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Public speaker and filmmaker Alexus Young at the Forks in Winnipeg. Photo by David Lipnowski

Restoring connections

The damage caused by residential schools echoes through the generations. But sharing stories of the hurt is bringing young and old together in Winnipeg.

By Samantha Rideout

The story of the Canadian residential school system is partly about a broken link between generations. Parents were forced to give up their kids, and children were forced to live without their parents’ love and teachings. According to many of the survivors, the lost connection between successive generations is where a lot of the damage has come from. “My father told me how quiet and sad it was in the town without the sound of children playing,” recalled one woman earlier this week in Winnipeg at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first national event.

For this reason, I’ve been touched to see the extent to which younger and older people have been mingling at the gathering. A survivor who rose to speak yesterday specifically asked for a young person’s hand to hold, “for strength and energy.” The young man who made the TRC’s medicine box proudly introduced the elder who coached him on its construction. And at the Métis jamboree, everyone from teenagers to elders danced the jig together.

The generations that survived the residential schools are the ones that have received the most attention and honour at the TRC event, and rightfully so. They are the ones who withstood a childhood in “those strange, cold institutions,” as one survivor put it.

But the story doesn’t stop with them. The web of people who are indirectly affected by the residential school system stretches far and wide, and it includes a lot of people who weren’t even born yet when the schools closed.

Yesterday I met Alexus Young, a public speaker and filmmaker who was molested and raped as a child by an Aboriginal man in his community. “In 2003, I went back to my hometown and inquired about the person in question,” he said. “Because I wanted to know why — why did I have to endure that?”

He learned that his abuser had been abused himself at a residential school. “The elders found out about it one night after this man had been drinking,” he said. “It was in his drunken stupor that the truth came out.”

Young feels that it’s his life’s mission to speak to young people about violence, alcohol abuse and other issues that could affect their lives. Most of the young adults he knows were not dramatically abused like him, but they still struggle with the general social and famil
ial disarray caused by the residential schools. “We have to remember that there are a lot of young people suffering right now.”

The damage from the residential schools will not pass away along with the survivors someday; newer generations have already inherited it. But the intergenerational sharing that has happened this week provides hope that today’s youth will also inherit a rich culture and a sense of purpose. Young certainly has. “In my work, I’m following the Creator’s plan for me,” he said.

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