NOTE: This article contains details about residential schools in B.C. and may be upsetting to readers. Please contact The Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll-free 1-800-721-0066 or 24-hour crisis line 1-866-925-4419 if you require emotional support or assistance.
Stephanie Bernard is an Indigenous survivor who comes from a family broken apart by intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools.
Canada’s historical policy of cultural genocide through forcibly separating Indigenous children from their families and sending them to residential schools is something current governments are still struggling to address.
Bernard’s parents and grandparents all attended residential schools (her mother went to St. Michael’s in Alert Bay), and this directly affected her childhood from a very early age.
“I’m a trauma survivor, on all levels, from birth through to adulthood,” she said, her voice trailing off. “Poverty, abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence…”
These kinds of issues led to the Ministry of Child and Family Development becoming involved in her home life as a child, and she says she ultimately never really knew her father.
“I wasn’t raised by him, and it was my grandparents who stepped in quite a bit,” she said, adding she was also very fortunate to “have some aunties that also stepped in.”
Bernard’s roots lay deep in the Haxwa’mis and Wuikinuxv First Nations, whose traditional territories are on B.C.’s central coast in Wakeman Sound and Rivers Inlet. Even now, at 43, she can recall bitter, first-hand memories of racism and misogyny while growing up on-reserve and off in Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.
“Racism was really evident,” she said. “Even with all the raised awareness around Indigenous people and colonization and residential schools (today), racism has still actually increased a lot.”
Racial issues recently exposed within the health care sector were not new to her. She says it is something she’s had to deal with her entire life. She said she recently heard doctors making offensive comments about “First Nations cleanliness” and has heard local families share personal stories of poor care she believes were the result of racism.
After high school, Bernard went on to university in Nanaimo and Victoria, where she continued to struggle with all of the anger and pain that had built up. These lingering feelings resulted in her making “poor life decisions,” she said, adding that it was only after finding out she was pregnant with her first child at the age of 19 that she started to really contemplate breaking free from the cycle that she was stuck in.
“I did a 360,” she said, adding her child quickly became her reason for living, and that was the turning point for when she decided to “make changes so I could be the best parent that I could.”
After 13 years of living down island and the birth of her second child, Bernard made the life-altering decision to move back to Port Hardy. That was primarily because she wanted her two sons to be able to experience their own culture and reconnect with family members, but also because she wanted to look after her late grandmother, Diane Windsor, who was battling cancer.
“Sometimes all it takes is one person, and that was my grandmother, she had taken me in at times since I was a baby,” she said, her voice breaking. “She had a great influence on me as a child, as a teenager, and as an adult — she was nurturing, humble and had unconditional love.”
Bernard said moving back to Port Hardy after being away for so long was challenging at times, but she felt that it was “important that my children know my family … it was also beautiful to me that they were able to be raised with big family dinners and were able to go to a smaller school setting that was oriented around culture.”
Over the years she’s had a few different jobs, working in the public education system, as a coordinator for the Mount Waddington Family Literary Society, before settling in as the manager at North Island Building Blocks, a government service that aims to build connections within families that are in need of help.
Bernard said the job is personally rewarding for her, and she feels “very lucky to have the flexibility to develop programs through a holistic approach and find out where the gaps are in the system.”
She added it’s also where she keeps in contact with the First Nations Health Authority, who was in the midst of putting together a report that focused on the health and wellness of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people at all stages of their lives.
The report was published in 2021 under the title ‘Sacred and Strong.’ Bernard was interviewed in-depth for the report, giving testimony on her past experiences and how they effected her.
“I was honoured to have a voice, to tell my story, my truth,” she said, adding the research states “we do have intergenerational effects of colonization and trauma, but as Indigenous people we also have DNA resiliency.”
The ‘Sacred and Strong’ report is over a 100 pages in length and is grounded in perspectives of wellness. It contains data, stories and teachings about mental, emotional, physical, and the spiritual health and wellbeing of First Nations women at every phase of their lives.
The report is available for reading HERE.
After ‘Sacred and Strong’ was published, Bernard noted she was really pleased with how the report came out.
“It was very empowering, I love that it has a qualitative and quantitative approach, I love that it’s evidenced-based, research-based, and it’s a beautiful resource that’s going to shine a light on First Nations women and our ancestors through a positive lens.”
As for what she thinks can be done now and in the future for Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people, she said our government first needs to “decolonize” so “First Nations can move forward in a positive way and have the government truly follow through with the Truth and Reconciliation 94 calls to action.”
Also, Bernard added she feels it’s important for Indigenous people to practice ‘Sanala.’
“Sanala in our language is to be ‘whole’ … If we really practice Sanala, practice being whole, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, we can change negative pathways into positive pathways.”
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