WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Mary Moonias held an eagle feather as she testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Red Deer June 6.
At age seven, Mary Moonias was whisked off to the Ermineskin Residential School in Hobbema along with three of her siblings. For the next nine years she was subjected to "terrible and awful" treatment by the Catholics who ran the school.
"They put us down, they cut our hair, they slapped us and they made us eat bad food," Moonias recalled. "We weren't allowed to speak our language. I felt like I wasn't worth anything."
However, at one point in her life, Moonias forgave those who abused her because she wanted to live a long life. She realized keeping grudges was not conductive to longevity.
"I forgave because I didn't want to die a premature death," said Moonias, now a pensioner, at a listening circle at Red Deer College June 6.
Representatives of several churches, including the Catholic Church, listened as seven residential school survivors spoke briefly before them.
"I don't want you to feel sorry for me," Moonias told the circle. "I am proud of who I am."
The listening circle was part of a three-day conference called Remembering the Children organized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Moonias said it's unfortunate to have a history of pain and abuse, but added that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology a few years ago did a lot to bring comfort and peace to many residential school victims.
At the residential school, Moonias learned to clean, cook and sew but she wanted so much more out of life. She later married and had four children.
As a result of her stay at Ermineskin, Moonias said she became a clean freak who would slap her children every time they messed up the floor.
"I didn't allow myself to fall into addictions, like my brothers and sisters," Moonies said in an interview. "However, I did more damage to my children than if I had been an alcoholic."
Eventually, Moonias realized she was being tied down by her memories and grudges and forgave her oppressors. Free from resentment, she left the Church and decided to live a life rooted in her culture.
She later attended the University of Calgary, and in 1980 she became a teacher. "I taught all levels," she said in the interview. Nowadays, Moonias teaches life skills to children and teens in Hobbema, where she lives.
"I turned my anger into determination. I said, 'I'm going to turn my people into good people' and I did.'"
Rosena Winnie, who spent years in a residential school run by the Anglican Church in Prince Albert, Sask., told the listening circle she is tired of reconciliation programs. "I don't want any of this reconciliation. To me, it is a scam."
Winnie, a mother of two, said she was abused constantly at the school, St. Albans', which she attended from Grades 1 to 6. "They cut my hair short and they strapped me and slapped me."
However, like Moonias, Winnie forgave her abusers. "I forgave them because I'm a Christian," she told the WCR after her presentation.
Bob McKeon, associate director of social justice with the Edmonton Archdiocese, was at the conference representing the Catholic Church.
"I'm hearing stories of pain from students who attended different residential schools," he observed. "Our starting point is listening to them. The goal is to achieve healing and reconciliation."
All churches are committed to support healing and many of them have been taking steps towards that, McKeon said. The Edmonton Archdiocese, for example, transformed Sacred Heart Parish into a native parish led by aboriginal people.
Moreover, through Catholic Social Services, the archdiocese offers several programs that are beneficial to aboriginal people, he said. The Church is also actively working to provide housing for the homeless, 40 per cent of whom are of aboriginal background.
McKeon said it's painful to learn about the harm aboriginal children were subjected to in institutions run by the Church. "I feel pain," he said. "Church is for good things."