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“If We Pray, Dad Will Come For Us”

I’ve written a fair amount here about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the work being done to address our nation’s history of Indian Residential Schools. Most of this writing took place in or around a trip I took to Montreal last spring to attend one of the seven national events taking place across the country (see herehere, and here). Today, however, the TRC came much closer to home. For the past two days, the TRC has been holding hearings right here in Lethbridge, AB. So, this morning I trudged off to the local hotel armed with my notebook and a stiff cup of coffee, and prepared to hear more difficult stories.

I’m not going to attempt a polished, perfectly coherent post here (I have less than an hour until I have to pick the kids up after school) but I wanted to at least give a sense of what the day sounded and felt like, for those who might have wanted to attend but didn’t have the opportunity. The stories are too important not to hear, and I want to be sure that I do whatever I can to make them available to even a minimally broader audience. There are so many stories to pick from, but I just want to talk about two.

The first took place during the coffee break. I was looking at some of the pictures of the residential schools that operated here in southern AB. A voice came from over my shoulder… “It looks kinda like a prison, doesn’t it? It felt like one, too.” An older woman proceeded to share her experience with me. She spoke about watching 8-10 year old children being beaten with fists and meter sticks for mispronouncing English words or speaking Blackfoot. She talked about how angry this made her, but about how her older sister had told her that the best strategy for surviving these schools was to just say nothing. “This was hard for me,” she said, “because I was a pretty inquisitive kid… And I knew more than they thought I did. These nuns would talk about the glories of European culture, but my grandpa served in the war, and he told me that Paris wasn’t that impressive… Said it smelled like shit and it was dirty. I knew that a lot what those people said was BS. And when I watched them telling all those little kids how stupid they were? I wanted to just say, ‘f*#k you!!’ I had a good family so I didn’t believe what they said about me, but some of those kids? They just internalized all those terrible words.”

How does one recover from consistently hearing such awful untruths about themselves?

The second came during the main session, from a woman who was probably in her 30s or 40s. Her mom had experienced the residential schools, and the pain of this experience had reverberated down into the lives of her children. She spoke of her mom’s alcoholism, of how she didn’t know how to be a parent, about what it was like have to be a mother to her younger siblings at age 10 because mom was out drinking.

Through eyes full of tears, she talked about being left in the car at the Fort Macleod hotel with her siblings while her mom was inside drinking, trying to dull the pain of long years of abuse, confusion, anger, and regret. She talked about a kind old man at the ice cream shop around the corner who would check on them sometimes.  He would give them water, she said.  Sometimes even ice cream.  She talked about coming home from school one day, hoping that someone would be there to greet her this time, about finding an empty house and a locked door. She talked about sitting alone on her front step, talking to her dog, wishing her mom had been home… About walking down the road to try to reach the neighbours and being picked up by a police officer. She talked about being placed in foster care, about being groped by the boys in her foster “home.” She talked about the rage that built up towards her mother, about hating her parents for leaving her and her sisters alone.

The pattern continued. Her mom would go on a drinking binge, and the kids would be placed in foster care. She talked about one of these experiences, about finding herself in yet another unfamiliar house full of strangers. She talked about huddling under a blanket with her younger sister, trying to comfort her, about crying together and praying to God that her dad would come rescue them. “Dad says that if we pray, God will help us. If we pray, dad will come for us.” “Do you promise?” her little sister asked. “Yes, I promise.” So they prayed. And when they had finished there was a knock on the door. It was a police officer. The girls needed to come with him. Their father was waiting for them.

This image became the most lasting one of the day for me: these two little girls, hiding under the blanket in a foster home, pleading with the God in whose name their parents’ lives had been so profoundly damaged that one of their alcoholic parents would remember them and come take them home. The perverse injustice of it made we want to weep. How does one reconcile these things? How does one make sense of God answering this prayer and yet apparently not intervening to put a stop to the monstrous actions that created this situation in the first place? There are no answers.

I cannot parse or penetrate the mysteries of divine providence.  But I absolutely believe that God did see and hear those little girls crying and praying under that blanket and that he did answer their prayer.  That’s how (and where) God works.


The image above is of the Sacred Heart Residential School on the Peigan Reserve, just under an hour west of Lethbridge.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. James #

    Wow that does make your heart break.
    Thanks for taking the time to tell it Ryan. That’s the mission of the writer- with integrity and compassion helping tell stories that need telling. You do it well!

    October 10, 2013
    • Thank you, James. I appreciate the kind affirmation.

      October 11, 2013
  2. My son and I went to the event in Vancouver and the stories we were privilaged to listen to were strickingly similar. I appreciate your continued journey with these stories, Ryan… It is important that they are told widely (the truth part) and that there is a Christian presence to respond in person to the misery and the mystery (the reconciliation part).

    October 10, 2013
    • Glad to hear that you attended in Vancouver, Brad. And how brave of you to bring your son! I’m not sure I would have wanted my son to hear some of these stories, but perhaps we default to sheltering our kids too instinctively. Perhaps they, too, need to learn to sit with the misery and the mystery, even if in limited ways.

      October 11, 2013
  3. Tanya #

    So hard Ryan. So hard. I feel ashamed of myself for not wanting to read it, for having to force myself to read it because I don’t want to cry or feel someone else’s pain and once again be horrified by what human’s are capable of. But they are stories that desperately need to be heard and I pray that God can somehow heal the hurt. I am sorry and very sad. Thanks for going Ryan.

    October 10, 2013
    • To be honest, Tanya, I didn’t really want to write this, either. And about halfway through yesterday morning, I didn’t want to be there anymore. It sounds so horrible to say it, but after sitting through about five days of these testimonies now, they start to sound the same. Sometimes you have to force yourself to remember, “this story is unique, important… LISTEN!”

      I suppose that’s why I usually default to just telling a few stories. Then it’s less about an “issue” or a “national problem” than it is about real human beings. I don’t have any comprehensive solutions or ways forward here, nor do I have any systematic broad-ranging analysis to offer. But both in Montreal and here in Lethbridge, we were continually reminded that part of the role of witnesses is to listen and to share the stories. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s not nothing either.

      Like you, I pray that these hurts can be healed, Tanya.

      October 11, 2013
  4. Abe Janzen #

    Ryan … Thanks for writing up those two stories. I took a foto of a note left in a notebook beside one of the fotos of the 24 Res Schools that existed in AB. It mentioned three names. And then it said that the last of the three children named was killed at the school but that the parents were never notified until the other children went home at the end of the school year. The day, as you said, was filled w notes and comments and fuller stories. What puzzles me is that still, many and maybe most of those talking seemed somewhat committed to the church. And the graciousness w which they all spoke and w which the entire event seemed to be filled. A gentle, surprizing graciousness.

    October 11, 2013
    • Some of the stories truly boggle the mind…

      Like you, I am often amazed by the grace extended by our aboriginal neighbours. Their faith and commitment to the church is surely evidence that God is alive and at work, even amidst the most misguided and damaging of human behaviours.

      October 11, 2013
  5. Larry S #

    The picture of two little ones praying is a marvelous image for me.

    I want to be brave and push past speaking of providence and God seeing/hearing the girls to picture the Spirit of Jesus in the very room with them, somehow feeling their pain and giving the older sister the notion of making such a dangerous promise to her little sister.

    I have to think about all the other little children whose prayers aren’t answered. Or the ones who pray their fathers won’t come into their darkened bedrooms – and those prayers go unanswered.

    Thanks for that story Ryan. It helps.

    October 11, 2013
    • I like the way you describe it better, Larry. Not a far off God who decided to parachute in to tweak an event, but the Spirit of Christ always present in our world, particularly among the most vulnerable and neglected.

      I think about the other children and the other stories, too. Far too much, probably.

      October 11, 2013
  6. How I pray we would all invite God’s presence/grace into our decision making…. ceding our impulses to the presence of this grace….allowing God’s love to rule over the desires of the self.The brutal truth seems to be that God chooses not to intervene in the material consequences of sin centred decisions. God chooses to stand in solidarity with those who mourn; to weep with those who weep.The accounting comes later.

    How maliciously cold a comfort this must seem to those who suffer heinous injustice. And yet to those who would decide to cede all their legitimate grievances and hatreds; to those who cede these wholly justifiable impulses to grace, the accounting is immediate.

    They are the sons and daughters of Easter. Forgiveness gives them eternal peace and redemption.

    October 11, 2013
    • Well said. Thank you.

      October 11, 2013
  7. Yes our heart breaks to hear such storieswhat children have to go through and how it effects their lives and future generations. Knowing God is all powerful, and that is what gave some hope, even at times empty hope. I believe every one that is born has the instinct of a higher being than ourselves, but it must be encouraged and talked about or it goes into the black corners of our subconscious. The braveness and strength of children is almost incomprehensible some times in such horrible conditions. We as Mennonites have heard, read and some experienced horrible stories of our past as to what happened to our forefathers and the injustice that was laid upon us. Our stories have been told and recorded, but many of theirs have not been. That is why we can sympathize with their stories. My father would not talk about his past in the now Ukraine and Russia and I now know why when I read some of our history books. They are not pleasant to say the least. I so wish he would have been able to voice the struggles and unrest that was within him and we would know our family history. He did not turn to alcohol and drugs and was not bitter, (a strong example for me) but we knew inside there was much turmoil unrest and deep struggling. In the end he chose death over life. One very difficult story for the future generation to hear and cope with. It still feels like only yesterday sometimes, and brings tears and pressure to my heart even today as I write this and was 39 years ago he made a choice. There will always be a scar there, but we have to move forward and with Gods help that is possible. Forgiveness to the people of Ukraine and Russia has to be there if we want to move forward and with Gods help I believe it is possible, but like I said the scar is there permanently. . There is many things that should have been in our history books example following….Who has seen the “Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park”, 100 km north of Terrace BC where 2000 aboriginals were buried alive in hot lava. This site is 10 km by 3 km and gives you a eerily feeling as you walk on that lava.
    Continue with your work Ryan, as difficult as it is. The story has to be told.

    October 12, 2013
    • Thank you for sharing this difficult story, Irene. I am very sorry for the scars that you must carry. The past leaves an ugly mark on so many people and in so many different times and places.

      How we need a hope that the wounds of history can somehow be healed.

      October 12, 2013
  8. lorne brandt #

    Thank you Ryan for the important but difficult thing you are doing and for being courageous enough to post about it. Irene Kroger, I appreciate your comments and interpretation of those events in Europe. Unfortunately, there are too many of our Mennonite people who – sometimes bitterly – take the more simplistic view (denial is too often easier) that ‘we got over it’, why can’t they? There are differences, which I have attempted to write about here

    October 14, 2013
    • Thank you, Lorne. I appreciate the affirmation, although I’m not sure there’s anything particularly courageous about listening to/writing about this stuff as one who has never experienced these things. We often toss around phrases like “It’s the least I can do” rather casually. In this case, I think it is quite literally true.

      Like you, I have heard the simplistic and sometimes bitter comments from Mennonites. I am looking forward to reading your piece about Mennonites and First Nations when I get a few minutes (hopefully!) later today.

      October 15, 2013

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