Stephen Kakfwi delivers his keynote address at the symposium.
Now that the truth of residential schools has come out, it’s time to work together to educate every Canadian child about the history and culture of this country’s indigenous peoples, so that meaningful change can occur.
That was the message shared by Stephen Kakfwi, president of Canadians for a New Partnership, former premier of the Northwest Territories and a residential school survivor. Kakfwi delivered a keynote address at a symposium entitled Walking Together: Our Journey Begins, held May 30 at the River Cree Resort just outside of Edmonton.
Kakfwi said Canada needs deep and lasting change, the basis of which must be to educate its children about indigenous people.
“We have been brought here by ignorance, by indifference — by the Vatican, by the churches, by the governments of this country. Now that we know, we can fix it,” Kakfwi said.
During his talk, Kakfwi reminded the audience that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that issued its final report in December wasn’t formed through the benevolence of the government or churches. It resulted from a massive lawsuit orchestrated by residential school survivors, who insisted that one of the terms of the out-of-court settlement be an independent commission to collect and disseminate the truth.
The commission spent almost six years investigating the residential school system and its impacts on aboriginal people. Its reports document how, for more than 100 years, aboriginal children in Canada were taken from their families and placed in residential schools where they were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, with the purpose of aggressively assimilating aboriginal students.
With the commission’s work now concluded, Kakfwi said he’s sensing a change across the country. One sign of this change was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s December announcement that it’s time for a nation-to-nation relationship that respects the rights of indigenous people, Kakfwi said. He added that many provinces are also becoming engaged.
“This is new. The churches are trying to find ways to make amends, do things right,” he said.
He suggested that efforts to move forward should maintain two areas of focus.
“All the good work that we’re trying to do, we need to network and share that with people all across the country,” he said.
“We should also pay attention to the little details to make sure that everybody’s included.”
Kakfwi didn’t shy away from describing the horrors he experienced while attending an Inuvik residential school that operated from 1959 until the 1970s.
“Every year that place was open it had at least one pedophile on staff,” he said.
He said he was locked away in a storage room for hours, deprived of food.
“A pedophile used to go into the storage room and help himself to me while the nun slept,” he said.
“I thought that, as a nine-year-old, I was the only one that had been sexually abused. The truth of it was that there were so many more, all of us unable, too traumatized, too broken to speak of it.”
Even when he was a government minister and a premier, he didn’t feel he could talk about it.
“There was no place to be speaking about the horrors of what I went through, that surely somebody would stand up and say ‘and therefore you’re not fit to hold public office.’ So I said very little about it,” he said.
“With a bit of humour I’ll tell you, if you want to keep a secret, tell a residential school survivor. I was 50 years old before I finally told my wife about it.”
Former schoolmates used to repeatedly ask Kakfwi what he remembered.
“I said, ‘I remember I was a bad kid. I didn’t listen and so they spanked me,” he said. “Finally one day my wife said, ‘Getting whipped with a skipping rope is not a spanking.’”
Kakfwi said his default thinking was to colour and coat his experiences as if they were his fault, but slowly the truth dawned on him to the point that he could talk about it.
“I don’t know why I survived and others didn’t. Some of us committed suicide. Some of us are drinking ourselves to death,” he said. “Somewhere the Creator gave me the gift to get beyond it.”
Through all his experiences, Kakfwi says he’s always had hope that the country would change, and he’s feeling positive about what he’s now seeing.
“Things have changed so much in my lifetime and it is all the more reason why it is important that I get to the point of forgiveness so I can help.”
The Canadians for a New Partnership is a charity established to engage Canadians in dialogue on the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Over 5,000 people have committed to building a new partnership between First Peoples and others in Canada by signing the CFNP Declaration.