BU Winnipeg campus goes orange for residential school awareness

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Brandon University’s Winnipeg campus recently welcomed Elder Betty Ross for a smudge, prayers and a celebration of Orange Shirt Day.

Elder Ross visited the Department of Psychiatric Nursing, in the Faculty of Health Studies at BU’s Winnipeg campus on Sept. 30. She was assisted by Dee Thomas.

Assistant Professor Debra Dusome presented Elder Ross with a gift of tobacco and asked her to smudge the Truth and Reconciliation posters and to assist the campus in moving towards reconciliation, recognizing that Indigenous students matter and that all students matter. She also asked for assistance in making Brandon University’s Winnipeg campus a culturally safe space for all students, staff and faculty.

The ceremonies were attended by fourth-year students Janaya Rieger, Christine Boss, Danielle Spear and Jaymie Bowers as well as a number of second- and third-year students. Staff and faculty members in attendance for the events included Joy Henault, Andrea Thomson, Jane Karpa, Melanie Gessell, Betty Wedgewood, Debra Dusome and Dean of Health Studies John Moraros.

Elder Ross offered up her prayers in Cree and then explained her prayers in English offering teachings of the importance of the four directions and the cycles of life for all of us here on the planet. As part of the ceremony, students and faculty read the seven commitments on Education from the Truth and Reconciliation poster.

Following the smudging of the posters, Elder Ross shared her experiences of residential school. She had a rough start in life. From Cross Lake First Nation, she was abandoned by her mother, and survived by sleeping in outhouses and under overturned canoes. She was found by a man that she calls ‘papa,’ who said to his wife in Cree that they would take her into their own home and would raise her as their daughter. He spent the next two years teaching Elder Ross about her language and culture. One place he took her to was Sugar Falls, where he worked to prepare her for the hard life that she was going to experience soon.

Elder Ross attended two residential schools from ages 5 to 21 years old, where she says she learned nothing of value and life was very tough. The first school she attended was St. Joseph’s Residential School and then as she got older she was transferred to Assiniboine Residential School. She recalls being punished (including being slapped, pushed to the floor and kicked) for not learning quickly enough and for speaking her native Cree language. Her head was often banged against the walls and Elder Ross lost her hearing in her left ear as a result. When she left the residential school at 21 years of age, she didn’t know what to do and struggled for many years. Elder Ross got married and had four children but she did not know how to parent and those early years were very hard. Now she is proud to say, she has many grandsons and granddaughters. She worked for several years with the W.R.H.A. in Indigenous Health Services.

Elder Ross’ residential school story is shared in a simple graphic novel called Sugar Falls, written by David Alexander. The story illustrates the impact residential schools had on Indigenous children and their families. The characters are easy to connect with, making the plight they faced, all the more real. The first printing sold out and a second printing is now in process. The second printing will be a colored version of the book. Elder Ross was proud to show us a copy of the book. Proceeds from the book go to the Helen Betty Osborne Memorial Foundation to support their bursary program.

When Elder Ross was preparing to share her story with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she was struggling with how to do it. It was the wisdom of her grandson, who simply stated “Grandma you have to start at the beginning,” She says she learns a great deal from her grandchildren. Elder Ross then went on to tell the group that she had to forgive herself first and after that she was able to forgive the nuns, brothers and priests, who had abused her. Forgiveness was how she was able to let go of the past and not let the past define her whole life. She emphasized that ‘Truth’ must come first and then “Reconciliation.”

Jaymie Bowers and her mom made delicious bannock that we spread with homemade jams. There was also a fruit tray, tea and coffee that was shared as people listened to Elder Ross’ story. Elder Ross and Dee Thomas asked that students and faculty brainstorm for ideas on the three health recommendations on the Truth and Reconciliation posters that pertain to post-secondary education and institutions. Students and faculty are adding to these lists and they will be shared with Elder Ross, and Thomas, as well as with Dr. John Moraros.

All too soon Elder Ross and Thomas had to leave to attend a Round Dance at Portage and Main to acknowledge Orange Shirt Day. The road to Truth and Reconciliation is a long and arduous one but on this day, Brandon University’s Winnipeg campus took a significant step in the right direction.


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