BY KANDACE GALLANT
I never knew how much the saying, “You learn something new every day,” was true.
For the last couple of years I’ve been learning things about my family that I never even thought possible … that sometimes I don’t even want to believe could have happened. These aren’t secrets that I just so happened to come across, or something that I even asked to know about. These stories were told to me by my aunts and uncles who learned that the past is in the past and you can never truly move on unless you stop thinking about the troubles of yesterday.
Secrets starting spilling out, almost as if it was a huge burden they were lifting off their shoulders. My family is native, part of the Mi’kmaq people. I will always be proud to say that, though there may have been a time when I wasn’t. But after learning that my grandmother and her siblings went to Shubenacadie’s residential school in Nova Scotia, I have come to learn the true meaning of family, love and strength.
Residential schools started up in the late 1870s and operated until the 1990s. They opened with the assumption that native children would learn about their cultures and languages. But not only were they stripped of their beliefs and the language they grew up speaking, they were mentally, physically and sexually abused by the nuns and Fathers who ran the schools.
My grandmother, Pearline Gallant, was forced to attend in the late 1930s. I don’t know how long she was forced to attend, but many had to until they were old enough to drop out themselves at the age of 15.
“My mother, Pearline, was Mi’kmaq and my father was a Frenchman,” said Noella Moore, my aunt who lives in Prince Edward Island. “When they were young and in love it may have seemed like a good idea at the time to get married, but, unfortunately, that was forbidden. When they wed, my mother ended up losing her native status. After all that she’d been through for being a native woman, I think that hit her harder than anything.”
Pearline Gallant was a smart, beautiful, young woman who was forced to believe that being native was a sin. Her beliefs were “wrong,” her language was “dirty” and being native made her “ugly” and “worthless.”
“After finding out what happened to my family at Shubenacadie’s Residential School in Nova Scotia, I’m a strong believer that it has affected us from generation to generation,” said Noella. “My mom was at the school for years and was beaten and sexually abused regularly.”
Pearline attended the residential school with her brothers and sisters, who, Noella said, didn’t have to face as many punishments as Pearline did.
“She would often take the blame for things in order to protect them,” she said. “She would either be beaten, sexually abused or denied food and water as punishment. They would only have been around 7 to 10 years old.”
Many people continue to believe the drunken native stereotype. As I was growing up, I always used to hear, “Native people are either always smoking, or they’re drunk,” and that’s exactly what I saw happening in my family. My aunts and uncles may not have attended Shubenacadie’s residential school like their mother and her brothers and sisters did, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect them. When Pearline was able to stop attending residential school, she married the man she fell in love with, ultimately losing her status because of him being French. She fell in love with his charm, his caring and loving side, his smile … but she realized too late that she was falling in love with someone who would treat her exactly like how she was treated in the residential school. She turned to drinking to soothe her sadness and her pain. She was an alcoholic throughout all 14 of her pregnancies and ended up losing all her children to Children’s Aid.
“I strongly believe Mom drank to forget,” said Judy Gallant, my aunt who also lives in P.E.I. “She wanted to forget the pain of losing her own children to Children’s Aid. Mom may have had a hard time showing affection but we knew she loved us all.”
Judy and Noella said sometimes their mother was stuck back in a time where she was still at the residential school. While still living at home, before being taken away by Children’s Aid, the kids were taught to make their bed military style by their mom. Sometimes Pearline would even feel like when she did something wrong, she’d have to go and sit in a corner, or in a closet to punish herself. At the residential schools, Mi’kmaq children would often go weeks tied to a chair in a closet with little food and water to keep them alive. They’d be sexually abused and beaten, to the point of barely even being able to stand.
“All the things that went on … It’s just horrible to think about. We suffered too because of it and most of my family have turned to substance abuse,” said Noella. “The whole cycle keeps going around. Unless we take the stand to stop that cycle.” Judy and Noella are proud to say they no longer drink and haven’t since they were teenagers. As for some of my other aunts and uncles, we know they struggle with it, but we are always there to support them.
“It’s not something you stop at the snap of a finger,” said Judy. “We were bounced around from foster home to foster home when we were younger. Some of us were abused physically and mentally. Even my aunts and uncles who are still alive who survived the abuse at the residential school still drink to drown their sorrows. They want to forget and they don’t know how else to do so.”
Growing up and watching the people you love deteriorate because of substance abuse isn’t something you can easily ignore. I was always embarrassed when people asked me about my family and what they were like … what do you even say? I was also embarrassed to tell them I’m native. That always seemed to be a part I left out. My aunt Noella has always assured me that she has felt the same way.
“I was ashamed to be native for years and years,” she said. “People are always calling native people names or calling them alcoholics. It took me a long time to be proud of who I am and where my family comes from.”
She said some of her proudest moments were when she danced in a powwow that took place on Lennox Island in P.E.I. and when she started basket weaving and presented her baskets to Prince
William and Kate Middleton when they visited the island. Her twin sister, my aunt Nora, helped to weave the baskets too. She ended up making a career out of it. It makes me proud too, knowing my aunts’ names are on baskets that are sitting in Buckingham Palace in England.
I think people have always been quick to judge native Americans, especially because of their native status cards. I’ll admit, I have always been embarrassed to admit that I have one. I barely even use it.
“If my mother was alive today, she’d be so proud that we all have our status,” Noella said. “All of her children have it and now all of our children have it. She’d be so happy that we are all proud to present who we are.”
Pearline Gallant was killed on Dec. 9, 1973 at 44 years old. She travelled to Kitchener to speak to someone from the Children’s Aid Society about getting her children back. As she was crossing the street in front of St. Mary’s Hospital, she was hit by a drunk driver and killed. She died later that night in the hospital.
“I think our mother’s death was something that drove a lot of us to drink more,” said Noella. “Was our mother an alcoholic? Yes. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love us or want to fix things. She was beautiful and kind. She had a heart of gold.”
She is buried in P.E.I. by the beautiful ocean.
“Our father wasn’t a kind man,” said Peter Gallant, my father and the second youngest of the 14 children. “He didn’t even like kids or want anything to do with us. He passed away in December of 1997. It’s hard to admit, but I think his death made a lot of us feel relieved.”
My father and his brothers and sisters never knew what it was like to have a loving father. He mentally, sexually and physically abused them and his wife. All she’d ever known was abuse.
“Mom never lived to see the day where she regained her status and her children back,” Noella said. “It saddens me. I know she would be so, so proud to see how far we’ve come. Natives are definitely being accepted more in this day and age, but we still have a long way to go.”
Do I think people are still being affected by residential schools, even though they’ve been closed for a long time now? Absolutely. A person can’t easily forget that they were made to feel like a second-class citizen. How do you forget the Fathers and Sisters who raped you and beat you repeatedly at residential schools? I may not have been proud to admit who I was growing up, but like my aunt Noella, I’ve learned to accept it. I’m proud of who I am and I’m proud of my family and how far they’ve come. I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished and what they are still trying to accomplish. I am not ashamed to state the fact that I am native and I will continue to tell people my family’s story.