Lorraine Seymour still remembers the print on the dress her mother was wearing the day she was dropped off at a residential school.
At the age of six, Seymour started attending St Mary’s, a Catholic-run school in Kenora, Ont.
“The greatest thing I got out of residential school was the grit to survive things,” says Seymour, who sought out a statue of the Virgin Mary near the school when things got tough.
“That would be my safe place, away from the alter boys and everything that was happening in that place.”
When the news broke about the discovery of 215 suspected unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Seymour says she fell into a deep depression and couldn’t get out of bed for weeks.
“I got really sad,” Seymour tells the latest episode of Face to Face. “Not because I didn’t know it, I always knew it; I always knew there were people that didn’t come back.”
Seymour says her friends and family members always talked about local boy Charlie Wenjack and his fateful escape from Cecilia Jeffery Boarding/Residential School and freezing to death on the railroad track.
“My parents always told us which way he went and they made sure we committed to not running away. – to survive this place.”
Seymour did survive and managed to keep her culture and language intact.
Her family made sure she went to powwows and knew how to make jingle dresses. Passing it down to her own children has been critical to their identity and their experience with colonization, she says.
Seymour has also remained close with her fellow survivors from Treaty 3 in northwestern Ontario. A group of them travelled to Maskwacis in Alberta last summer to hear the papal apology from Pope Francis.
The papal visit and apology were important to Seymour
She and her fellow survivors stayed in the same hotel and went out for breakfast together to change their old memories of bus rides and “just hung out.”
It was the first time Seymour’s brother told her ‘I love you’ in English.
Yet there is more Seymour would like to see from the Catholic church.
“Money. I want to get paid. I want to get compensated for what happened to me in rez school, what happened to me afterward, too,” she says. “Apparently, they’re exempt from having to acknowledge and give me compensation for my experiences.
“Like everything happened in there, everything you can imagine happened in that place. So, that matters.
“And then having to raise my children in poverty. That shouldn’t have happened. I should be having a house, I should be retired in Florida or something like that. But I’m still struggling.”
Seymour spent 25 years working in the child welfare system as a social worker. Her work included a lot of apprehensions of children where safety was a concern.
There were many times Seymour felt that children could have stayed home if there was more of an emphasis on prevention. She would try to help them retain some of their identity by teaching them to make moccasins every Tuesday.
She feels it’s fair to compare the child welfare system with the residential school system.
“Now we have group homes,” Seymour says. “We have specialized foster homes. They do their best but we need to help the families, we need to help the moms keep their babies.
“We need to help the young moms create a strong identity in themselves. It’s really hard decolonizing.”