By Andrea Woo – Vancouver
More than 60 years later, Amy George still vividly remembers the snap of the long, black strap hitting her little hands, the pain, and the resulting welts that would render her incapable of gripping a pen, or the chains of a swing set.
But the abuse she endured at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver went far beyond the physical: For nine years, starting when she was six, she was taught by nuns to hate herself from the inside out, she says, to be ashamed of who she was.
“I was taught the worst thing in the world was to be an Indian,” Ms. George told a crowd of thousands on the opening day of the national Truth and Reconciliation event in Vancouver on Wednesday. “[They would say,] ‘You’re so hard to teach because you’re so dumb.’ And that stayed with me for the rest of my life.”
This week’s four-day event, put on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is the sixth of seven mandated under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between former residential school students, first nations groups and the government of Canada.
The commission, established in 2007 as an independent body to inform all Canadians about what happened in more than 120 years of residential schools in Canada, is expected to deliver a full report by 2014.
Each of the national events has been designated a theme under the first nations’ seven sacred teachings; it was fitting for Ms. George, now a frank, 72-year-old Tsleil-Waututh elder, to speak at the one fashioned in the theme of honesty.
In an interview afterward, Ms. George said it is her hope that reopening these wounds and sharing such stories will help the public better understand the struggles of the first nations.
“A lot of our people suffer from addictions,” said Ms. George, who herself has struggled with drugs and alcohol. “The general population has no idea. They just say we’re a bunch of lazy, good for nothing people. We are a people coming out of oppression and genocide. Those schools were built so that we would die.”