Survivor scars from residential schools told at UPEI

Published on March 27, 2016

Diane Burke and Jenna Burke discuss their mother’s and grandmother’s residential school experience and the effect it had on them at a recent event at UPEI.

Mental Health Week event hears from daugher of Shubenacadie Indian Residential School survivor

When Diane Burke learned of her mother’s past, a lot of things started making sense.

Her mother was a hoarder. Her mother had difficulty showing physical affection. Her mother was a chocaholic.

It wasn’t until she was older that Burke began to piece together why her mother was like this.

“It’s funny, you know, we didn’t put it together growing up.”

Burke’s mother was a residential school survivor and attended Shubenacadie Indian Residential School from ages five to 16.

The experience altered her forever.

“I can probably tell you on half a hand the amount of times my mother approached me or gave me a hug. But I’ll also tell you she loved us, fiercely,” said Diane at a recent event as part of UPEI’s Mental Health Week.

The contrasts were vast between her mother and father’s family, something that still exists today.

“My father’s family was very touchy, always hugging and kissing, very French you know.”

It’s hard to understand, sometimes, how someone could go through an experience like that and not talk at length to their family about it, Diane’s daughter, Jenna Burke said.

The famous picture of the aboriginal children in similar haircuts outside of the Shubenacadie was shown around a table one day.

“This picture was being passed around the table and as it was handed to her she just said, ‘Oh that’s me ,' and like passed it on like it was no big deal,” said Jenna.

“When you talk about the school, you can tell there’s a wall that comes up,” said Diane.

Though her mother escaped the troubles that haunted other members of her family — including alcoholism and drug use — there are other things she does in order to cope.

“My mother is a hoarder when it comes to shoes. My mother is a chocaholic, she will not share chocolate….I don’t think my mother understands how it affected her,” said Diane.

Her mother also has a different relationship with religion. Despite not identifying with any religion, she sent several of her own children to Catholic school. Even more confusing was how her mother seemed to love marching up to the school every time one of her children had a problem.

“My sister went to school one day, came home, hair down to here, she’d have been in Grade 2, I think, going to a Catholic School, and with a note saying she had to have her hair cut because she looked too Indian. So off to school my mother went. Next thing I know my mum had her hair braided up, making her look as aboriginal as possible.”

Diane says the after-effects of what her mother would have gone through continue through generations.

"You have someone who struggles with it and then it’s their children who struggle with the same problems," she said, adding that her family seems to have coped better than some of the other survivors' families.

“I don’t know what made her so strong.”

Jenna agrees.

“If it weren’t for Meme I think our lives would be very different.”