Edmund Metatawabin is many things. The 71-year-old is a grandfather, an author, a former chief of Fort Albany First Nation, a residential-school survivor, and an advocate. And, as of Tuesday, Metatawabin is a Companion of the Order of Canada, an honour that he received in recognition of his work advocating on behalf of other residential-school survivors.
From 1956 to 1964, Metatawabin attended St. Anne’s Indian Residential School, in Fort Albany, where he and many of his fellow students experienced physical, psychological, and sexual abuse at the hands of school administrators. He documented his experiences in his 2014 book, Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History.
In 1992, Metatawabin organized a conference for other survivors of St. Anne’s so that they could share their stories. He took their accounts to the police, spurring a criminal investigation that culminated in the convictions of five former staff.
Metatawabin spoke to TVO.org about his experience of trauma, his hopes for the future, and how it felt to be honoured by the same country that had countenanced and supported residential schools.
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How did you feel when you found out you were receiving the Order of Canada?
For me, it’s confusing. You have the political section of government saying, “We acknowledge your effort to help people.” But, on the other hand, the legal component of the government continues to shut me down. [There are ongoing court battles over the federal government’s refusal to release documents related to residential-school survivors from St. Anne's.] So what does that mean? I know the legal component is costing a lot of money.
And then the message from receiving a medal — it is not for you to stop doing what you’re doing, because you’re helping a lot of people by representing the survivors of St. Anne’s. The message is, continue doing whatever it is you’re doing.
What do you hope people take away from your being recognized for your work advocating for survivors?
I hope we begin to talk about providing help to survivors that are still struggling right now. The inappropriate behaviour — I mean drinking and doing all kinds of things that a person with post-traumatic stress disorder does — that behaviour was passed on to the children. Many of the survivors passed on this behaviour to their children, who also became parents. So you never break this process.
People talk about healing. It’s just a word that has no meaning. When you say healing, along with that word is a process. You don’t just say sorry and keep walking, because you’re going to bump into somebody way down the road again. So nothing is changing.
You have experienced trauma. Where have you found support?
Talking to my own elders. I saw people — an elder, a doctor, a healer, and a storyteller, a keeper of legends — many people that I needed and were missing. I saw them take the hand of a person that was suffering and do a diagnosis right there, just by holding the person’s hand. They would say, “Oh, you have what we call ‘sand in the brain’” — maybe that’s PTSD. “What you have to do is go to this ceremony four times, and you’ll begin to see something from there.”
I saw many elders that have traditional abilities that come from our culture — abilities that are sort of unbelievable. They actually make the rock move in front of your eyes. That’s how powerful they were for me. I saw the uniqueness of our culture. I saw the power of our elders, male and female, and the culture became something real.
I had a dream that I was in a dark place, and then I found a hole in the dark, and I opened the hole bigger, and through the hole, I could see a tranquil setting on the other side. The sun was rising. It was such a beautiful setting that I knew there was something that I wasn’t finding yet — I knew I would find it.
What advice do you have for Indigenous youth?
Value your life. And instead of thinking about yourself, put away that little machine there, that doorway to excitement: the phone or the tablet.
I like a tranquil setting. But what they see is something very exciting: lots of motion, lots of action, lots of activity. And when they put their phone down, everything becomes boring to them because, in reality, we are moving slowly. They want to pick up that tablet and see some excitement.
I would tell them to maintain pace — or to go back to the speed of your grandmother. Help your grandmother by observing what she’s trying to do. Ask her, “Can I get you something? Can I help you? Can I peel the potatoes?” Just be with your family.
Do your grandkids spend a lot of time on their phones?
Unfortunately, they all do. But it’s up to us, when we see them, to put our stuff away. Our example should be that we don’t use these things when our children are around. So I say, “Let’s go for a ride.” I take them out of that and show them something else.
I say to my grandchildren, “You’ve got your tablet — now let me show you your grandfather’s tablet. Want to see it?” And they say, “Yeah, I want to see that.” I go to the front door, and I open the door and say, “There it is! It’s very interactive. Look at the river! There’s a boat there — let’s go take it.” I call that my grandfather’s tablet.
What is your hope for the future of Indigenous people in Canada?
My hope is that our people become strong. That our youth will become strong. We will increase in numbers, in influence, in affluence. That’s the good thing that I see — our people will become stronger. And if I look far in the future, I think to myself, possibly, we will have the country back. That’s a possibility that I see.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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