When the boy became a man, he carried with him his past. Troubled. Painful. A heavy burden he could not put down even though it did not sit comfortably on his back.
As time moved on, and the burden grew heavier, he searched for ways to soothe the memories that would not lay quietly in the past.
He drank. He gambled. He took illegal drugs.
And still the memories haunted him.
He was a little boy. The day was sunny. The skies clear. A truck arrives. There are children sitting on the benches lining its flatbread. Some are crying. Some are laughing. Some are silent.
There is a man in a uniform. He clenches a piece of paper in a tight fist and reaches out with the other to grab his hand. His mother pulls him back. She is crying.
He’s never seen her cry. Never heard her yell.
The man in the uniform is stronger. Louder. By now, the boy is crying too.
His tears and his mother’s anguished cries cannot change the course of history.
He is bundled up into the back of the truck, thrust between two older boys as the truck pulls away from the only home he’d ever known.
When I meet the boy who is now the man, he is a client at the homeless shelter where I worked.
He is in his 50s. A big man. Good looking with dark, laughing eyes, high cheekbones, a barrel chest. Strong looking. He wears a white cowboy hat. His legs are bowed from years of riding a horse.
“I had a ranch,” he tells me. “Me and my boys worked the land.”
The memories worked him harder until he could no longer carry their burden and fell beneath the weight of the bottle that never left his side.
“I want them back,” he says. “Not the memories. My boys.”
He tells his story in front of a class of 11 other men living at the shelter. They are all taking a course to gain their certificates to work on industrial jobsites and in the oil patch. Part of the month long course includes a segment on self-awareness which I volunteer to teach once a week.
One of the questions I ask in the course is for each person to name someone they admire. They can be a historical or fictional person. Someone they know. Someone they’ve read about in the news. A friend. A family member.
The boy who became the man answers, “My grandfather.”
What is it about your grandfather you admire most? I ask.
“He was a proud man. A good example. He had a loud laugh that rose up from his belly and made it giggle like a bowl full of jello.”
It is when he says the word, ‘jello’, that I see the flicker of memory cross his face. It is as fleeting as a streak of sunlight in a heavily clouded sky.
His mother fed him jello when he had his tonsils out as a boy. Before the man in the uniform came and tore him away from her arms.
There was no jello at the Residential School. No laughter. No bellyful of anything but hunger and fear.
He is working hard to be a better man, this boy who is now the man. He is working hard to build a path back to his boys.
“I want to be a man they can be proud of,” he says. And then he adds, proudly. “I’ve been sober three months.”
It is not easy claiming and holding on to sobriety in a homeless shelter. Chaos. Despair. Depression. Addiction. Overdoses. Suicide. They are everywhere. They permeate the air like mist from a waterfall, clouding minds and dampening spirits.
He was determined to beat the odds. To find his way back home. To reunite with his boys. His mother had died while he was still at the school. “Her heart was broken. She lost all six of her kids to that place. I was the last to go. She never saw any of us again.”
He wanted to be sober so he could see his boys again before he died. He never got the chance.
Three months after the course ended, he was felled by a heart attack and his life was gone.
And still, these many years later, I remember him. The boy who became a man who lost his way beneath the weight of the shame of a past he could never forget. It was not his shame. It belonged to those who gave a boy memories he should never have had to carry.
He never made it back to his boys.. But in those final months of his life, he was the kind of man he always wanted to be. A man his sons would be proud of.
I share this story today in honour of all the boys who became men and all the girls who became women and carried with them the scars of Residential School.
I share it to honour the mothers and fathers who lost their children, never to see them again.
And I share it to remind us all that our silence, inaction, denial, blindness… they are all contributors to the trauma and racism, the denial of rights, the dismantling of culture and family structures experienced by Indigenous peoples.
We do not need Indigenous peoples to tell us again and again what happened. We must stop retraumatizing the victims by expecting them to teach us what ‘went wrong’.
We know what went wrong. We did.
We must now set things right by telling our government and leaders to do the right things. We must demand changes to government legislation, policy and practices so the unalienable rights of Indigenous peoples to self-government, according to their own laws and traditions, are recognized and implemented.
Flags are lowered. We must raise our voices. Now.