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A Mixed Blessing, Part 1: Stories by Intergenerational Residential School Survivors

Ben Powless is a 26-year-old activist and photojournalist. A Mohawk and Ojibwe, he has traveled to more than 28 countries: Mexico to study sustainable rural development, Italy for sessions on world food security in Rome, even the center of a massacre in Bagua, Peru. He believes in what he does.

Perhaps it’s because Powless understands firsthand the notion of a world having been turned upside down. He is an intergenerational residential school survivor—the son and grandson of people who lost their own childhood by being forced into a disastrous education system. These schools were places where many children faced sexual and physical abuse, and families were torn apart, leaving a generation suffering to this day.

Over the next several days you will meet Ben as well as Gloria Ranger and Amy Bombay, two other descendants of residential school survivors, as they tell their intergenerational stories of pain, loss, resiliency and healing. Below, we introduce Ben. 

The Early Days

Not unlike today, Toronto in the 1970s was a place of refuge for many First Nations people looking to escape reserve life. Among those refugees were Rose Moses, from Parry Island First Nation in Ontario, and Richard Powless from Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Ontario. The two hit it off, married in 1985, and were soon expecting.

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That child, Ben Powless, was born on April 30, 1986. The young family bounced around before settling in the nation's capital when Ben was still an infant.

I was raised in Ottawa, which is rare. I mean nobody is ever from Ottawa,” Powless says with a chuckle.

With a slender build and long black hair typically pulled back in a ponytail or braid, Powless is soft-spoken and careful with his words. Raised in Ottawa by his parents, he found his upbringing to be far from easy. The same can be said for his parents and their upbringing.

Powless comes from a family of Indian residential school survivors. Ripped from their parents, the grandparents from his mother’s and father's side attended residential schools. There they experienced horrific abuse that’s still felt today. Ben's family has since struggled with substance abuse, suicide and dysfunction.

Next: ‘Killing the Indian in the Child’