Residential school survivors learn to heal at Manitoba Lake

Posted on June 17th, 2010

By Martin Zeilig

Source: The Globe and Mail

A group of Ojibwa elders returns prefers the lessons of the land to the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Keith Berens recalled being beaten at a residential day school on his Manitoba reserve.

“They hit us with yardsticks across the back, or made us kneel all day on our knees,” said the soft-spoken Mr. Berens, as five men pounded out a primal rhythm on a traditional skin-covered drum. “Or they made you stand with outstretched arms with books in your hands. Why was that happening to our people?”

An aboriginal elder from Berens River, Man., Mr. Berens is one of 40 first nations men and women affected by residential school experiences who are spending the week at a remote lake 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. Just as thousands of people head into downtown Winnipeg to attend the first national hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools, the smaller group of Ojibwa elders from four Manitoba first nations came by boat and float plane to a place deep in the boreal forest to share stories, pray, drum, sing and reconnect with traditional practices lost during the residential school period.

“The Weaver Lake Healing Camp is a very real example of how we can heal our communities on the land,” said Poplar River’s Sophia Rabliauskas, spokesperson for the Pimachiowin Aki Corporation, the group leading the efforts to have the area designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Poplar River First Nation created the healing camp – centred around a communal teepee and large canvas tents – and has hosted hundreds of elders, children, youth and families for a week at a time, she said.

Seed money for the camp came from residential-school survivors funding through the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, Ms. Rabliauskas said. But this may be the camp’s last year, she said, because it is quickly running out of funds.

Mr. Berens, for one, believes in the benefits of such a site. “This is my first time at the camp,” he said. “It’s beautiful and peaceful here. You don’t hear vehicles. Just listen to the birds and insects, to the wind, trees, grass and the animals. They talk to you if you listen.

“It would help us if more people came out to these types of places, and then they’ll know what it’s all about. There’s a reason. It’s for us to learn from Mother Earth. This healing camp is important.”