This article contains descriptions of abuse endured or witnessed by children that may be triggering. It mentions suicide and sexual violence against children. Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line.
It is bizarre to hear a story like Chuck Henry’s and feel like there is a positive spin to be taken away from it.
Henry has worked tirelessly to reach that point.
He is good-humoured, with the occasional chuckle punctuating even the most fraught memories. Proudly, he shows off a recent knitting design he completed. Towards the end of his story, he lights up as he lays out his plan to take his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to a water park.
That warmth belies the immense destructiveness of his past.
“When we talk about residential school, one of the first things that people would talk to me about (is) ‘oh, you’re one of the lucky ones to make it home alive from the residential school.’” He chuckles slightly but it fades. “The life that I lived, with all the shame, guilt, anger, trying to commit suicide, drinking. I said, ‘no they’re probably the lucky ones.’ They didn’t have to deal with what I have dealt with.”
At five years old, his ear got ripped open by a nun who pulled on it.
At seven years old, he was raped by one of his supervisors.
“I felt really ugly, really ugly, telling that lawyer the first time and then getting home to my dad and telling my dad the same thing,” he pauses, the words catching in his throat.
“The hurt on my dad’s face when I told him – just like a knife was pushed through my heart. I really, really felt when I saw my dad’s face, telling him what that supervisor did to me.”
At 12 years old, his fingers started curling due to arthritis after having his hands beaten and broken so many times.
Around that age he started drinking, desperately searching for the peace he could not find in nightmare-ravaged, sleepless nights. Tormented by the cries of his classmates whom he had once been locked in a cupboard with at the Kuper Island Indian Residential School, he would spend nights walking, sometimes for hours at a time. After his father passed away, he would sometimes walk the four hours from Duncan to Chemainus to his father’s grave and try and sleep there, lying on the ground next to his headstone.
At around 30 years old, he was diagnosed with depression. Anxiety and nightmares meant sleep was rare and that made it difficult to visit family. Claustrophobia meant he could not sit in the back of a car.
During some of the darkest moments, Henry considered suicide, like many of his peers had done.
“Leaving residential school and the buddies I had at residential school, they turned a certain age and they took their own lives. I thought that was the thing to do. I thought maybe that’s the best thing I could do because I didn’t know how my life was going to turn out.”
It was after one of those long, anxiety-fuelled walks that his auntie found him, sat him down and told him she believed in him. Henry cites that as a turning point for himself, where he decided to accept any help people offered and help himself so he could help his family.
He’s happiest when he’s talking about his family. He remembers his father fondly. After years of nightmares, and an incessant rewinding of the traumatic tape of his childhood, he dreams of bringing his cousin – who is like a brother to him – to the water park as well.
A big impetus for Henry trying to turn his life around is guarding his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren from the trauma he’s suffered.
That is something he has struggled with. Henry does not shirk the responsibility for some of the harm he has caused. There would be times when he would take out his anger on his daughter and would later have to apologize.
To this day, he avoids romantic relationships because of the pain he once inflicted on a past partner.
“I put that lady through hell, with the anger that I was packing at that time.”
Life at home was not always easy or safe. When Henry left residential school at 12, he returned home to live with his auntie, who had a boyfriend who abused Henry. He left home for a while.
Perhaps one of the most pernicious impacts of residential schools, according to Henry, was the damage it did to families, damage which in many cases still has not been mended.
While he is determined to break the cycle of inter-generational trauma, he doesn’t see an end to the cycle of prejudice he has faced throughout his life – words and violence that cut new wounds and re-open old ones.
When he was in high school, Henry saw a bully picking on another Indigenous kid. Henry stepped in, kicking the bully in the ear, echoes of the injuries he had suffered at the hands of a nun in residential school ringing out. The nun went unpunished, Henry was suspended for a month.
In the principal’s office, Henry asked why the bully was not being punished. The principal ignored him.
After a month, Henry returned to school and two of the bully’s friends were waiting to jump him. Henry defended himself and was suspended again.
Once more the principal ignored him when Henry asked why the bullies were not being punished.
“I don’t know how they sleep at night, hating people like that. How can somebody hate a kid? That baffles me.”
At 19 years old, he was nine days away from getting his ticket for a tire maintenance course. One of the instructors was determined to see Henry fail, assigning impossible workloads.
When he completed the work regardless, the instructor mocked Henry, telling him he would never pass.
Henry punched the instructor and was kicked off the course, nine days before completing it. There are many instances like this as Henry looks back on his life, where he felt like something good had happened or was about to happen, only to be immediately blocked by an obstacle. More recently, a man who worked in a residential school laughed at Henry when he tried to tell the man his story.
“I don’t think it’ll ever change,” he says with a slight, rueful chuckle when asked if he thought Indigenous People would be treated fairly in the future. “I’ve had to fight all my life.”
Hand in hand with that resoluteness has walked a willingness to accept help, which has come in different forms.
He tried talking to a psychologist but found it was not for him.
He had better luck with hypnotherapy, which Henry credits with “probably saving my life.” After spending years barely getting an hour of sleep, after his first session with a hypnotherapist he slept for five. Now, the nightmares are gone and there are days where he sleeps for 11 hours or more.
“I love my sleep,” he smiles.
Now, while not freed from the pain of his past, he can look into the future. He has plans to open a wool mill in Duncan and expand his knitting business.
“I’ve really found who I am supposed to be. I don’t feel guilt anymore – I don’t feel sad, angry. I love the people around me, I love what people have in their hearts, I love what I have in my heart. Instead of giving out the anger and the guilt, I’m going to start giving my grandkids, my kids, the love that my grandparents, my parents, gave to me. That’s what it’s all about, being First Nations.
“With this Orange Shirt Day, it’s not a guarantee, but at least it’s a start for our kids.”
READ MORE: Stories about truth and reconciliation