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An open letter to Brenda Bignell Arnault and Arthur Fourstar

I am just one of the many Canadians who are grateful to all the Residential School Survivors who have bravely shared their experiences in the Where are the Children: Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools exhibit. As a teacher in training at the University of Ottawa, I was given the assignment to experience this exhibit and watch the stories of two Survivors: Brenda Bignell Arnault and Arthur Fourstar. We were also asked to write a letter to both, but unfortunately, Mr. Fourstar will never see my letter as he passed away in 2014. So, I have chosen to write separate letters to Ms. Bignell Arnault and another to Mr. Fourstar’s surviving family.

Brenda Bignell Arnault

With the greatest of gratitude, I thank you for sharing your story of survival at Mackay Indian Residential School in Dauphin, Manitoba, within the Where are the Children: Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools exhibit. While I can never truly understand all the pain that you’ve been through and all the hurt and pain that remains, through your interview, I was able to experience it for a moment and was left sharing your anger about the slow progress Canada has made in reconciling this national injustice.

Residential School Survivor Brenda Bignell Arnault shares her story in 2011.

As you told your story, I could only imagine myself in your place, hanging on, in protest, to a cold metal bed post, so desperate and lonely, longing to escape the school and return to your family. I’m sure many have told you this following your interview, but the shame you carry over having to steal food from people, “to be full, to have food in my stomach” is not yours. You were the innocent one, a child, who wasn’t provided a proper diet at that detestable Residential School. It is Canada’s shame, not yours.

Currently, I am an English-history teacher-in-training at the University of Ottawa, but as a former journalist, I was already aware of the dark history of Canada’s Residential School System. The Where are the Children exhibit served as a sharp reminder of how deep Canada’s racism towards Indigenous peoples was, and still is today. It is hard to believe that this racism runs so deep that it was embedded into law by some of the country’s founders and its most “educated” men. The Indian Act, still alive almost 143 years later, remains a frustrating reflection of Canada’s national assimilation policies.

Hopefully, I will have many opportunities to teach my students about the Canadian Residential School System through the information in Where are the Children and stories like yours — to enlighten all about the devastating “divide and conquer” effects (as you appropriately described it) this System had on Indigenous peoples. More than this, however, I want to inspire action and, through my classrooms, figure out ways for all of us to repair Canada’s broken promises to Indigenous peoples and to help heal the effects of generations of pain. This includes not only thinking of ways to provide opportunities for greater numbers of Indigenous people to continue to succeed in business, education, law, engineering, sciences, governance and other fields of empowerment and sovereignty, but also to actively address the societal injustices caused by generations of racism that led to Indigenous over-representation in jails, higher rates of certain diseases like cancer and diabetes, and long-term mental health issues.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for so bravely sharing your story; it will not be forgotten. I would like to end my letter of gratitude with the last words being yours:

“I’ll be screaming and ranting and raving for a long time because as long as our people keep suffering, as long as our people keep ending up in jail, with diabetes, and have cancer now, and all of these health problems that our people have, we didn’t get them by ourselves. We got that through interaction with our White brothers and sisters… Canada will not be whole until we as a nation of people can really hold hands with our white Treaty brothers and sisters. We’re not the only ones that are Treaty. Those White signatories of Treaty days, those are Treaty people as well.”

Arthur Fourstar

I was saddened to read that Mr. Fourstar had passed away in 2014, as I only now had the opportunity to view his interview in the Where are the Children: Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools exhibit. I wanted to offer him my gratitude for sharing his story as a Survivor of the Residential School System. His recollections of his days at Prince Albert Residential School and Birtle Indian Residential School will stay with me forever.

Residential School Survivor Arthur Fourstar shares his story in 2011.

While it is impossible for me to ever truly experience the depths of pain and trauma he experienced at those Residential Schools, I was so often emotionally overcome as he told his story. It was impossible not to feel Mr. Fourstar’s life-long regret as he recalled his failed attempt to get onto a truck to visit his family during the summer, and how, in anger, he kicked and killed a gosling. It was such a profound representation of his lost innocence, so cruelly taken by Canada’s Residential School System. Then, the School’s response to torture the young Mr. Fourstar in a bathtub of cold water afterwards was barbaric. It is hard to look up at the Canadian flag and not think of the injustices Mr. Fourstar and thousands of other Indigenous peoples have experienced at the hands of our government.

The traumas of Canada’s Residential School System are still with us, and it is a mistake to browse exhibitions like Where are the Children and experience it as a piece of history. As a teacher-in-training at the University of Ottawa and in my future practice, I will ensure that my students understand this difference. I will also carry Mr. Fourstar’s story, and other Survivors’ stories, forward to my classrooms so that Canada never, ever repeats the national, systemic shame of the Residential School System.

Like the late Mr. Fourstar, I dream of a time where Canada finds peace, justice and true partnership with Indigenous peoples. Only after this is achieved can I then dream of an era where Indigenous peoples are able to become, as he described, “seekers” and not “survivors”. I address this letter to all of Mr. Fourstar’s surviving family, with gratitude and in tribute, and promise to move beyond these words and take action to see Mr. Fourstar’s dreams become a reality in this country through my classrooms and my teaching practice.

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"Old soul, waiting my turn / I know a few things, but I still got a lot to learn"

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