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Pope’s apology ‘a first step,’ says Indigenous poet and residential schools survivor

QUEBEC CITY—When six-year-old Marcel Petiquay was forced to attend a residential school in Amos, Que., in 1958, his mother packed him a suitcase filled with clothes, toys and all of the love she had for her son.

When he returned home more than a decade later, scarred by physical and sexual abuse, his suitcase was a hard-to-carry load, even though all that his mother had placed inside had been stolen from him.

This is the construct at the heart of Petiquay’s poem, “My Little Residential School Suitcase,” which speaks to the traumas he suffered and his own process of healing.

“It was a long way,” he said in an interview Wednesday from his home in La Tuque, Que.

“I started in 1973 when I stopped consuming alcohol and consuming drugs and started working on myself. It took a good 15 years to be able to accept all the violations, most of all the sexual abuse.”

The poem came to Petiquay, now 70, in the summer of 2007. A social worker in the Atikamekw community of Wemotaci, 300 kilometers northwest of Quebec City, he was called to the scene of a particularly brutal incident of family violence.

A woman was sent to hospital, a man to jail. Petiquay returned to his office from him and began to write.

“I asked myself, ‘Where does this violence come from?’ ” I have recalled.

“In looking back through my own life, I saw that it was the church that brought this violence into our communities and into our families. They taught us violence in the residential schools. We adopted it and brought it back to our communities.”

The horrible irony is that Petiquay’s poem was composed not in Atikamekw, but in French.

“I don’t know how to write in my maternal language,” he said.

For many years, I have internalized his anger against non-Indigenous people and against the Catholic Church.

Today, he said, he has managed to overcome his rage and find peace. Baptized as a Catholic, he now takes solace in his Indigenous spirituality from him.

“I don’t deny the Catholic religion, but I made a choice,” he said. “I feel more connected to the Creator — what we call God. For me, it is a divine energy. It’s not a religion, but a way of life.”

He has rejected the Catholic faith, but not the Pope’s apology, which has been harshly criticized by some Indigenous leaders for not recognizing that the Catholic Church, as an entity, was responsible for residential school abuses and for making no mention of sexual abuse or the deaths that occurred.

“I think it’s a first step toward reconciliation,” he said. “I accept the apology. I’ve dealt with what happened in the residential schools. I was sexually assaulted and physically beaten … I’ve pardoned myself for the things that happened because I felt guilty, particularly with the sexual abuse, for having entered into the bedroom of the priest.”

At the same time, he said, he expects more of the churches and the federal government in terms of financial support and other assistance to help heal the residential school survivors and their families who have suffered the after-effects of residential school trauma.

There are still young Indigenous people who never set foot in a residential school, but who have been affected because of the violence and negligence they have suffered from their parents.

“There are elders who say the effects of residential schools will last seven generations,” he said. “In my own family, there were my parents, me, my kids and my grandkids. We’ve arrived at the fourth generation and there are maybe another three generations before it eventually passes.”

Slowly, Petiquay feels a new page being turned in the history of residential schools.

He sees it in his grandchildren, who come to visit and teach him the things they are learning in school — the things that religious leaders and the federal government tried to take from him and the 150,000 other Indigenous kids who went through the residential school system.

They barred Petiquay from speaking his native language in Amos and, later, at the Pointe-Bleue residential school in Quebec’s Saguenay region.

Now his granddaughter is teaching him to write in Atikamekw.

“It is,” Petiquay said, “very valuable.”

My Little Residential School Suitcase, written by Marcel Petiquay and republished with his permission

The first time I left for residential school,

my mother carefully prepared my

little suitcase. She took care to put in it everything

I would need. My clothes, some

toys I would never see again. I was

six years old on this first trip.

In my little suitcase, my mother had also put

all the love she had, without forgetting the love from my father.

There were also embraces,

tenderness, respect, for me

and for others, sharing, and many

other qualities she had taught me.

The trip lasted 12 years.

When I returned home, my

little suitcase was heavy. what my

mother had put in it was gone; sees it

embraces, all those beautiful things had

disappeared. They had been replaced

by hatred, self-rejection, abuses of all

kinds (alcohol, drugs, sexual abuse) by

violence, anger and suicidal thoughts.

That is what I carried for a long time.

But I’ve been cleaning out this

suitcase. I put back everything my mother had put in it when I left the first time:

love, respect for myself and others,

and a great many other qualities.

Oh yes … added sobriety and

especially spirituality. My little

suitcase is very light. It is full

of good things I can

share with everyone

I meet along the way.

Regardless of skin color —

white, red, black, yellow—we

are all human beings, we

are all God’s creatures.

—Marcel Petiquay (2007)

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.

Allan Woods is a Montreal-based staff reporter for the Star. He covers global and national affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @WoodsAllan

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