Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
November 19, 2001
Diocese helps heal scars of abuse
Workshops enable residential school students, staff to move beyond painful memories
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
YELLOWKNIFE — Margaret McDonald will never be able to forget the physical and emotional abuse she underwent at the hands of Catholic nuns while attending Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik in the 1960s.
The experience made her angry, bitter and dysfunctional, nearly ruining her life as an adult.
But thanks to a unique healing and reconciliation program developed by the Church, McDonald is now able to talk about forgiveness and about moving away from the past.
The 50-year-old mother, grandmother, registered nurse, adult educator and social worker from Norman Wells attended Grollier Hall from 1960 to 1970 and still has vivid memories of those years.
McDonald says the nuns who ran the school were cruel and routinely beat her with a whip. They also pulled her hair, punched her, kicked her, pinched her, called her names and made her feel worthless.
"These nuns were really mean," she remembers. "They had these very long fingernails they gouged into my skull and my arms. I was constantly bruised and cut. At six years old I couldn't understand why they were doing this to me. All I knew is that these people were working for God."
As a result, McDonald's adult life became a living hell, filled with stories of alcohol and drug abuse as well as broken relationships. Anger and rage consumed her for the longest time.
Like many victims of the residential school system, McDonald spent most of her life stuck in her past, unable to get on with her life.
That changed a few months ago when she enrolled in Return to the Spirit, a six-week personal empowerment workshop designed by the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith for victims of the residential school systems and for Church people.
She said the workshop somewhat freed her of the pain and resentment, allowing her to get on with her life. McDonald still remembers the past but is no longer its prisoner.
Several dioceses and religious orders across Western Canada are facing lawsuits by aboriginal people who claim they were sexually, physically and emotionally abused in residential schools.
The Mackenzie Diocese, which at one point had six residential schools within its borders, has had 29 claims from Grollier Hall and Fort Chipewyan residential schools. It has successfully settled nine.
All of the claims in the diocese are being settled out of court through a process of negotiation involving the victim, the Church and the government.
For the most part, dioceses have focused the bulk of their energies into reviewing the claims, paying little attention to the need for healing, noted Mackenzie Bishop Denis Croteau.
"The problem facing many dioceses and religious orders is that when everything is said and done regarding the settlement of claims, there will be little money left to do the healing," he said.
Faced with that possibility, the Oblate bishop decided last January to engage a group of trainers and Church leaders to explore the residential school issue and to establish a healing process that would address both the psychological and spiritual needs of those claiming to have been hurt by the residential school experience.
"The Church has a healing role," he said. "As Church people, healing has to remain a priority."
Marc Pizandawatc, a native social developer, facilitator and consultant from Calgary who has been delivering personal development workshops in the Northwest Territories for more than two years, was put in charge of the project. Other key players in the project are diocesan Church facilitator Peter Hart and Sister Ann Thomson, a Sister of St. Ann working for the diocese as an adult educator.
They came up with a process that helps residential school victims and Church personnel to move ahead in life creating a future based in empowerment, "rather than being stuck creating a future which is based on creating more and more of the past."
Initial studies conducted by the group showed that both residential school victims and Church personnel were stuck in their stories of the past and were repeating them to whoever would listen, thus perpetuating the resentment and the division.
While victims talk about pain and blame the Church and the government for it, the churches hold the view that they were trying to do something good and now are being punished for it. They too feel hurt and some are also resentful.
People get stuck in their stories of the past and are often drawn into a position in which they are right and others wrong, explains Pizandawatc. The emotions caused by the memories colour people's responses in the present, reducing their power to choose and act.
The workshop assists participants to reframe their past in a manner that gives them freedom to choose a life-giving option for themselves, Pizandawatc said.
"The goal of Return to the Spirit is to help aboriginal people with their healing but is also to move into a partnership with the white Church leaders and the native people," Thomson said.
"It is also about looking at what happened to people and have them come to realize that they can choose to let go and move on with their lives."
Unlike conventional therapy, which requires clients to retell their stories over and over, Return to the Spirit "dismantles their story to get at what is really there," Pizandawatc said.
"We are there to help people move forward and the only way people can move forward is to be able to complete the issues from the past that have a hold on them and let go of whatever it is they need to let go of to move forward."
Return to the Spirit, he said, is about transformation and empowerment. "It's about understanding profoundly something that happened in the past and is showing up in the present and how it's gotten stuck. And then we show people how to get unstuck."
Realizing that people on both sides of the equation are stuck in their stories and their positions, the group decided to create two processes, one for residential school victims, another for Church people.
A pilot session for residential school victims was held last May in the Shatu Region with 23 participants from four communities. Another session for Church personnel from across Canada was held in Yellowknife last October.
All 23 participants at the workshop for victims were at different levels of rage, anger, resentment and confusion about the Church. But when at the end of the six days they were asked if they would be willing to do reconciliation work with the Church all 23 answered yes, Pizandawatc said.
A process of reconciliation between residential school victims and Church leaders and personnel has been scheduled for late January in Yellowknife.
The Return to the Spirit process has been so successful Croteau is planning to market the workshop across the country.
"I think the workshop clarified a lot of things for me," McDonald said. "The program taught me that as long as I live in that story (of abuse) I will always be miserable and I will never be free and I won't be happy."
The woman now realizes she built a story around her real experience of abuse and that she lived in that story for too long. "I have decided to drop it," she said. "That was something that happened in the past. Yes it was bad but if I drop it I can move on with my life."
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