I have trouble crying in front of people. I tend to force myself to stop should a rogue tear escape down my cheek, brush it away and immediately try to laugh about something.
Yesterday I couldn’t do that.
Yesterday I was biting the inside of my gums, biting my tongue trying to stop myself from crying.
I didn’t succeed.
As part of the Stories North journalism course I’m taking in the Yukon, we took part in a residential school awareness session. I went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when it came through Vancouver in the fall of 2014, so I thought I was somewhat prepared. There I heard some of the testimonies of residential school survivors. I heard elderly men break down sharing stories of their abuse, social workers and supportive friends by their sides with boxes of tissues and comforting arms wrapped around the person at the microphone. But it was set up in the big concert venue in the city, so it was hard for me to connect.
It was sad, but it was also distant. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t have to stop myself from crying either. I felt heavy and upset, but I couldn’t see the faces of the people speaking so it was easier to distance myself from it.
There was no way I could distance myself today, and I’m very thankful for that. I sat just metres away from the incredible women who shared their stories with us; I could make out all the details of their faces.
When Joanne Henry stood up to talk to us, she was already crying. She explained to us that each day is different; some days she can do these talks easier than others, some days she can’t do them at all.
Yesterday she could tell us.
Joanne was bounced around residential schools in the Yukon. She was just five years old her first year at the school. The first day of year two, she made a friend. She told Joanne to come sit beside her on the first day, told her she would protect her and look out for her. Joanne told us this girl became a lifelong friend, but her life was cut too short.
Joanne shared with us some of the story of her abuse. Joanne’s story is not my story to tell, and I recognize that. But it’s important you understand some of what I heard yesterday, to understand my reaction to the conclusion of the session.
“Don’t let my words go to waste,” Joanne told us towards the end of her story. I heard it as a call to action. Lots of us made promises – both verbal and mental – that we wouldn’t let her story sit in that classroom of the college, forgotten.
“I open up my wounds so that you will understand,” she told us.
I had never thought of it like that before. I’ve heard lots about retraumatizing survivors, but that was abstract and inaccessible for me. Joanne was right in front of me, sharing for the nth time what she went through as a child, so that we would understand the history better, understand the present better.
It is so important to have the strength of people like Joanne, and the two other speakers yesterday. I struggle with how to help people understand the legacy of residential schools and the impacts they still have today. Survivors like Joanne live what happened to them every day. Their kids live with it as well, their parents fractured from their culture and transplanted someplace else without a map. Residential schools aren’t just something of the past, something we can flip through in the pages of history textbooks. Their effects carry through to today, and I saw that in Joanne.
This is why they can’t just get over it, like they’re so often told to.
At the end of the session, we all got the chance to share how we felt. A “check in” they called it, to see how we were feeling and make sure we were okay. I can’t remember exactly but I think this was the moment that finally broke my wall and biting the inside of my lip was no longer enough to keep the tears at bay.
These three women had gotten up and shared stories of trauma and abuse with strangers. They opened their wounds, exposed them to us so we would have a better understanding. Then they went around to make sure we were okay, the rest of us, like we were the ones who had been through it. Because even just hearing it hurts.
These women showed me strength and compassion like I haven’t seen before. There they were, still fighting with the demons that were forced upon them at such a young age. They shared them with us, and then felt like they should check in just to make sure we were okay having heard it.
That was why I cried. After all they’ve been through, all they’re going through, it was still so important to them that the rest of us were okay.
That is strength.
There’s a spot by the college we’re staying at where I’ve been going to process my thoughts. It’s a little pond made by some beavers that swim around in the evenings. I sometimes go there to watch the sunset – around 11 p.m. – feel the breeze and think. Today I was antsy, picked up a stick and began flattening out the sand. This was what came of it, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from one of the most influential people I’ve met so far on this trip.
It’s a call to action. Joanne Henry’s words were a gift to us, one that we need to use wisely.