Bruce Allan’s father survived the atrocities of Canada’s residential schools, but he never spoke of them. But Allan, a 59-year-old day school survivor himself from Stellat’en First Nation, has since dedicated his time to supporting others who are beginning to speak about their own trauma.
On Sunday evening, Allan took over the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society’s crisis line for the overnight shift. Since news emerged on Thursday of 215 children whose remains had been found buried at an old residential school site near Kamloops, B.C., the society said it has received the equivalent of a month’s worth of calls, texts and in-person requests for support just over the last four days.
As the sunlight dawned on his overnight shift, Allan said he began receiving calls from Ontario as well — a rarity for the B.C.-based organization.
Callers, Allan said, are looking for “somebody to listen to their story and see what they’ve been through,” while some are in search of long-term support. The conversations about the trauma of residential schools can be difficult, Allan said, but can also be the first step toward healing.
Allan said his father “never talked about it, he never shared anything about it and he took it to the grave with him … A lot of people won’t share their stories, it’s too painful, but the more people share the more healing happens.”
The society has been running a crisis line for residential school survivors for almost two decades, said executive director Angela White. The line began operating before the announcement of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history to date to compensate survivors. While a separate, national hotline has been set up as part of the settlement in 2006, the society has continued to take crisis calls from survivors nationwide since.
“It’s to acknowledge the survivors of residential schools who have suppressed those memories and experiences to cope with them as normally as they possibly could within their own lives,” White said. She added that the settlement process with the federal government has forced survivors to dig deep and unearth those memories.
“It would be like opening up wounds without having a lifeline,” White said. “What we wanted to ensure, then and now, is that when crises such as this come up there are lifelines out there to help people.”
The society’s crisis line is run and operated by around 20 staff members, White said. Some are licensed mental health and addictions workers, who have worked with communities like the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. Others, like Allan, who attended Lejac Residential School near Fraser Lake as a day student between 1967 and 1974, are survivors themselves who underwent difficult healing journeys.
Allan said that while day students experienced residential schools differently, they also underwent traumatic physical and sexual abuse at the schools. For the last 21 years, Allan has helped other survivors heal, and he has worked as a resolution health support worker at the society since 2019, answering the crisis line, offering individual support and participating in cultural healing events within the community.
“I had to do a lot of work on myself, talking to elders, talking to counsellors, therapists, attending workshops, conferences and cultural camps,” he said. “Doing work on myself is really important before I can work with other survivors.”
White said callers can receive support from society staff directly, through one-on-one and group counselling, or cultural rehabilitation programs. They can also be referred to the First Nations Health Authority for long-term mental health care. Requests for cultural support programs are also available through the society’s website, she said, and can be open virtually to residents outside B.C.
Since the announcement of the residential school settlement in 2006, the society’s crisis line has received a high volume of calls during crucial events tied to uncovering trauma that Indigenous communities in Canada have endured. Those include the Federal Indian Day School class-action lawsuit, which began in 2009, and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, whose final report was tabled in 2019, White said.
In light of the discovery of the 215 children buried in Kamloops, White said that many reaching out for help alongside direct survivors have been family members with intergenerational trauma from residential schools, who are grappling with the memory of their parents and grandparents attending those schools. White added that the line is also open to non-Indigenous callers.
“This shattered every ideal of what we’re supposed to be as Canadians and a lot of people are having difficulties with that new perception,” White said. “We don’t turn anyone away, and we try to make sure we have the ability to ground people and get them through that next moment.”
White said the society is already preparing to support people through what she anticipates will be exceptionally traumatic experiences for the Indigenous community, like the calls on Ottawa to reach a settlement for day scholars who were excluded from compensation under the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and the ongoing Indian hospitals class-action lawsuit, which seeks compensation for the abuse and neglect of Indigenous patients over several decades.
As for the children who were buried in Canada’s residential schools, White said the discovery of the mass grave near Kamloops is likely the tip of the iceberg, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates more than 4,100 children died or went missing in residential schools. White said the society will be ready to support the community through what’s to come.
“We know very well this is going to be a rollout of trigger after trigger in finding these children that did not make it home,” she said.
If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to, you can contact the Indian Residential School Survivors Society for counselling support available at 1-800-721-0066, or a national 24/7 Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_