To this day, Lorraine Daniels cannot stomach porridge.
Serving "substandard" food was just one of the ways instructors at residential schools across the country abused the First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who attended them, she says. It was the norm at the schools Daniels attended in Brandon, Birtle and Sandy Bay.
A meal once served to Daniels’ younger sister was so unappetizing she vomited into it, she said.
"I recall sitting across from my sister and witnessing abuse," Daniels, a member of Long Plain First Nation, said Wednesday. "She vomited into her cereal and the nun stood behind her and forced her to eat her vomit."
Decades later, the 65-year-old is telling her story and the stories of those who did not return home from the church-run boarding schools funded by the Canadian government, which had sought to assimilate Indigenous children.
She does so every day in her role as director of the Indian Residential School Museum of Canada.
On Wednesday, Daniels attended the Maamiikwendan Gathering — two days of ceremonies, speakers and discussions about the future of residential school sites. The conference, which continues today, is being held at the Fairmont Winnipeg. It’s being put on by the National Trust for Canada and National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
The gathering was to be held on Long Plain First Nation, which owns the land where the Portage residential school (now home to a national museum) still stands, on the edge of Portage la Prairie. Because of the snow storm that hit the province last week, it was relocated to Winnipeg.
Daniels spoke Wednesday about the progress of the newly opened museum, while the status of residential school sites across the country varies. While some remain, others have been destroyed, including the Fort Alexander Residential School at Sagkeeng First Nation.
Sagkeeng member Theodore Fontaine said Wednesday he wishes the building was still there, so survivors like him could lead the way to preserve its history. He was first sent to the school as a seven-year-old.
"There was a lot of hate, a lot of hurt. People saw it every day and it produced tons and tons of tears, so they tore it down," Fontaine said, adding the only way to heal a "broken circle" is to learn from history.
That is why it is so important, he said, to take time to reflect on the cultural, verbal, physical and sexual abuse many children suffered.
In between sessions, dozens of attendees took a moment to remember the children who died at the residential school in Portage. There were prayers, traditional drumming and a few seconds of silence. The ceremony took place two weeks after the names of 2,800 children who died in residential schools countrywide were unveiled. Many graves are still unmarked.
"Forever, from this point forward, we have ensured that those children’s names are known and that their lives are remembered and that they are not forgotten. That is a very significant turning point for this country," said Ry Moran, director of the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
In Portage, the museum lot has been nominated to receive a national historic site designation. A spokeswoman for Parks Canada said the government agency is working alongside Long Plain to prepare a report to submit to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada for its consideration.
As well, Daniels is applying for grants. The goal is to expand the museum and build a healing garden on the grounds.
"The legacy of the residential schools needs to be preserved so that the future generations will know what has happened. They need to be educated. The public needs to be educated," she said.
For now, Daniels will give tours of the small displays that house artifacts, including photographs, a bed from a residential school and a mannequin dressed in typical residential school attire. She said the museum is accepting artifacts from residential schools across the country.
Maggie is a cub reporter who covers every beat in the newsroom. She appreciates alliteration, when newspaper ink stains her fingertips and, more importantly, tips on social and environmental equity issues.
Updated on Thursday, October 17, 2019 at 6:28 AM CDT: Adds photos