IN MANY RESPECTS, Garnet Angeconeb is representative of the countless Aboriginal children beaten and raped in Canada’s Indian residential schools. For years he told no one, including his wife. Angry, pain-filled and confused, he drank heavily to dull his feelings. The turning-point in his life arrived during a business trip to Ottawa, on October 31, 1990:
That morning, I got up, showered, dressed, and headed downstairs to meet a colleague for breakfast. “Hey, look at this front-page article on the residential school issue,” he said as he sipped his coffee. I had my own copy of the Globe and Mail tucked under my arm. There, on the front page, was an article about how the then-Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Phil Fontaine, had publicly disclosed that he had been physically and sexually abused while attending an Indian Lake residential school. As I read the article, I began to feel an indescribable pain crawling all over my body. Through this haze of pain, I struggled to admit to my colleague that I, too, like many former students, had experienced sexual and physical abuse while at residential school. I was also enraged by the psychological and spiritual scars inflicted on me and the other students. My colleague and I grew almost completely silent. The silence continued as we ate our breakfast. After a while, my colleague quietly asked, “So you were abused in residential school?” Not knowing what exactly to say, I responded, “Yes, I was abused – sexually.” I told him that a man at the school named Hands, who eventually became an Anglican priest, had abused me and many others at Pelican during the 1960s. I felt a wave of rage overtake me. I had a huge lump in my throat as I struggled to hold back the pain I had buried for so many years. Then, as if a floodgate had been thrown open, I cried uncontrollably. It was the first time I had ever told anyone that as a little boy I had been sexually abused at residential school. For the next year I tried to figure out how to deal with that admission. I had to tell my family (I have been married since 1978 and had never spoken of the abuse to my wife). It took a lot of soul-searching — I had so many doubts.
As Angeconeb recalls years later, Leonard Hands made a deliberate point of refusing to apologize to him either during the January 5, 1996 Kenora District Court sentencing or in the years leading up to his death in 2000: “he specifically stated he was not apologizing to me. He wasn’t allowed to use my name but said he was specifically excluding “G.A.” from his apology. He claimed he had already done so during our meeting in 1992, and that I had refused his apology. It angered me but I realized he was a man going down and that it was his only way of lashing out and trying to regain some control.” No longer among the living, Hands would be the object of posthumous forgiveness. In this way, Angeconeb would begin to let go of the rage and confusion, taking a huge step forward in his personal healing and spiritual growth.
To some, the insistence on forgiving an unrepentant man like Hands might appear strange. One could argue he did not deserve such a gesture. This however misses the point. Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, survivors of physical, emotional, and sexual abuses in the Indian residential schools have wanted the same thing Garnet Angeconeb did: they wanted the silence and secrecy to end, and with them the pain, shame, and collective denial.
Survivors still want these things. If the courts can not deliver — and usually they can’t — then something else must. What too many Canadians fail to grasp is that forgiveness is, and should be, above all else for the survivors. By forgiving, they take a similar leap forward. That is why the question of an apology from the Prime Minister of Canada, delivered on the floor of the House of Commons, mattered so much. It could provide the occasion for many individual turning points and leaps forward. But the asking for and giving of forgiveness is also about the work of restoring relationships, by putting them on an honest, respectful and just foundation — relationships not only between the Canadian government and residential school survivors, but throughout the many communities affected by this long-lived policy of institutionalization.
No one understands better than Garnet Angeconeb the importance of this healing journey. For years now he has been pursuing a vision of the better world that he wants for his grandchildren, and for future generations. Whether speaking about his residential school experience, or combatting racism through his work with the Sioux Lookout Anti-Racism Committee, or promoting healing and reconciliation, he is an inspiring advocate of dignity and hope. Yes, Garnet once told me, we were wounded. Yes, we have suffered. But I have a feeling that through the work of many people, we are coming back.
On November 8, 2012, Garnet Angeconeb officially launches his personal website Garnet’s Journey.