Woman telling nation about residential schools

Lila Bruyere has been named to Canada’s National Survivors’ Circle. Photo courtesy, Shawn Johnston

Tara Jeffrey

Lila Bruyere had every reason to give up.

“I’ve heard it all my life — that I’m stupid. That I’m never going to amount to anything,” said the 66-year-old Sarnia woman. “Those messages still haunt me sometimes.

“But I’ve proved ‘em wrong before.”

The former Aamjiwnaang First Nation addictions counsellor and residential school survivor defied the odds when she overcame addiction, earned a university degree in social work, then obtained her Master’s degree (alongside son Shawn — the first Aboriginal mother and son to graduate from the same program) at Wilfrid Laurier.

For years, she’s been committed to sharing her story of resilience, and now, Bruyere is ready for her next chapter after being named to Canada’s National Survivors’ Circle.

“It’s an honour to be chosen for this,” Bruyere said of her position on the six-member panel, comprised of residential school survivors from across Canada. She is the lone representative from Ontario.

“I’m going to do my best to represent survivors and be their voice; stand up for them.”

The Survivors’ Circle is a body of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). It’s dedicated to informing Canadians about what happened to more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children placed in residential schools between 1870 and 1996, as well as the 94 calls to action identified in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) final report.

“I find, myself, that it’s not so much the kids. The kids are aware, they’re learning more about the residential schools,” said Bruyere. “It’s the adults that don’t know. They don’t quite understand what happened.

“My job is to educate them.”

Many of the children who attended the nearly 130 residential schools across Canada were taken from their parents against their will.

“Children were abused physically, and sexually, and they died in the schools in numbers that would not have been tolerated in any school system anywhere in the country, or in the world,” the final report concluded.

Bruyere, a native of the Couchiching First Nation in Fort Francis, was sent to St. Margaret’s Residential School between the ages of six and 14.

She struggled with addiction before moving in with her partner (who passed away last fall) to Aamjiwnaang where she worked as an addictions counsellor for seven years.

She joined Shawn Johnston, one of her three sons — who nominated her for the Survivors’ Circle — in earning their masters at WLU. The pair developed a workshop called “Intergenerational Trauma: A mother and son’s healing journey,” and have traveled as far as the Northwest Territories presenting to families, students, teachers and frontline workers. They speak about the trauma rooted in residential schools that is passed on through generations, and how they’re working to heal.

She’s also in the process of writing a book. It’s all about resiliency, she said.

“At my age, I’m still in counselling… one of the side effects I suffer from is depression, so I work hard at that, because I don’t like feeling that way,” said Bruyere.

“Sometimes I just take the time to have a good cry. Then I shake myself off and keep going.”

Bruyere travelled to Winnipeg last month to meet the other Survivors’ Circle members for a welcoming ceremony and learn more about the two-year position.

“It was a beautiful experience — we felt like we already knew each other,” she said, adding she’ll use her story for those survivors who can’t share their own.

“Some of them just can’t talk about this,” she said. “And they’re dying off, which is really sad.

“I’m outspoken, I ask a lot of questions, and I’ve been known to ruffle a few feathers.”