I stare at the structure in front of me.
An old building with copper red bricks filling its frame.
Giant white columns in the center holding up balconies.
At least 20 windows spread across the front.
And decorative trim lining the roof – which reminded me of the border you'd see on a gaudy wedding cake.
The epitome of colonial.
I suppose that's fitting.
Anyone who wasn't familiar with this building might think I was describing someone's dream home.
Instead, what I see in front of me is anything but that.
It's more of a nightmare.
I came into this world almost 30 years after this particular institute was shut down.
But not so long after the last one of its kind was closed in 1996.
I may have missed it chronologically but that doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t affected me.
As soon as you lay your eyes on it you can feel the weight of the pain that happened within those walls.
You can almost hear it in the screaming of the wind.
And once the wind stops, the silence is almost worse.
Acting as an eerie reminder of what happened.
A reminder of what these schools were built for.
I can't even begin to fathom the agony and torment inflicted behind those doors.
And I don't pretend to.
I wasn’t there.
Some would say I was lucky.
Lucky I never had to endure the abuse my ancestors did.
Lucky that I was never stolen from my family.
Lucky that I never had anyone stolen from me.
Lucky that my ancestors survived, otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.
And for that I am – lucky.
But unfortunately, it just isn't that simple.
Locking a door and throwing away the key doesn’t change what happened.
And it didn’t stop what was set in motion with these schools.
The toxins spewed here weren't contained within the four walls I stare at now.
Or the walls of its sister institutes.
Like a disease, they were spread.
They were spread to bystanders looking for something to believe in.
And some were brought home with students who survived or aged out.
To be passed down from generation to generation – through no fault of their own.
Either out of self-hate which was beaten into them or because it was forgotten and lost within those walls.
Robbing those like me and our future kin the chance to truly experience our culture.
To know where we came from, to learn our languages, hear our stories and participate in our practices.
Like a dark cloud on a stormy day,
The beliefs born within this system overcast who we truly are.
And this abstract image painted of us leaves our community facing negative stereotypes and misconceptions at every turn.
Causing us to doubt our worth.
Question who we are.
Caught in this purgatory of who I was meant to be, who I am expected to be and who I actually am.
Like many, I've struggled with this.
I've seen it my entire life.
In many ways.
"Those natives just need to stay on their reserves and quit causing trouble. They shouldn’t even be allowed to leave… But not you, you're a good native."
"They were only accepted into the program because they're native. They needed to fill the quota."
"Class, why do you think there are no Indigenous Peoples here? Coming to this school, or any schools off-reserve?"
From those who I thought were friends.
"They're the most likely to lose all their money gambling because they're native!"
Tarnishing every accomplishment.
Making us feel invisible.
Insulting our character.
And joking at our expense.
No, I am not a "good native" amongst the bad.
I am not a quota. I worked hard to get to where I am today.
We are here. I have been sitting right in front of you, in your class, for the past three months.
And I am not your punchline.
I live in a world where I am the minority.
A life where, most days, the only time I see someone who looks like me is when I'm standing in front of the bathroom mirror.
This being our traditional land.
And, even still, some days I don’t even recognize the person I see in the mirror.
It's as if I have a mask on.
Acting as camouflage to blend into my surroundings.
It's exhausting, pretending to be something you're not.
Yet I've gotten so good at playing this part that I sometimes can't escape it.
Even when I'm alone or at home with family.
It's partly my fault, for not feeling confident enough to just be myself.
And it's partly our history's fault, for forging a society that doesn’t welcome me simply based on the colour of my skin.
It sometimes leaves me wondering, why I left home in the first place.
To be treated and seen as inferior?
And yet we have to persevere.
We've been burdened with this never ending need to be strong and tough.
Never falter or you'll give them another reason to see you as weak.
You must remain eloquent, or you'll prove their stereotypes right.
Be well-behaved or you're just another "uneducated Indian".
Answer all their questions about your culture or you're not Indigenous enough to be their token.
How can I be strong 24/7 when I'm constantly faced with barriers and roadblocks?
How can I be expected to not get angry when things go wrong?
To be prim and proper all the time when that's not who I am?
And worst of all, how can I be expected to answer all these questions and to know all these things about a culture that I never got to experience?
A culture that was stolen from me.
We can't win.
It's an endless pressure to be the version of yourself that others want to see.
To keep up with these standards and unrealistic expectations.
But we're not perfect. No one is.
So we try to find ways to cope,
With this indescribable trauma that has lasted so long and takes on so many forms.
Often the easiest way is to remove yourself.
Physically, emotionally, mentally.
Self-medicating, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide.
All take over our communities as a means to "survive".
Because there is no help, we won't ask because it's a sign of weakness.
We won't ask because we don't want another reason to be seen as less than.
I can’t even tell my family that I love them because of the emotional carnage we've been left with.
It's just something we've never said to one another.
It's another sign of weakness – to be vulnerable.
And attachment to another.
Because to be attached means it will hurt that much more if they're taken again.
As I reflect on the genocide we faced, I can't help but think about what could have been.
What should have been.
There should be thousands of lineages thriving right now.
Our culture and traditions should be alive and well.
Our communities flourishing alongside one another.
Living in harmony, together.
But instead, the beauty in our differences wasn’t seen.
The opportunity to learn from one another, to work with one another.
To be collective stewards of this beautiful land.
This land which we call Turtle Island,
and you call North America,
But we both call home.
I suppose in that way the institutes have won.
This hatred instilled continues.
They have that to be proud of.
This disgusting legacy lives on.
But I'll remind everyone,
That despite the best efforts to eradicate us, to kill us off.
We're still here.
We're here cleaning up the mess made for us.
Laying the little ones that were stolen from us to rest.
Healing from the wounds inflicted.
And getting stronger and stronger every day.
As individuals, as a community and as a culture.
I look up at the building I just confronted one last time and turn to leave.
With each glance back, it grows smaller and smaller behind me but remains there.
It's funny, because that's exactly how these schools will stay with our communities forever.
And as much as I wish we could forget it and move far enough away from it.
Whenever we look back, it will be there.
Always a part of our history and what shaped us to be who we are today.
As we put on our orange shirts, we reflect.
We acknowledge the truths of both past and present.
Remember those who came before us.
Remember whose children were stolen.
And who is left with scars that will stay with us for generations to come.