"His big family of eight, tightly packed into the old one-story two room house, but he had kilometres of forest to call a backyard and spent most days outdoors playing with his siblings. This way of living abruptly ended when he was 5 years old, when he and his siblings went into the custody of children’s protection services."Read Summer Lavallee's Healing Journey
Whitefish River First Nation
The short story I have written is fiction but is based on historical events and real circumstances that have been experienced by Indigenous people as a result. It closely mirrors my fathers life, being a part of the 60's scoop and forcibly taken from his family at a young age. That trauma, on top of the blood memory we carry of the suffering of my grandparents who were subjected to residential school, dictated our lives. Even so, I have fought the forces that want me to fail and am deciding to heal and end the cycle of hurt. This ray of hope is reflected in my story as so many of us are choosing to create our own destiny and create a better future for the next generations to come.
I light the sage and set down the abalone shell on my bundle, which lays on a small oak table in the
corner. I give a couple moments for the smoke to stream up and watch as it slowly swirls and expands
throughout the small sunlight room. I think of how both of these objects were once alive. The iridescent
shell was once the home for a sea snail, and the dried sage had grown in the earth from a small seed.
Through the smoke, I can see my degree in social work hanging on the wall and I fixate on my last name.
Meawasige, it was my mothers name and it is Anishinaabemowin for rising sun.
I look at Creedance who is siting across from me, but of course, he is looking down at his lap. He has
been my client for a few months now and was referred here by his guidance counsellor at the Native
high school a couple blocks away. I look at his soft smooth face, had he not been so tall, he could easily
be mistaken for much younger than a 10th grader. I did not think he would return after his first session;
he is an extremely shy teenager whose eyes dart away as soon as I make eye contact and he rarely has
anything to say. Many of his responses to my questions aren’t even verbal; shrugs, headshakes and the
unconscious nervous fidgeting of his fingers.
Just like the sea snail with the abalone shell, Creedance has a tough barrier around him for protection.
Not all humans wear this armour, Creedance has been hurt, and he feels safer barricading himself from
everyone. It is only when people feel vulnerable that they develop these defense mechanisms. Although
metaphorical, Creedances shell is visible to anyone. His long hair swoops down his forehead landing on
his eyelashes and his cloak of hair is usually kept down by the hood of the oversized sweaters he wears.
His spine is a curious shape with his neck limp and shoulders slouched forward. With his eye gaze
perpetually down, he becomes invisible, even if only in his own mind, and he can easier navigate
through life and the hectic city he lives in, Toronto.
I am not supposed to, but I feel genuinely sorry for Creedance. It hurts my heart to look at him and know
all that he has gone through…or at least what I know he has been through, from what he has told me. I
know I should not spend so much time fixating on him but he reminds me of a boy I used to know,
Johnathan. Johnathan had also been dragged through life by unfortunate events until he too was left
broken and defeated. Johnathan and Creedance like many others, were not born melancholic, they were
worn down, slowly by outside influences, until they became small and sad.
Johnathan grew up on the beautiful shores of Lake Huron, living in a modest wood home in
Wikwemikong First Nation. His big family of eight, tightly packed into the old one-story two room house,
but he had kilometres of forest to call a backyard and spent most days outdoors playing with his siblings.
This way of living abruptly ended when he was 5 years old, when he and his siblings went into the
custody of children’s protection services. Being a child of that age, Johnathan was left confused and did
not know why his family was being separated; did his parents not want them? Was it something he had
done? Why didn’t his mom and dad care enough to come get him? He was told he was going to live with
a new family.
Johnathan had spent time with two families. The first family, the Hopkin’s, lived in a big house in a small
town an hour northwest from his reserve. They had shiny appliances in their house he had never seen
and a massive freezer in the basement that was full of food. The Hopkin’s lived in abundance and excess.
Each of their three children had their own rooms. It was Johnathan’s first time having his own room and
he spent many nights looking through the window into the dark sky and thinking of his family. The three
pale skin, light haired children didn’t talk much to him or ask him to play with them. When Johnathan
started school he could not help but notice that there was no other person that looked like him, neither
student nor teacher. Johnathan was picked on mercilessly and called names like ‘dirty Indian’. He looked
at his brown skin and realised it did resemble the color of dirt and remembers thinking that he was dirty.
He took long showers and tried to rub his skin free of its ugly color with soap but it remained no matter
how hard he scrubbed. He watched as his pale family lather on strange lotion before going outside in
the summers, or else they burn, and he thought that this might be what keeps their skin from darkening.
He asked his foster mom one day if he could also put on the lotion but he was told that his skin did not
need it. In the seclusion of the bathroom, he snuck the bottle from the medicine cabinet and smeared
the white strong-smelling goop onto his skin. He panicked when the white lotion visibly sat on his skin
but after working it in for a couple moments, it eventually absorbed in. He tried this a dozen times but it
had no effect and he was left disappointed. The Hopkin’s were nice people but they treated Johnathan
like a second-class child and had none of the affections and love for him that they had even for the
family dog. That dog though, became Johnathan’s best friend. At first, he thought it was strange that the
Hopkin’s let their shih tzu in the house and on the furniture. On the rez, people had dogs but they
roamed around outside without collars and spent time with other dogs, not with humans. Despite being
separate creatures of this world, this dog and Johnathan bonded and were often inseparable. Johnathan
remembers looking into the shiny black eyes of the dog and thinking that it was the only being who
loved him in this entire world.
Then child protective services was back and Johnathan was taken against his will again. It was not the
best living with the Hopkin’s but he had his own room, his stomach was always full, and there was a dog
that loved him. He thought it was his fault, the way he looked perhaps…or maybe if he had gotten better
grades the Hopkin’s would have thought him a worthy family member. It didn’t matter. They were giving
him up just as his parents had and things were uncertain again.
His next family, the Bernett’s, were much different then the Hopkin’s. They lived in a small house in the
outskirts of Sault Ste. Marie and packed it with misfit foster children from child services. The Bernett
parents stopped being able to conceive after their first born and decided to foster and adopt children,
they saw as unwanted, to fulfil their dream of having a big family. After dozens of children had gone
through their house, they kept seven to adopt and this created the Bernett family. Mrs. Bernett’s heart
swelled to love all of her children, biological or not, but it was still not enough to fill all the emptiness
created inside Johnathan. It was Mr. Bernett that Johnathan seeked affection from. Mr. Bernett was a
hard working man, who was a dutiful provider, quick witted and had a sharp temper. Mrs. Bernett’s love
came overflowing and free, in the act of a hug, or in the attentive manner in which she looked after her
children. However, Mr. Bernett never showed much tenderness toward his children. This was not from
lack of caring, but rather through discipline and tough love that he was shown growing up. He was to
pass this on to his children to help develop them into the strong independent adults that they needed to
be to survive in this world. He wanted his boys to be sturdy and stoic, so that is what Johnathan strived
for. He shoved all of his hurt deep down inside of him and became unflinching in the face of adversity.
The only way to capture his fosters dads attention was to impress him. Mr. Bernett had been a star
athlete in his teens and nowadays he loved to gloat to his friends over his children’s accomplishments,
especially athletic talents. Johnathan was not the tallest, biggest, or faster in his grade but he worked
tirelessly to be the best in every sport he played. The moments of making his foster dad proud were
fleeting, few and far between. Mr. Bernett never referred to Johnathan as his son, only ever as his foster
son, even after the adoption papers were signed. These soul-crushing moments kept Johnathan from
falling into the fantasy and believing that he had a real family. He was living with many people, but he
was alone, he was always meant to be alone.
The year that Johnathan turned 18 he moved to the big city of Toronto, the place of opportunities, to
find his own way through this world. At the friendship centre, he began to learn about Indigenous
people, history and culture. He was told that he was not given up by his parents, he was taken. It is
called the 60’s scoop but for many decades, Native children were forcibly taken from their families. He
finally let way to the enormous curiosity inside of him and requested his child aid documents to locate
his biological family. He learned his siblings had all been separated from each other, his oldest brother
died in a drunk driving accident also killing his girlfriend, a sister died of an illness in her teens, and his
parents had both gone to residential school, which started the slow withering decay of them, their
spirits dying then their bodies following. With all of this new information, Johnathan felt the acute pain
of sorrow that he thought he was no longer capable of feeling. His shell shattered under the enormous
pressure and he was left raw and exposed. He turned to alcohol to keep himself numb. It took a vision, a
couple months into his foggy drug fuelled, semi-conscious state, that pulled him out of the abyss. He
dreamed he saw his deceased brother, of course, he had never seen his brother as an adult but he knew
it was him. He saw his brother walking down a street and at his side was a radiant woman whose arms
clutched a tiny bundle against her chest. It was the family his brother was to have, had he not given into
darkness and poisonous alcohol.
On that day, Johnathan forged a new path. He would not let his circumstances dictate his life anymore.
It took all of his willpower and strength to fight against the forces that wanted to keep him down. He
stayed sober and enrolled in school. It was a moment that changed his life, one moment. He thought
that everyone suffering should have their own chance to create a new path for themselves. He wanted
his own existence to be an instrument to help others find The Way of a Good Life (Mino-Bimaadiziwin).
He found his calling in social work and began his career supporting and empowering Indigenous youth.
Johnathan looks over at Creedance’s tired face in the tilted afternoon sunlight and takes a deep breath.
Creedance reminds Johnathan of himself, the person he used to be, the young man who went through
life only knowing heartache and not knowing where he belongs. It breaks Johnathan’s heart to think of
the immeasurable pain that Creedance carries around, for he too used to carry such a sadness. Still,
Johnathan knows there is hope, there is always hope for a better future. After all, Creedance is here,
getting help and it only takes one moment, one small action, for someone to begin their healing journey.