The night after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended a storm hit Saskatchewan.
Hail the size of grapes battered the bay window. I turned off the hotel T.V. and stood behind the glass. Outside the sky was deep purple. Lightning brought an apocalyptic glow to the cityscape. Thunder ripped as I drew the curtains closed.
When I woke the entire city had lost power. I took the stairs in the dark, feeling my way to the first floor. Outside the street was empty. I sat on a curb and waited for my ride.
On the drive to Mistawasis, a First Nations reservation two hours west of Prince Albert, trees struck by lightening or uprooted by wind littered the shoulder. The gravel road had turned to mud. Trucks emptied sawdust into the muck to little effect; the ruts grew deeper and more treacherous the further we drove.
My travel companion, Delores Werchola, is familiar with the route and how the roads can be after a storm. She easily maneuvered her Honda CR-V around cars and mud pits.
Delores grew up in Mistawasis. She left when she was 18. Today she’s a retired social worker, an outreach worker for St. Paul’s, Prince Albert, and a part-time driving instructor in northern Saskatchewan.
When we arrived at Delores’ childhood home we found the house dark. Still no power. Outside her brother Anthony Johnstone brewed coffee in a kitchen pot over a small fire. As I searched for dry kindling, I heard the pastor of Mistawasis Memorial Church greet Delores.
Back at the fire, I found Rev. Beverly Shapansky seated in a lawn chair. Bev’s large, bright eyes were half open today as she leaned forward in her seat, resting both hands on a cane.
She had left the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Saskatoon a day early, having heard Trisha Badger, the only daughter of a Mistawasis elder, had died in car collision.
“Go lie down,” said Delores.
“I don’t know… ”
“It’s fine. We have an extra bed. You need to rest.”
The next time I saw Bev was at the wake. Trisha’s parents had asked Bev to lead all the services. She did five in addition to the funeral.
Bev sat beside the open casket. An elder stood above Trisha’s body, gently waving a burning braid of sweetgrass.
“Friends we are here to honour the memory of Trisha Badger,” said Bev.
I stood half in the kitchen, half in the living room. Behind me industrial-sized percolators hummed and popped. More than a dozen mosquito traps hung from the ceiling. Chairs lined the walls, zig-zagging through doors and hallways. Children chased each other through the maze and up and down the basement stairs while rooms continued to fill up with new guests. Soon duo-tangs with hymn lyrics were passed around.
Family members would suggest song titles. Then the reservation’s Baptist minister would begin playing his guitar. Some hymns were sung in English, others in Cree.
Between songs a friend or family member would stand and share a memory of Trisha or retell their own story of grief. Many told of loved ones who died suddenly, in violent or unnatural circumstances.
A few weeks later Bev got a call from Trisha’s mom. She wanted to talk.
“She told me about her brother, about his experiences in residential school,” said Bev. “She was able to talk to me about things she couldn’t before.”
Her trust moved Bev. Since relocating to Mistawasis from St. Paul’s, Prince Albert in 2008, Bev often felt like an outsider. People were polite. They welcomed her into their homes. But being a non-aboriginal pastor on a First Nations reserve carries a certain baggage.
“It will take time before they fully accept me. I just have to make myself available.”
On the drive back to Prince Albert, Delores told me she, too, feels like an outsider on the reservation. Even though she grew up in Mistawasis, she told me she could never move back.
“I’ve never been fully accepted there. People look at me different.”
“I look too white.”
Still, she remains a bridge to Mistawasis. Though an employee of St. Paul’s, she continues to attend Mistawasis Memorial Church. As an outreach worker for the church she works with all the students at Riverside Community School; yet she makes sure to connect with the 10 Mistawasis families who have children enrolled there. Funded by Justice Ministries, her position is explictly about building connections between Prince Albert and the First Nations community in Mistawasis.
A week earlier, at a lunch for residential school survivors, Delores led a sharing circle in the basement of St. Andrew’s, Saskatoon.
Cradling a small piece of cedar brush an elder gave her for strength, Delores was one of the first survivors to speak during the sharing circle.
“I often think about the victimization I suffered, not just at the residential school, but from my own people,” said Delores, gently running her fingertips over the edges of the brush.
“The peers I grew up with used to make fun of me all the time. I was an overweight child and I stuttered. But not only that, my skin colouring was not the same as theirs. And they made fun of me for that.
“When I went to the public school in town I thought, ‘maybe this is a place for me.’ Instead, my Caucasian classmates made fun of me for being an Indian.”
As Delores interacted with coworkers and students at Riverside it was hard to see the girl she remembers. The Delores who guided me through the halls is tall, confident and gregarious. Her laugh came easily; she teased me as though we’d known each other for years.
On the second floor we stopped at Shayanne’s locker. She was slouched beside it with a garbage bag, three quarters full. It was the last day of school.
“Are you taking all that home?” Delores asked. Shayanne shrugged. The door of her locker was half open: she’d probably need another bag and a half.
“Why don’t I drop that off later tonight?” Delores suggested.
Shayanne gave her a sideways look through black bangs, then smiled shyly.
I was handed the bag as Shayanne darted off down the hall.
Downstairs are a nutrition kitchen and a community room where parents and caregivers can drop in. They can pick up food packages and used clothes, learn cooking skills, or just spend time with each other and the school’s staff.
“A lot of people don’t trust the schools because their past with them isn’t good,” said Mona Markwart, the principal of Riverside. “Delores is the bridge to the ones who have lost trust in us.”
“There’s a direct relationship between education and healing and reconciliation. Particularly in this city,” said Rev. Dr. Sandy Scott, minister at St. Paul’s.
“Twenty-five percent of the population here is under the age of 18. Upwards of 40 percent of the population is under the age of 30. And a huge percentage of this [youth] population is First Nations or Metis.”
When Sandy speaks, his soft voice can’t disguise the passion and confidence he has in the work his church is doing. This is a man who regularly runs triathlons, who serves as a military chaplain and received decorations from the Governor General for his service in Afghanistan.
“Schools have the capacity to deliver cultural programs. As a church it only makes sense that we ally ourselves with the schools … We’re not a social service agency. We are equipped to be a church. We are equipped to help our allies.”
In an increasingly secular society like Canada, this kind of partnership seems like an anomaly. I have yet to encounter another public school with an office set aside for the Presbyterian outreach worker. When I pointed this out to Sandy, he chuckled, then explained.
“Schools are allowing us to support the work they are doing because we’ve opened up new possibilities.”
Like camp. Now Riverside and Westview Community Schools have the resources to send students to summer camp, an experience most have never had. This past summer St. Paul’s raised enough money to send 130 children to Camp Christopher, a Presbyterian camp an hour north of Prince Albert. Sandy said much of the financial support came from people who had no affiliation with St. Paul’s but recognized the importance of its work with children and youth.
“These programs help build trust between First Nations and non-aboriginal people,” said Delores. “But we haven’t come full circle. There’s still very little trust; there’s still hurt. People need to see you out there building those relationships. They can’t just read about it.”
“I have been amazed … by the courage of my aboriginal sisters and brothers who have shared their painful histories,” preached Rev. Amanda Currie, pastor of St. Andrew’s, following the TRC event.
“True reconciliation will require us all to follow their lead, to heed the call to open our hearts as well, to share some of their vulnerability, to share some of their pain and their courage… and together, to discover that God is indeed with us. And it is by God’s power and God’s love that the storm will one day be stilled.”
- People & Places