I Carry The Intergenerational Trauma Of Residential Schools, But I Want My Children To Be Free

We love hard, we bake, we sing, we run, we laugh, we cry, and we celebrate who we are every single day.

by Anna McKenzie
Stories Of Contemporary Indigenous Parenting
The following piece contains references and stories about residential and day “schools.” For survivors and intergenerational survivors, there is support if you are feeling triggered.

As a child, I had night terrors. I would run around the house screaming, my hands throbbing as though they were getting bigger. I felt panicked and I fled the embrace of my worried parents. It wasn’t until I was an adult that my dad told me he had experienced the same night terrors as a little boy. He explained to me that when my grandmother had run away from residential “school,” she developed severe frostbite on her hands. The terror of running through the freezing cold Manitoba winter away from a place designed to exterminate Indigenous children traumatized my grandmother so deeply that my dad and I dreamed about it as children.

In 2015, the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) arrived in Vancouver. I was an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at the time, and all classes were suspended so students could attend and listen to the testimonials of survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential “School” atrocities. I wasn’t sure what to expect but woke up feeling unsettled. I arrived early and witnessed people gathering at the event. Government officials spoke, while Elders and survivors openly wept as their kin embraced them. Photographers captured photos of the bereaved and the traumatized. I left the auditorium because the energy completely overwhelmed me.

At the time, I didn’t yet know that my father attended a day “school” in the Pas, Manitoba, and that my grandparents attended residential “school.” It was kept hidden, a secret so horrific that I didn’t know the full extent of the damage it caused my family until I was in my 30s.

The author and her daughter: “I stayed at home for a year to be with my daughter after she was born. Those early days are some of my most joyful memories, which have lifted me up when I’ve worked through trauma.” Photo by Hannah Anderson Photography

I went outside to find Indigenous peoples gathered everywhere. Knowledge Keepers and Elders were providing medicines, a drum group offered songs, and warm fry bread with jam was being generously handed around. Fire Keepers looked over the sacred fire burning outside, as people joked, laughed, and told stories. It was a notably different atmosphere, and I so desperately wanted the government representatives and my peers from the university to witness the joy and healing occurring outside the confines of the event.

As I left on the bus and passed through the Downtown Eastside, I wondered about my dad’s homelessness, and why he actively chooses to live unhoused. I also had a fleeting yet terrifying thought — how am I going to explain all of this to my future children?

I have always wanted to be a mother, and I became one in 2019. The early days of having my daughter home were blissful, and I felt a lot of gratitude that my experience during this time as a new mom went well for me. We took daily walks along the shores of my daughter’s ancestral territory in Snuneymuxw (Nanaimo, BC). I told her stories of her Grandpa Pete, and that she also belongs to the Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

I still pray for all the children who never came home, and can understand now how that pain can run so deep that it can be carried forward in the blood.

I bounced her to sleep listening to round dance music, purchased Cree language books, and sang to her every night before bed. I felt determined to make sure that my little one was going to be safe, loved, and protected.

In 2021, just before my daughter’s second birthday, I received the news of the 215 children’s bodies that had been found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential “School.” I wept laying beside my daughter that night, singing the same songs I did when she was a newborn, looking at her sweet and helpless body — her freckles, her little birthmark, her curly brown hair. I said a silent prayer under my breath for all of the mothers who had their little ones taken.

A photo taken in the Pas, Manitoba, by the author’s Grandfather Murray McKenzie. “The boy on the right at the same age as my daughter. They remind me so much of each other. They both love to make people laugh.”Photo by Murray McKenzie
A childhood photograph of the author.

In the days following the news, my bones hurt. My body was telling me something. Shortly after, my dad told us about abuse, the terror, and the loss that he and his parents had experienced as children. As he shared, we remembered the night terrors I had as a child.

I still pray for all the children who never came home, and can understand now how that pain can run so deep that it can be carried forward in the blood. I continue to fight off intrusive thoughts of my own child’s body being taken from me, harmed, and buried in the ground. How could I possibly reconcile with that pain? I could not, and it was then that I finally understood why my father chooses to live the way he does.

We love hard, we bake, we sing, we run, we laugh, we cry, and we celebrate who we are every single day. We honor my dad, and we smudge and say prayers for our family members who are no longer here.

Social media quickly showed me that I wasn’t alone in the pain I was feeling. There are many other children who were raised by survivors and intergenerational survivors. Indigenous peoples are healing and relying on our teachings, our medicines, our foods, and our joy to revive our once strong kinship networks. I see this in action every day, in my own family, and in the kin I have that are raising their own children.

On Sept. 30, Canada’s second National Truth and Reconciliation Day, my beautiful stepdaughter sang in a choir in her ancestral language. My friends posted stories of their children dancing in regalia, using their hand drums enthusiastically. Our children are allowed to be who they are. They inherit not only the intergenerational pain, but our generations of joy and resilience.

So how will I explain to my Indigenous children the genocide visited on Indigenous peoples in “Canada”?

The author and her daughter at an event for Canada’s second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Photo courtesy of Anna McKenzie
The author and her father.Photo courtesy of Anna McKenzie

We love hard, we bake, we sing, we run, we laugh, we cry, and we celebrate who we are every single day. We honor my dad, and we smudge and say prayers for our family members who are no longer here. We wear orange, and remember Phyllis Webstad, and all of the survivors. We make heart gardens for the children lost, and we read books to help my children understand.

My stepson asked me if First Nations children will ever be taken again. He asked me if he would be taken from us.

The answer is no, my son. You are safe, you are loved, and Daddy and I are fighting hard so you don’t have to shoulder the burden of this trauma. This is my prayer for my children, for the parents that are working so hard to create beautiful lives for their little ones, and for those who are no longer with us. We are safe now. The children have been set free, and they can dance in their regalia, sing in their language, and be held by their mothers.

The Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066. A national Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

On her fathers side, Anna McKensie is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation with Scots Métis roots from Cumberland House, Saskatchewan. Her mother is a first generation Canadian whose parents immigrated from England and Ireland. She is IndigiNews’ Communications Aunty, Senior Aunty and Contributing Storyteller. She currently resides on the Snuneymuxw First Nation with her partner, and three children.