this effect because it was so ingrained in our grandfathers, our own fathers and us ourselves,” Metatawabin says. “Even the ones who were too old to go into residential school in the 1800s were being forced to obey certain rules of behaviour, not to do their ceremonies and to hide their pipes and to hide their bundles.”
Metatawabin says people have been congratulating him about his appointment as a Member of the Order of Canada since it was announced.
“People just stop and say congratulations,” Metatawabin says. “On their part, it is something very significant, and for me also, I am very grateful that they recognize this because they know what we have gone through. Maybe in their time they said we were barking up the wrong tree, but in the end it seems like: ‘Hey, it was the right thing to do after all.’ We’re getting recognition.”
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler also congratulated Metatawabin for his appointment as a Member of the Order of Canada on behalf of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation Executive Council.
“Edmund is a strong advocate for survivors and has worked for years to uncover the abuse that took place at St. Anne’s,” Fiddler says. “Edmund has been monumental in ensuring that the federal government can no longer hide the shocking truth behind this terrible chapter in Canadian history. His refusal to be silent at a time when the horrors of the Indian residential school system were not widely acknowledged took tremendous courage. Edmund is an inspiring leader and we honour his dedication to helping the survivors of St. Anne’s residential school on their path to healing.”
The Order of Canada recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation and is one of Canada’s highest civilian honours. About 7,000 people from all sectors of society have been invested into the Order of Canada since it was created in 1967.