This is the first door we are going to reclaim as part of Opening the Doors to Dialogue,” Cayuga bead artist Samuel Thomas says, referring to his reconciliation project, which brings First Nations and settlers together to cover old residential school doors with beadwork.
We eye the door in front of us, which once formed part of the entrance to the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., Canada’s first residential school. We’re in that same building now, renamed the Woodland Cultural Centre.
“We will be embroidering 140 strawberries onto 10 panels,” Thomas continues, showing us a glistening strawberry he has already beaded. “When we are done, the panels will be set into this door, because there were 140 residential schools in Canada, and because the strawberry was a cleansing medicine for the Ohsweken people.”
The room grows quiet as we struggle to follow Thomas’s instructions. My needle keeps coming up in the wrong place. More than once it pricks the flesh of my index finger, and blood seeps out. I wish I had brought a thimble.
Slowly, however, we get the hang of beading, and slowly, the 15 or so survivors of the Mohawk Institute who are present on this Saturday in January start to share their stories.
“I came here when I was five years old,” says the woman across from me, her voice hesitant. There is a long pause. We avert our gazes and look politely at our beadwork. “I don’t remember very much. My brother said I used to cry a lot, and that he used to have to come and babysit me.”
This is all it takes. The floodgates of memory burst open, and the stories emerge.
“Indian Affairs used to visit our parents, tell them there was a place where we could go where we would be warm, fed, clothed and looked after,” says one woman. “They were persistent. So when I was five years old, my parents took me and my brother and two sisters here. We watched our parents sign us away. There was no time to say goodbye. I can still hear the door slamming shut behind them.”
“We were locked into the dormitories at night,” says another woman, “but they used to come in and drag us out of bed. I used to pray that it would not be my sister.”
“They used religion as a wea-pon,” says a man. “In the place where they raped you, there was a sign on the wall saying, ‘God loves little children.’”
Listening to the stories of residential school survivors is hard, but it is what I do with these stories now that I think will be even harder. I had entered a place where old wounds were still raw, and where reconciliation would be more than simply saying sorry and being forgiven.
In the poem Dream 1: The Bush Garden from The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Margaret Atwood writes, “Around my feet / the strawberries were surging, huge / and shining / When I bent / to pick, my hands / came away red and wet.”
Reconciliation is very much like the strawberries we embroidered. To truly taste their sweetness and benefit from their cleansing properties, our hands will have to draw back from the shining dream, over and over again, red and wet, until we finally get it right.
Robert Lawson is a minister at Harmony United in Brantford, Ont.