Residential school survivor helps other former students, families reconnect to culture

By | September 30, 2020

One residential school survivor continues her own healing journey by helping other former students reconnect to their language and ceremonies.

“It makes me feel proud of being Anishinaabe. It makes me feel like I’m doing something to help at least one person,” said Martina Fisher.

Fisher, Anishinaabekwe from Bloodvein First Nation, went to the Assiniboia Indian Residential School in Winnipeg from 1969 to 1972.

“Many people that went to residential school lost their language because they were hit when they tried to speak their language,” said Fisher.

“People in those times began to dislike themselves, to dislike who they were as Anishinaabe. Now it’s time that they reconnect to their language, reconnect to their spirit and way of life.”

Fisher said she didn’t go back to her ceremonies and culture until she was in her late 30s.

For the last nine years, she has worked as a cultural advisor at Wa-Say Healing Centre, an organization in downtown Winnipeg that works with residential school survivors.

“Before that I was always living in fear of god. Once I reconnected, then I was proud of who I was as Anishinaabe,” she said.

Working with families

At Wa-Say Healing Centre, the organization has a ceremony room to help connect residential school survivors to their culture. 

Fisher said they help people heal by relearning their language, introducing them to the traditional ways, “just reintroducing them to be proud of who they are. To learn again what Anishinaabe is, and start healing from there.”

She said that for a lot of former students that she works with, just talking about the schools can reopen wounds, making them fresh again. Part of her job is doing trauma and grief workshops, and working with families who have gone through the effects of residential schools.

She said it took a long time for her to figure out why her parents raised her the way that she was raised, and that it also had an effect on her own parenting.

“I’m still paying for it because my children are having a hard time dealing with the emotional part of the way they were brought up,” she said.

“That’s why a lot of grandparents today say we have a better chance of bonding and teaching our grandchildren and great-grandchildren than we did with our own children, because now we realize that they need a lot more nurturing and love and care that the children in the Indian Residential Schools did not receive; they did not have that love that they deserved.”

She said it’s important that others are educated to understand the results of “colonization, trauma, genocide, you name it.”

Change of plans for Orange Shirt Day

Over the past several years, Wa-Say Healing Centre has organized large community events in Winnipeg to mark Orange Shirt Day on Sept. 30. 

Orange Shirt Day is meant to honour the thousands of Indigenous students who attended residential schools. It was started by residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who had her orange shirt taken away on her first day of residential school.

Wayne Mason is the executive director at Wa-Say Healing Centre. He attended federal day school as a child and said Orange Shirt Day is an opportunity to honour the students who went to both residential schools and day schools in Canada. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

This year Wa-Say has been forced to move the event online, after a 10-person gathering limit was introduced in Winnipeg on Monday.

“Plans have changed drastically since last Friday,” said Wa-Say’s executive director, Wayne Mason.

The new plan invites people to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Facebook page at 11 a.m. Wednesday for a live segment that will feature addresses from Manitoba’s grand chiefs, as well as elders and residential school survivors.

Mason, who attended day school in Fisher River and Peguis First Nation, said Orange Shirt Day is a day that can be used to honour both the students of residential schools and day schools.

The organization will provide bag lunches to homeless people after having to cancel its in-person event on Wednesday due to new gathering limits in Winnipeg. Mason said many people experiencing homelessness are family members of residential school survivors. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

Federal/Indian day schools operated separately from residential schools but were operated by many of the same groups that ran residential schools. Their operation spanned from the 1860s to the 1990s.

Mason said there will also be a pipe ceremony at the Manitoba legislative building at noon Wednesday. He is asking for all pipe carriers in Manitoba to join them by smoking their pipes at home at the same time.

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