Cree residential school survivor Don Tourangeau, centre, at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Richmond, B.C., with pastor Fr. Pierre Ducharme and friend and parishioner Rhonda Caris. About 250 people listened to Tourangeau share his story as a residential school survivor. Photo courtesy St. Joseph the Worker Parish

From pain to forgiveness: A residential school survivor shares his story

By  Agnieszka Ruck, Canadian Catholic News
  • October 16, 2021

VANCOUVER -- Rousing applause sounded as Cree elder Don Tourangeau embraced Fr. Pierre Ducharme at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Richmond, B.C., on Canada’s first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

About 250 people witnessed the gesture while gathered to hear Tourangeau describe his experience of attending Holy Angels Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Alta.

“I was always trying to figure out a way to leave, to run, to go home, to find a way out,” Tourangeau told the crowd Sept. 30.

He described being picked up and brought to the school in a police wagon at age seven or eight the way dog catchers would pick up strays: by chasing them and locking them up.

“I was very, very, scared. I wanted to go back home.”

Tourangeau’s culture valued long hair and he grew it long even as a child. Having it cut short is one of his first memories after he entered the school.

“I never felt so stripped,” he said. “I felt like something that was in me was taken away from me.”

While attending residential school he suffered physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual abuse. He described having his feet beaten as punishment for trying to run away and having his questions about his parents answered with lies that they had given him away. At night he heard the cries of children, and during an escape attempt, he discovered graves in nearby woods. He feared the people in “black robes.”

“It was the worst place on Earth.”

After more than three years in residential school, Tourangeau was sent to Edmonton and made a ward of the government. By his 18th birthday, he had lived in 16 foster homes.

“Most of the foster homes I was in, I was either beaten for something I didn’t do or accused of something I didn’t do. ... Everything was still the same as the way it was in residential school. The only difference was there were fewer people, fewer kids.”

By age 16, Tourangeau was a “full-blown” drug and alcohol addict and had a reputation for running away. One day, a friend with whom he’d planned an escape was found dead, having committed suicide not far from the foster home they were living in. Tourangeau attempted suicide several times.

“I had a lot of fear. I had a lot of anger. There were times … I wanted to be dead,” he said. “In my mind, I had planned to go back and, everybody that harmed me, I would punish them.”

Turning to the hundreds of people listening to him speak, he said, “if it was back in the day, I would blame everything on you. I would hate all of you for what happened to me from day one.”

But Tourangeau said he is “free” today, thanks in part to his culture.

“There are times I go through pain, but I try to … deal with that pain I have. Forgiveness is a good thing.”

This year, areas identified as possible unmarked graves in Kamloops gave him hope. They “opened the doors of the residential schools,” he said. “The truth is starting to come out.”

In June, First Nations leaders in Fort Chipewyan told Fort McMurray Today they would begin a search for unmarked graves in the area of Holy Angels Residential School. Founded in 1874, the school closed in 1974 and has been torn down. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has a listing of the names of nearly 100 Holy Angels students who never returned home.

Ducharme told Tourangeau the recounting of his childhood deeply moved him.

“As I was listening, I was thinking I’m at least three for three in this story. First of all, I’m Canadian … a Canadian from European roots. I’m a baptized Catholic, a cradle Catholic my whole life … and I’m a Catholic priest. Three institutions that abused you psychologically, physically, emotionally, spiritually, culturally,” he said.

“I don’t consider myself someone who can take full responsibility for everybody else and for others’ actions and for a whole history of colonialism, but at the same time, I benefitted from all that. I benefitted from all those institutions that hurt you. The life I have today is a good life because of all of those institutions that hurt you. And I’m sorry.”

He thanked Tourangeau for taking the “bold step” of sharing his story publicly and expressed hope that they could collaborate on social projects in the future.

Tourangeau responded with an embrace and these words: “I accept your apology on behalf of my reserve in Fort Chip and I thank you, not as a priest, but as a human being. Back when this happened to me, you weren’t there. I don’t blame you.”

He gave Ducharme a staff decorated with wolf’s fur and a dream catcher, then held a smudging ceremony, inviting all those present to join and smudge themselves one by one.

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