"How Are You Healing?"


​As part of the conversation surrounding intergenerational trauma and reconciliation,
seven female leaders from different parts of Waterloo Region’s Indigenous community
share their personal healing journeys and what moving forward looks like.

On assignment for The Waterloo Region Record
August 2017

Lila Marie Bruyere, 64, residential school survivor and public speaker, Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation, Bear Clan

“I spent too many years being angry. Too much time in darkness. Now, people tell me I’m always smiling. I want to share the positives, and be the light for people rather than someone who brings darkness to them. Now, I want to share.”

Lila Marie Bruyere was six years old the day her mother took her to St. Margaret’s Residential School in Fort Frances, Ontario. By the time she was old enough to leave at age fourteen, she had built a wall inside of her, with no tools to tear it down. It echoed the same confusion, isolation and rage that her brothers had developed in residential school and passed on to her as a child, locking her up in dark cellar basements while her parents, who never discussed their own experiences at residential school, were in town feeding their own addictions.

With these behaviours as a guide for coping, Lila turned to alcohol to numb her pain. “Those were angry years. I didn’t know what to do with all of that rage. I knew I had to do something to help myself. I turned to Alcoholics Anonymous but I didn’t quite know what I was looking for.” One drunken night at a Minnesota bar in October 1988 is what finally turned her life around, when a strange man tried to take advantage of her. For the first time, she fought back. “I let go of all of my rage and ran like crazy. After reaching home at 4 a.m., I was suicidal and couldn’t think of anyone to support me except my oldest son, so I woke him up. He screamed when he saw the condition I was in. I had bite marks all over my arms and neck, and a sore body from fighting him off,” she says. “I decided to report the man to customs, and it turned out the guy was wanted in Alabama for attempted murder. At that moment, I promised myself that I would never drink again. I always ask myself why it took a crisis like this to get serious and ask for help.”

At the age of 42, Lila began her new journey in life. She took up walking 5 kilometres from the reserve to town, sometimes twice a day. “This one morning the sun came up over Rainy Lake, the water looked like glass, and I finally saw the beauty I had not seen before. All this time, I had been walking in a cloud. I started to see things differently, and was ready to work on myself.” Her journey began with a 28-day program at a treatment centre in Toronto, working with a counselor to understand the root of her anxieties. “I realized that I was terrified of abandonment and being alone. I couldn’t handle the idea, so I accepted anything,” she says. “At six years old, you need your mother. My mom was gone a lot, and the separation was devastating. I would sleep holding onto one of her dresses at night.”

A six year old girl alone in the darkness, clinging to an intangible idea of love and comfort. With the help of elders, therapists and counselors, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Lila has come to understand the intergenerational impacts of residential school and how this influenced her self worth.

“I had a lot of tough people work with me, because I am a stubborn individual. I had an elder tell me that if I didn’t let go of the anger, it was going to make me sick,” she says. “I could have stayed angry and negative, I could have blamed everybody else, but I chose not to. I took a nightmare and turned it into positives. This is why I am able to heal.”

Today, Lila holds an Honours Bachelor in Social Work from Carleton University and a Masters in Social Work from Wilfred Laurier. She and her second son Shawn Johnston received their degrees together, and were the first Indigenous mother and son to graduate from Laurier. They developed a workshop that discusses intergenerational trauma. “Speaking is healing. It’s a gift that Shawn and I received from Creator. When I speak publicly about my experience, I’m not only speaking for my own healing, but for other survivors who cannot speak.”

Amy Smoke, 41, UW Aboriginal Education Centre events coordinator, Mohawk Six Nations, Turtle Clan

“The first time I ever heard the big drum, I cried. I was 17 and had never been around it before. But Skye is growing up with it. She knows what regalia is, she knows all the songs. It’s normal for her. She will know her culture as she grows up.”

Three-year-old Skye Smoke holds her moccasins close, asking her mother if she can wear them. Older sister and grandmother watch as Skye calls each article by its proper name. “This is my regalia,” she says. “I wear my fancy shawl at Powwow.”

Geri Duguid sees her granddaughter learn what she herself is slowly trying to master. She fights memories of her father never speaking the language, a fear stemming from his years spent in residential school. In 1975, Geri married a non-Indigenous man and moved off the Six Nations Reservation, giving up her status as a Mohawk woman. “It was a serious decision to make. I wasn’t encouraged to practice my culture in my marriage,” she says.

Her daughter Amy Smoke recalls the confusion and frustration she felt as a young girl. “My mom had nothing to pass on to me. I grew up in Kitchener and was removed from any traditions.” In missing a sense of identity, Amy flunked out of her first year of Conestoga College and started down a path of crime and incarceration. At 22 years old, she was sent to a healing lodge in Toronto called Pedahbun, an Ojibwe word meaning ‘place of new beginning’.

“For the first time I was around native people, medicine, smudging, sweat lodge, and ceremony. When I came home I unfortunately didn’t keep up these practices. I didn’t reach out to any organizations in town, and started sliding out of control again.” Her first born, Jaci, was sent to live with her father, a non-Indigenous man who could offer her a comfortable life.

The cycle was to continue, with another generation removed from its culture, until Amy remembered the teachings she had learned at Pedahbun. “I remembered that there was a better way to live,” she says. “I checked myself into a shelter, went to methadone clinics and decided to go back to school. The Aboriginal Services office didn’t exist the first time I tried attending college. I walked in, and they helped me get back into school to finish my diploma. Next thing I knew, I was handling their marketing campaigns, telling other students about their services. I started building my confidence and speaking about my journey. The office helped me get into University of Waterloo, where I became involved with the post-secondary Indigenous services on their campus.”

Amy recently graduated with her second degree from UW, will begin her work as events coordinator at the Aboriginal Education Centre, and continues to speak about being an Urban Indigenous woman today. “Being around everything keeps me balanced,” she says.

With this strong foundation in place, Amy has grown to become the mother she always wanted to be. Last year, she reunited with her daughter Jaci. Now 17 years old, Jaci is the same age that Amy was when she first heard the big drum play. “We have had some difficult conversations about what I went through, why I wasn’t able to be a good parent at the time. I’ve brought her to events, and she’s expressed how nice it is to be in a room with people that look like her. I realized she needed to be a part of it. It was the reason why I was in trouble. Hopefully she finds the same peace and balance that my mom and I have found.”

Education and campus resources proved to be just as healing for grandmother Geri, who graduated from the Social Service Worker program at Conestoga College just as Amy did. She is now an Elder on campus to provide support for Indigenous students.

“A lot of First Nations women go back to school. My mother always says it’s never too late. Now that she is learning, she’s happier than she ever was,” says Amy.

The determination of these women has lead the way for little Skye. While her family works to reclaim something once lost, she basks in its normalcy. She dances to the drum in her fancy shawl, her moccasins snug on her feet.

“The generational impacts of historical trauma have affected us all. We have each reconnected to our culture in our own time and in our own ways, but Skye has known the beauty of ceremony, music, language, and stories since before she was even born.”

Maria Shallard, 30, Indigenous community helper & advocate, Penelakut First Nation/European ancestry, Coast Salish

“The drum is the heartbeat. When we drum together, our hearts are in unison, beating at the same pace. To have a drum by the water is to connect the heartbeat to the journey of where it is we’re going. We might not know the way forward, but we’re going to continue just as long as the water continues, bringing that heartbeat with us. It’s going to be strong, and if we stand together, it’s going to be in unison.”

They say that understanding begins with a conversation. As Maria Shallard lifts her drum to the Saugeen River, she explains that she is a guest on this territory, and offers a traditional water song. Her open disposition and innate wisdom invites others to ask questions that may otherwise be difficult to ask.

Storytelling has been used throughout history as a way to exchange knowledge. As an explorer of Indigenous wellbeing, Maria believes that true reconciliation lies in building cross-cultural relationships and finding commonalities between different worldviews to connect to the environment.

“See that plant? That was once food, and it spoke to the people that lived here for thousands of years. The land and water hold the memories and stories of those who were here prior, and our responsibility is to make sure that it is here for future generations,” she says. Her words carefully open the mind, creating the foundation for a real conversation to begin. "It’s frustrating when you see that that respect has been lost, or a relationship has been damaged.”

As she looks out across the water, many stories come to surface about relationships to the land - and the necessity to protect it - not only for the wellbeing of Indigenous people, but for the wellbeing of us all. This is our commonality.

“There is so much beauty in this way of thinking about our world,” she says. “When I feel a strong wind at a certain time of year, it reminds me that salmonberry shoots are in harvest back home. The word for this is lila’, and there is a sense of pride in being able to share it. I want to tell someone. It’s hard to translate these things, but the point of explanation is to create a connection with someone of a different understanding and foster kinship.”

Maria’s connection to land and to music was ignited from a teaching passed on to her as a young girl, from an Elder in Victoria, B.C. “I had just made my first drum, and I didn’t yet know how to awaken it. He brought me into the forest and said, ‘Look out at the tree line. See all those trees? Each one is a different note. I want you to sing how you see those trees.’ I was really nervous, but I started to sing from what I saw. He said, ‘That is the song of your drum. Imagine if all of those trees were cut down. You have no song to sing. You have no culture anymore. You have no story to tell because the land no longer has that voice either. That is why we need to protect that land.’ It resonated in a way that made me feel the wisdom of my ancestors,” she says. “They knew that whenever we need healing or guidance, all we need to do is go out, and look at those trees, and we will be able to have a song.”

If music is the product of inspiration, what will happen to our voices if our natural environment continues to be destroyed? We fight for clean water, fight over land ownership, and fight to move forward as a country, but what does healing look like not only for our environment but within ourselves? It is around this that the conversation must be centered.

“I was thinking of healing the other day as I sat by the river. There was a tree growing out of a rock, and the river was pounding over it. That’s life. The fact that the tree can still grow and have strong roots, despite the river pounding against it, is a symbol of what we go through in our lives,” she says. “We all have a story, but there is strength that can be had. You can see it when you look at something like that tree. You can see it in nature. I realize that the answer is actually so simple. That healing is really just sitting by the river, looking at that tree, and thinking ‘I can be like that.’ Water, like adversity, comes in waves, and the river slows down, but as long as it continues, we continue.”

Jade Davis-Smoke, 13, student, Haudenosaunee of Six Nations, Wolf Clan

“In that moment, all I could feel was pride. A lot of pride.”

On June 26, 2017, Jade Davis-Smoke walked across the stage, shook hands with her teachers, and graduated grade eight from John Sweeney Catholic School in Kitchener. Her parents cheered proudly as she accepted her diploma. It was the moment that every student dreams of. Yet Jade’s graduation was unique. Amongst a sea of cocktail dresses, suits and ties, high heels, and ringlet curls, Jade arrived to her elementary school graduation wearing traditional Haudenosaunee clothing.

“I told my friends that I was going to wear the clothing. They all thought it was beautiful. My best friend teared up, she was so excited.” Jade’s decision quickly forced others to reflect on their own cultural roots. “My friend considered wearing her traditional Arabic clothing, but she said she would never feel confident enough to do that. She had already bought a dress.”

Not only did wearing the clothing of her Indigenous heritage instantly make Jade a leader for future graduates, but it also created a foundation for educating her peers. “Most people were supportive and thought it was really unique and confident of me to do it. Other people didn’t know what it was – they asked me if it was a dress,” she says. “I’ve been approached by many people at the high school I’m going to in September, talking to me as if I was foreign. They say, ‘You’re the girl who was wearing the Native clothes, right? You seem so normal.’ They stereotyped me, because they just don’t know. They’ve never seen it before,” she says. “I’ve lived in Kitchener for a year, I didn’t come out of the forest or something.” She laughs as if entertained by their comments. “I don’t get offended because they just don’t know. They’re not educated on it.”

Perhaps Jade was unfazed because she was not concerned with making a statement. On a much more personal level, she saw her graduation as an opportunity to represent her family and her culture, and give to her mother something that an Indigenous woman would never have been able to do before now. “My mother taught me to be strong in my identity. I know that my kids will follow me in that way.”

Jade’s special offering is not only a first for the Davis-Smoke family, but for the city of Kitchener. Although her older brothers wore traditional clothing to their graduations on the Six Nations Reservation, Jade is possibly the first to wear traditional clothing to graduate from a catholic school in the region.

“My brothers were so supportive and proud of me. I’ve never been praised by them like that before. I felt so good about doing that for my parents, and having my whole family there. Afterwards, my little sister said she wants to do the same thing when she graduates.”

As Jade moves on to begin high school at St. Mary’s in Kitchener this September, she leaves behind an important message burned into the walls of her old elementary school. Every graduate remembers the great sense of accomplishment that they felt as they walked across the stage and were handed their diploma. In the special case of Jade Davis-Smoke, it will always mean a little more. “It’s just who I am. Everyone was stressing about what they were going to wear, their makeup, and their hair. I knew that as long as I was being myself, I would feel like the prettiest girl in the room.” 

Elsa Jayne Ruck, 31, singer-songwriter, Anishinaabe, Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation

“Music is so powerful. Whether it’s instrumental, or singing about somebody else’s story; whether it is healing, or exciting people into action. It is fundamental in moving things forward. This is something that I can do.”

Two things were always a part of Elsa Jayne Ruck: one was music, the other her Indigenous heritage. As a young girl, she played piano with an inert passion in her fingertips. In the schoolyard, she would proudly share stories of attending Powwows with her family. Over the years, Elsa Jayne would develop both of these identities, and would eventually discover the strength in their combination.

After attending Briercrest College in Caronport, Saskatchewan to study music, Elsa Jayne returned to Kitchener with greater confidence to pursue music full-time. Alongside her musical journey was the one she would embark on rediscovering her family’s heritage. “We would always celebrate Aboriginal Day and Powwow, but these were fragments of our culture. There was no recognition for where they came from,” she says. “It’s a strange thing. I’ve always been connected to our culture, but we’re just returning to the roots of our First Nation now.”

Her identity as an Anishinaabe woman grew with her songwriting, and music became a place where her most genuine self could grow. “What is important is that I’m an Indigenous person singing about things that are real to me. I sing about my dad’s childhood on the reserve, I sing about nature, I focus on the idea that everything is connected. My music allows me to connect to other Indigenous people. Even if they are from different nations and backgrounds, they feel like family. We’re all in this together.”

Although Elsa Jayne is not out to make songs with a particular message, her songs are infused with a purpose. “I don’t think your life can really stay the same once you acknowledge and accept this part of you. The most obvious way that being Indigenous affects me is justice. I want to be a part of making things right again, and bringing back our traditions and cultures in a progressive way...with my music.”

It’s true that music has proved to be a global instrument for healing. Elsa Jayne sees it as an opportunity to share her own vulnerabilities, but also as a way to represent her people. Her song entitled “Civilized” reflects on the trauma of residential school. “When I started writing this song I shared a little clip of it, and first- and second-generation survivors said ‘please finish this song and represent us.’ It brought me to tears. It gave me a purpose. Although I hadn’t experienced the trauma of residential school myself, they gave me their blessing to represent this story. I always dedicate it to the survivors. It’s a hard song to perform each time, but I think this song - and a lot of other songs that artists are putting out right now - are very healing. They talk about the hurt that we’ve experienced as a people, and the culture that we’ve lost.”

Like most of Elsa’s songs, “Civilized” ends with hope. Its final lines, “they couldn’t steal our hope and they couldn’t steal our future” are the kinds of messages that make Elsa Jayne’s music so powerful. Yet her agenda is a humble one. “I think what’s most important is that the culture is represented, and the stories are being talked about. Rather than a message, the fact that they are existing is the important thing.”

Donna Dubie, 60, Founder of The Healing of the Seven Generations Kitchener, Haudenosaunee of Six Nations, Turtle Clan

“Do you walk the path that Creator wanted you to walk? Do you accept the things that Creator puts in front of you? Allow yourself to see the seeds that Creator is planting. If you are open, then you are strong.”

Donna Dubie always believed that love was a hateful thing. It came with hurt, disrespect, violation and fear. The happiest times of her childhood are tainted with repercussions from her father. “Sometimes we got strap, sometimes buckle. No beating was ever under 50 strikes. I used to count.”

A story about dragging her first Christmas tree home for blocks to surprise her family ends with, “I don’t remember what happened that night, but I know my brother and I went to bed broken and our spirits bruised.”

Donna’s father, Harry Battice (Harvey Baptise) left the Mush Hole Mohawk Institute Residential School a very broken man. On the outside, he was an alcoholic, angry, afraid, an abusive parent and husband. Like others who suffered from the trauma of residential school, his journey through life became stuck in a revolving door of loss, confusion and coping mechanisms. For years Donna would walk down the same path as her father, perpetually stuck in the kinds of relationships she had been taught.

“I was with a very abusive husband. He wasn’t quite as bad as my father, but he beat me severely on occasion. When I was pregnant with our third daughter, he kicked me square in the stomach. When he left us, I became homeless with my four children for six months. I picked up with another man who was more horrendous than my father ever was,” she says. “I thought I knew what my life was going to look like. All I could see was the edge of a cliff and nothing but blackness below me. I pondered again about taking my life. I went to Toronto with a plan to commit suicide, having left my children with someone that I trusted. That is when I met Charlie again.”

Donna has been with her husband Charles Dubie for 35 years. He has never said a hateful thing to her. He has never physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally abused her. “Creator puts the person that you’re supposed to be with in your path. Sometimes it’s not the person that you envisioned for yourself, so you put this person aside and carry forward. I knew my husband previously, but when I saw him again, I suddenly saw him differently. I understand now that he was a gift that that the Creator sent me.”

It took a long time for Donna to relearn the ways in which she experienced love. In finally accepting Charles, she moved through her revolving door of alcohol, abuse, and loneliness to the other side, where her healing journey began.

In 2001, she founded The Healing of the Seven Generations, a Kitchener-based community centre to help bring the same clarity to her community. Every year Donna sees over 15,000 Indigenous people seeking guidance, hoping to break their cycle of suffering and embark on their own paths to find healing. She reminds each of them to accept whatever it is that Creator places in front of them.

“Every time you ask for strength, Creator puts a test in front of you. If you put that test to the side to deal with later and carry forward, Creator knows it. Further down your path, he will put another test, only this time it’s bigger. He will make it so big that you cannot go around it,” she says.

“We have enough strength already. Ask instead for knowledge, understanding, direction, and acceptance. This is what we need to move forward. Creator will show you.”

Sarah Bacon, 29, Healing of the Seven Generations volunteer coordinator, New Brunswick Algonquin and Mik’maq

“I pick up on energies. I think that’s why I have these problems. A room can be overwhelming. If someone is angry, I will pick it up and mirror it. I am trying to learn how to block energies that aren’t mine.”

From a young age, Sarah Bacon was being tested. She saw psychiatrists and doctors, prescribed medications, and diagnosed with a string of learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental health issues. Under the stresses of being told there was something wrong with her, she developed an inhibiting speech impediment. “A lot was happening around me. I wasn’t talking or hearing properly, so doctors labeled me retarded. I was misdiagnosed because I see things differently than other people,” she says.

When school began, Sarah was placed in a special education classroom, designed to teach students with severe disabilities. She describes her experience as debilitating, unaffectionate, and detrimental to her development. “If you’re in a room with someone who rocks back and forth, after awhile you’ll start rocking back and forth,” she says. “I was put in a one-room classroom with other kids labeled disabled with severe mental problems. I had learning difficulties, sure, but not that extreme.” Influenced by her peers, Sarah’s condition worsened. “I was stuck in those places for so long with individuals who were worse than me. I picked up their traits and it made mine worse.”

It has taken years for Sarah to reflect on the ways in which her sensitivity to her surroundings has affected her growth. “When I am really stressed, I’ll revert back to an old me - someone who rocks back and forth for comfort, because I didn’t know what else to do. I was never taught real affection.”

It all changed when Sarah discovered Healing of the Seven Generations in Kitchener, where she finally found a community that would accept her. The more she let go of the labels placed upon her, the less hindering her stammer became. “My speech impediment was much worse two years ago – I would barely be able to talk to you then. Now, I feel safer to speak,” she says.

It is true that Sarah is autistic, epileptic, gay and Indigenous, but she no longer allows the world to diagnose her as anything other than herself. Through cognitive and dialectical therapy, Sarah is slowly rediscovering her voice. “I realize now that I am not a label, I am a human. If they can’t love me for who I am, or if I change in their eyes by telling them who I am, then they are not my real friends,” she says. “Now, I surround myself with the energies I choose.” 

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