The Residential School intergenerational workshops hosted by Equay-wuk over the past two months are being lauded a success by organizers and participants alike, even as funding for the one-year program gets set to expire and the future of the workshops remains in doubt.
Equay-wuk’s Residential School workshops brought grandmothers and youth together for two sessions, one in February and one in March. The events were an opportunity for elders to share their stories and experiences from Residential School with youth, while also getting information on settlement payments for the Residential School experience.
Elder Juliette Blackhawk of Sioux Lookout participated in both workshops. Blackhawk said that the events were essential in getting youth to understand what went on in the Residential Schools.
“They have to hear all these stories in order to really believe what happened in the past, and to really care about their elders,” Blackhawk said.
Blackhawk was one of the elders who attended the workshops from all over northern Ontario. For some of them, it was their first chance to share some of the trauma that they suffered in Residential Schools and have been holding ever since.
Hana Beitl, the Kookum project coordinator for Equay-wuk, said the event was moving on many levels, especially in the sharing of the elder’s stories.
“It was unpredictable in a sense,” Beitl said. “We were dealing with Residential School survivors who had never disclosed their stories before, and some who were reconnecting with classmates that they had not seen in over 50 years. It was very powerful.”
Besides the sharing of stories, everyone agreed that the chance to have youth involved and learning about the past was essential for First Nations as a whole to heal from the Residential School trauma.
“It is so important for youth to have role models who are also kookums, and for the kookums to share the stories that are slowly disappearing,” Darlene Angeconeb of Equay-wuk said. “These kind of things ensure that the knowledge is not being lost.”
The Residential School program was funded as a pilot project in 2011. It is not known if the funding will be extended for another year, something all of the organizers believe would be extremely valuable for the people of northern Ontario.
Part of the importance of gatherings like these is the education of survivors about the Residential School settlement agreements, since applications for the settlements are closing at the end of 2012. The organizers of the workshops said that many survivors across the North are unaware of the requirements and the process for the settlements.
Another benefit was the education of non-native participants. The Sioux Lookout workshops featured participants of Katimavik, a national student volunteer organization, who had very little understanding of what went on at Residential Schools or the effect the schools had on First Nations.
Beitl said the Katimavik youth were shocked by what they learned at the workshops.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently came up with recommendations for what needs to happen for Residential School educations, and many of them we are already doing,” Beitl said, noting the education of non-native people about the schools.
The organizers are now looking for funding to extend the program, hopefully enabling them to bring workshops like the two in Sioux Lookout to communities around northern Ontario.
That vision is something Blackhawk fully supports.
“It would be really good if that kept up,” Blackhawk said. “I’m really looking forward to healthy youth coming out of these kinds of workshops.”
Meanwhile Angeconeb said she would like to bring survivors from the North to the last national Residential School event in Saskatoon this summer. She is currently looking for funding to do so.
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