UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Spirit Story

Finding a common thread

By Robert Lawson

This is the first door we are going to reclaim as part of Opening the Doors to Dialogue,” Cayuga bead artist Samuel Thomas says, referring to his reconciliation project, which brings First Nations and settlers together to cover old residential school doors with beadwork.

We eye the door in front of us, which once formed part of the entrance to the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., Canada’s first residential school. We’re in that same building now, renamed the Woodland Cultural Centre.

“We will be embroidering 140 strawberries onto 10 panels,” Thomas continues, showing us a glistening strawberry he has already beaded. “When we are done, the panels will be set into this door, because there were 140 residential schools in Canada, and because the strawberry was a cleansing medicine for the Ohsweken people.” 

The room grows quiet as we struggle to follow Thomas’s instructions. My needle keeps coming up in the wrong place. More than once it pricks the flesh of my index finger, and blood seeps out. I wish I had brought a thimble.

Slowly, however, we get the hang of beading, and slowly, the 15 or so survivors of the Mohawk Institute who are present on this Saturday in January start to share their stories.

“I came here when I was five years old,” says the woman across from me, her voice hesitant. There is a long pause. We avert our gazes and look politely at our beadwork. “I don’t remember very much. My brother said I used to cry a lot, and that he used to have to come and babysit me.”

This is all it takes. The floodgates of memory burst open, and the stories emerge.

“Indian Affairs used to visit our parents, tell them there was a place where we could go where we would be warm, fed, clothed and looked after,” says one woman. “They were persistent. So when I was five years old, my parents took me and my brother and two sisters here. We watched our parents sign us away. There was no time to say goodbye. I can still hear the door slamming shut behind them.”

“We were locked into the dormitories at night,” says another woman, “but they used to come in and drag us out of bed. I used to pray that it would not be my sister.”

“They used religion as a wea-pon,” says a man. “In the place where they raped you, there was a sign on the wall saying, ‘God loves little children.’”

Listening to the stories of residential school survivors is hard, but it is what I do with these stories now that I think will be even harder. I had entered a place where old wounds were still raw, and where reconciliation would be more than simply saying sorry and being forgiven.

In the poem Dream 1: The Bush Garden from The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Margaret Atwood writes, “Around my feet / the strawberries were surging, huge / and shining / When I bent / to pick, my hands / came away red and wet.”

Reconciliation is very much like the strawberries we embroidered. To truly taste their sweetness and benefit from their cleansing properties, our hands will have to draw back from the shining dream, over and over again, red and wet, until we finally get it right.

Robert Lawson is a minister at Harmony United in Brantford, Ont.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

Outrage is the new normal

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


October 2017

Fall from grace

by Justin Dallaire

Don Hume was a United Church minister nearing retirement. Then he tried crack cocaine.


September 2017


by Jane Dawson

Restless longing is at the core of the human condition, urging us onward through life. What happens when it veers off course?


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


October 2017

A tale of two cancers

by Catherine Gordon

One year after the writer discovered she had breast cancer, her sister in California received the same diagnosis. They both recovered, but their experiences were worlds apart.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart

Promotional Image