By Stuart Benson
Elder Claudette Commanda remembers intensely the abuse and ridicule she suffered while attending Congo Bridge Indian Day School in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg.
Commanda, an Algonquin from the First Nations reserve near Maniwaki, is a member of the McLean Day School Settlement Corporation, which will administer a $200-million legacy fund, created after the federal government settled a $1.47-billion class action lawsuit from thousands of former day school students. The legacy fund will be used to support community-based projects to support healing, commemoration, education, language, and culture.
Since day schools and residential schools were run separately, day schools were left out of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission mandated by the agreement. Over 600 days schools operated across the country from 1863 to 2000; more than 60 day schools operated in the province of Quebec.
"There was still abuse that went on at the day schools, too," Commanda said, explaining that, while the mechanism was different, schools were still very much a part of the federal government's assimilation policy.
The schools were located on reserves, though still run by the federal government, who hired members of the Catholic clergy or other non-Indigenous people as instructors.
"The objective was to 'beat the Indian out of you' and assimilate you," Commanda added, paraphrasing the oft-quoted description of the country's Indian Residential School program: ‘Kill the Indian in the child.’ "[The federal government] hired the teachers; our people were not the teachers."
While Commanda only attended Congo Bridge for Grades 1 and 2, she remembers intensely the abuse she suffered and the white teacher who inflicted it upon her each day.
"She was a wicked, mean, evil woman," Commanda said, recalling daily beatings and ridicule, until her great-grandfather went down to the school and "put his foot down.”
"But I also saw what she did to other children who didn't have someone to stand up for them," she added.
Commanda said that children with darker skin or with disabilities were the targets of exceptional cruelty, while students with lighter skin – especially those with white mothers – were shown preferential treatment.
"She had her favourites too," Commanda said. "She would encourage those few favourites to pull us down."
"You either break a child or you make a child, so if you do harm to a child, they will always carry that with them," Commanda said. "You constantly live with fear, doubt, and shame no matter how strong of a person you've become in your lifetime."
Bringing memories to the surface
Commanda, who was one of the original plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit in 2017, now helps other survivors fill out their claims to the settlement, and said that, as survivors begin to tell their story, more and more memories are brought to the surface.
Even though she has told her story numerous times – during the affidavit for the lawsuit and to numerous reporters after the settlement was announced – Commanda still can’t bring herself to fill out her own claim.
"For two weeks after I told my story, I just felt raw," Commanda said, recalling both the legal proceedings and media interviews. "I didn't like that feeling and I decided I wasn't going to dwell on it."
While she has not filed her own claim as a victim of abuse while attending Congo Bridge, she has begun working on claims for both her younger brothers and mother, who have all since passed away.
“When I'm helping survivors to fill out their applications, that helps me, but I'm not ready yet to fill out mine," Commanda said, explaining that she isn't ready to "rip the Band-Aid off." "I know I will do it someday, but just not right now."
‘Canada must accept its truth’
As of Sept. 8, over 1,500 graves have been identified between seven schools. This is out of a total of 139 federally-run residential schools, with many schools currently being searched for remains.
For Commanda, until those searches are completed and the truth is known about Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, both past and present, “reconciliation” cannot begin.
“My hope is that Canadians take the time to hear our truths," Commanda said. "It's time for our voices to be heard and time Canadians hear the true history of Canada."
“Canada became a country on the blood of First Nations people, and it stands on the graves of First Nations children that were killed by the state," Commanda added. "Canada has to accept its truth."