National crisis lines offering support to residential school survivors see major spike in calls, interactions

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Following the discovery of the remains of the 215 children in unmarked graves near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., the national crisis lines for residential school survivors and their loved ones are being “stretched to the max.”

“We probably went from maybe 750 to 1,200 interactions a day, but since last Thursday, we have went from 3,000 to 5,000 a day,” said Angela White, the executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS).

The IRSSS operates two crisis lines and has 13 staff members. The society has also been around for 30 years and is currently offering their services to Indigenous people all across the country both online and over the phone.

White has asked their current funder, the First Nations Health Authority, for more support and has been assured extra help is on the way.

“Anxiety, and depression, you know, hurt, anger, grief, loss, all of those things – that’s exactly what we’re seeing,” she said.

White said they are witnessing a lot of “buried” trauma resurfacing, as they try to ground individual’s emotional and spiritual anxieties.

“When they were as young as they were going into those schools, the people looking after them constantly told them that their voices would mean nothing, that no one would ever believe them,” the executive director explained.

“So, over the years, living with those things that were going on, those are the secrets, those are the whispers, everything that they pushed down,’ White added.

She goes on to say that for some, the recent news out of Kamloops may feel like “validation” for the trauma they experienced.

Tracy Desjarlais is an elder-in-training from the Piapot Cree Nation in southern Saskatchewan, and she is currently going through the process of learning about Indigenous healing practices and medicines.

While talking about her own emotional wounds, Desjarlais says moving away from the secrecy of abuse first normalized and learned in residential schools will be a significant undertaking.

“When I went to my mother at the age of four, five years old to tell… that one of my relatives had sexually abused me, I was told to be quiet,” she recalled.

“Those are things we didn’t talk about because when she was going through her abuse, she was told not to tell and talk about it, so, that carried on to me,” Desjarlais added.

Desjarlais also recalls being “embarrassed” of her First Nations identity when she was growing up in Regina and went to public elementary school.

She says the feeling lessened when she went to high school, but nonetheless, it was still there as she remembers there being few opportunities to be able to embrace her culture and way of life off the reserve.

Desjarlais says the normalization of racist and discriminatory attitudes towards First Nations people during that time also played a big role in that.

But, now in her fifties, Desjarlais feels much more comfortable being openly vocal about her identity and even started jingle dancing a few years ago. She says she tried on a traditional jingle dress for the first time ever just a few years ago, and dancing the way her ancestors did helps with her own spiritual journey.

The elder-in-training says to truly be in tune with your roots and proud of who you are is significantly integral to one’s healing.

She hopes this will be an eye-opening experience for all Canadians when it comes to facing the long-term impacts of residential schools.

“Because we’ve known it for a long time, but it’s time that people start to realize that this is what happened, it is the truth, it has been genocide against our people and it’s time for a change,” Desjarlais stated.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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