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A Mixed Blessing, Part 5: Sharing Stories, and Coming Full Circle After Residential School

On Tuesday June 25 we introduced Ben Powless, whose family is riven with aftereffects of Canada’s residential schools system. This third installment of A Mixed Blessing: Stories by Intergenerational Residential School Survivors, chronicles the scars—both psychological and physical—left by the schools on subsequent generations. Part 1Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 give the beginning of the stories. 

Powless excelled at math and science in high school, eventually earning a university scholarship. But the death of his girlfriend from a rare liver condition just before his first year of college made him reconsider his options.

Within a month of her death in spring 2005, Powless took a study tour of Guatemala with Wilfred Laurier University. He was deeply moved by meeting victims of torture, former rebel fighters, and indigenous people who had survived massacres during the country’s decades-long civil war.

“Coming back to Canada, my perspective on everything was different,” he said.

Taking the advice of an Elder, Powless threw himself into exchange programs, furthering his education both in class and out. While attending university he became participated in panel discussions and other events.

He recalls one event in particular in late 2005 that was dedicated to Indian residential schools and intergenerational trauma. Like Gloria Ranger, Powless felt anger about the schools but attending the event lead to something of a breakthrough.

“I think everyone was in tears by the end of the night. Everyone who had these stories to share were impacted by all the other stories.”

Justice Murray Sinclair is Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, meant to raise awareness about residential schools and to provide former students with an audience to share their experiences. He says more people are becoming aware of the effects of intergenerational trauma. 

The fact that there was abuse in the schools has been an eye opening experience for the public,” Sinclair said. “It has been an eye opening experience for aboriginal people who did not go to a residential school.”

As Powless worked his way through university, he got increasingly involved in Ottawa’s activist scene. 

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“It started to give me a real sense of accomplishment, as well as a sense of community which I never really had,” he said.

But it wasn’t until he worked with the Indigenous Environmental Network, a nonprofit organization that aims to help Indigenous Peoples address environmental and economic justice issues, that his career, and his passion, really took off. A canceled flight in 2009 forced him to stay longer in Peru, a detour that became a life-changing experience. Ben found himself in the Amazon jungle, amid a massacre in Bagua. He had been snapping pictures since he was 15, and he used those skills to act as a photographer for an organization there, reconstructing the crisis through interviews, photos and by taking notes. He was deeply moved by this experience and began taking photojournalism seriously. But first he earned an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree from Carleton University in 2010.

The struggle for Ranger and many other intergenerational survivors is learning their mother tongue. Like many, Gloria’s mother Francine was told by residential school staff not to speak, let alone teach the Ojibwe language. Ben feels this loss too.

I've always resented the fact that I never knew the language,” he said.

Since its inception, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has attempted to address the issues facing intergenerational survivors. But Justice Sinclair believes that ultimately change will come from them and not the government or anyone else. 

“The best solutions to the legacy of residential schools are going to come from the families of survivors and communities where survivors reside,” Sinclair said. “In the long term, you cannot ask the person who has damaged you to fix you.”

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a historic formal apology to former residential school students and their families. (Related: Canada Marks Fifth Anniversary of Historic Residential School Apology)

For Powless, it wasn’t enough.

“None of them were alive to hear the apology,” he said, referring to his late grandmother and aunt. The events that took generations to unfold have left him with mixed feelings.

“There's no changing the past, but it's not easy to live with,” said Powless. “I had a more difficult childhood than most. But the residential school system gave me experiences that were really powerful. It taught me what is valuable in life and what I should be doing with it. It really is a mixed blessing.”