With dignity, a quiet voice, and shaking hands, Mary Kelly shared her story in Chapel. It was a story of immeasurable trauma and lasting scars. It was a story of loss and suffering. But it was also a story of truth and reconciliation.
Mary Kelly is from the Ojibways of Onigaming. She is a citizen of the Anishinaabe Nation. She is a grandmother, a writer, and a poet. She is gracious, funny, gentle and articulate. She is also a survivor of St. Margaret’s Indian Residential School in Fort Frances, Ontario.
The story Mary Kelly shared with our community was difficult to hear. Taken from her home at the age of 5, she was sent away to “have the Indian educated out of her.” Cultural deprivation, the loss of her name, psychological and emotional shaming, physical abuse, and other unthinkable acts became part of her day-to-day lived experience. As we sat together in chapel and listened to her words, it was painful to hear but impossible to deny the harsh reality of our country’s history.
The students were quiet. Not a whisper was heard. Barely a muscle moved. Throughout the presentation, I watched the girls’ faces, trying to gauge their response to this difficult tale. From our youngest to our oldest, I saw looks of concern, sadness, and despair. But I also saw looks of awe, admiration, and compassion, because the story each girl heard was ultimately one that tasked her with the responsibility of living a life of kindness. And the spontaneous standing ovation the girls offered up at the end of Mary Kelly’s talk assured me that they listened well and were touched by her hope-filled message.
In spite of the suffering that Mary Kelly endured at the hands of people who were supposed to care for her, she is remarkably clear that her life today is dedicated to caring for others. Perhaps there were years of anger and outrage at those individuals and a system that caused her so much harm. How could there not have been? But what Mary Kelly offered up to our girls was a message of personal responsibility. Treat others well. Respect our differences as Canadians. Seek to understand. Listen more than you speak. Show kindness and compassion to those in need.
We were moved to learn that Mary Kelly hadn’t set foot inside a boarding or “residential” school since 1976. Neither had she been inside a Chapel. She confessed that it was difficult for her, hearing the door lock behind her when she entered the Castle, walking into the chapel and seeing the pews, just like the pews she had to polish by hand for hours a day at the age of 7. These things triggered strong emotions and fear. With shaking hands and an unsteady voice, she began her talk by acknowledging to us that the mere word, chapel, was hard for her to hear. Sitting in the chapel was hard for her to do. It did not feel like a safe space.
After her presentation and after the girls had gone, a small group of us had the honour of joining Mary Kelly in a smudging ceremony in the chapel. Through that simple ritual, our bodies, our minds, our hearts, and our chapel were purified. It was Mary Kelly’s gift to our school, and a part of the personal healing journey she continues to travel.
Later in the day, a senior student spoke with me about Mary Kelly’s visit. For this young girl, meeting a residential school survivor and hearing the story firsthand helped her better understand what she’d read in a textbook. It also caused her to reflect on what it means to be inclusive, and what it means to be part of a diverse community. She talked about the fact that our school, founded by the Methodist Church of Canada in 1874, no longer had any religious affiliation. It welcomed students of all faiths, and was home to eighty boarding students from around the world. The questions we talked about were simple yet profound: What does the word chapel mean to our community in 2018? Does it exclude some? Does it threaten others? Does it allow for the creation of a safe space? These are weighty questions that I hope our girls will take up as learners and leaders within our school.
I am so thankful for Mary Kelly and for the lasting impact her visit will have on our community. She has awakened within us a consciousness that I believe will endure, and I hope will spur our girls to action. I am also incredibly thankful for Ms. Kuchirka and Ms. Senior, two of our wonderful teachers who, through their dedicated and ongoing work, are encouraging us to expand our consciousness as a community as we learn more from our First Nations sisters and brothers. We are a better community as a result.
See messages below written to Mary by some of our Grade 6 students following the chapel presentation:
“Your story really inspired me to be brave, just like you were, when things aren’t going my way. I’m grateful you came to our school. Your story really touched my heart.”
“I read a book called Fatty Legs and it was about a girl who went to a residential school. When I heard that someone actually had to experience that I felt really, really bad. Tears were dripping down my face. I’m super glad you have family and friends by your side who love you and appreciate you.”
“Your story touched me and helped me better understand that there is still so much to learn about our past. I plan to help promote awareness of Indigenous issues. Your visit to our school inspired me to face my fears and was greatly appreciated.”