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Remembering and healing from Fort George residential schools

This year’s Residential School Gathering took place in Chisasibi from September 1-3, 2016, with a packed three day program of talks, workshops, ceremonies and social activities. Residential school survivors bore witness to their experience going through the system and how it affected them and the next generations. There were many activities to promote healing and reflection, including fanning, cedar cleansing, reflexology, and massage.

On the evening of August 31, a welcoming ceremony and lighting of the sacred fire were held at at the Mitchuap to greet the participants, many of whom had traveled long distances by car or by plane to be present at this emotional reunion. On September 1, the organizers led an expedition to Fort George Island where two residential schools were located in the past, St. Philip's and St. Thérèse. Hundreds of Eeyou children attended these schools from 1939 to 1979.

On Fort George, survivors, members of their families, elders and facilitators gathered first on the old site of St. Philip's Residential School, where a fire ceremony was held, presided over by former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash. Participants placed tobacco offerings in the fire in order to release the pain that came from the residential school experience. They then took a meditation walk from the site of St. Phillip's Residential School to the site of St. Therese de l'Enfant Jesus Residential School. There, they were asked to reflect on their lives and determine the direction they wished to take going forward in the future. At the conclusion of the walk, they formed a sharing circle where some talked about this difficult period in the history of the Eeyou and Eenou people. Guest facilitators Dennis Windego, Suzanne Goodleaf, Wanda Gabriel and Jimmy George addressed the audience about the road to healing for indigenous communities after the trauma they experienced through residential schools.

On September 2-3, the Gathering continued in the Mitchuap with many activities and workshops led by indigenous facilitators. Presentations about self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder, vicarious trauma and other relevant topics were given during these two days. Near the Mitchuap fireplace, Elder Jimmy Jones had a stand presenting traditional medicinal plants, and organizers created an exhibition of old photos from the residential school days.

On the last day (September 3), author Edmund Metawabin signed free copies of his book "Up Ghost River" and Elder Jimmy George explained and answered questions about traditional ceremonies.

The annual Residential School Gathering is an important occasion for survivors and the communities of Eeyou Istchee to come to grips with a traumatic past and find ways together to heal and move forward into the future. When people who went through the system unveil the hardships they went through, it makes it easier for the young Eeyou/Eenou generations to understand certain issues their parents and grandparents have been dealing with through their lifetime. Sharing, listening, reconnecting with Cree traditions and healing together is what the annual Residential School Gathering is about. The next Gathering is already being planned for the summer of 2017.

This event was sponsored by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, the Cree Nation of Chisasisbi and Health Canada.


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