THUNDER BAY - For three years, Lester Bouchard attended the St. Joseph Mission Residential School on Franklin Street in Fort William. Only five-years-old when he first arrived, years later Bouchard was unable to talk about his experiences, but as more people begin to talk, the easier it is to move toward healing.
“I more or less kept it to myself, but now I talk to certain people on a one-on-one basis and it helps,” he said. “I was angry all my life until I started talking about it.”
Bouchard was one of several residential school survivors to participate in the Walk for Reconciliation held during Orange Shirt Day on Saturday. Hundreds of people walked from Paterson Park to the former site of the St. Joseph Residential School on what is now the Pope John Paul II Catholic School property where a monument was unveiled commemorating survivors of the residential school system.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief, Anna Betty Achneepineskum, said the day is meant to commemorate the legacy of residential schools while also celebrating the resilience of Indigenous people.
“This is about bringing awareness about residential schools,” she said. “We are on the ground where there was a residential school. We need to talk about it because it is a very true and horrific part of Canada’s history and we need to understand how this legacy has affected our people and it continues to affect our people.”
During the walk, everyone wore orange shirts in honour of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, who wore an orange shirt given to her by her grandmother to residential school, which was taken away from her when she was six-years-old.
“As she continued on in her life, she made it her life’s mission to talk about what that represented, about what was taken away from her,” Achneepineskum said.
More than 5,000 NAN members attended residential schools and there are six cases of Indigenous children dying while attending St. Joseph, with 16 more children unaccounted for.
Several residential school survivors shared stories of the mental, physical, and spiritual abuse they endured, which has had a lasting effect on many, including Bouchard.
“Even when I talk to my wife, I cannot complete my sentence sometimes because I break down,” he said. “I went through a lot of abuse when I was there. And I witnessed a lot of awful things that happened.”
But Bouchard said participating in events like Orange Shirt Day not only help him move towards healing, but also allows him to learn about what others experienced, while also teaching the younger generation of what happened.
“It means lots to me,” he said. “You learn lots and all the little people, it’s good to see them. There should be a lot more. I enjoyed this walk. I made the walk.”
According to Achneepineskum, it is only recently that discussions about what happened in the residential school system are being talked about openly, which is very different from only 20 years ago.
“We didn’t have events, walks to raise awareness about this,” she said. “And I believe that as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we need to bring these to the surface because we need to start healing.”
As difficult and emotional as it can be, learning about the experiences of those who survived, while also remembering those who did not, is the first step toward healing, and it all starts with talking.
“I learned lots coming here,” Bouchard said. “The more I go to demonstrations, the more I hear people talk, I’m not the only one who suffered. Instead of hiding it in yourself, it’s good to hear people talking about it.”