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Talk heals past school shame

Smith man organizing residential school healing program

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services

Fort Smith (Apr 07/03) - Lawrence Cheezie knows the damage caused by residential schools. For 10 years beginning when he was just seven, Cheezie attended residential schools, first in Fort Chipewyan and later in Yellowknife.

Before being taken away to school, he says, he lived a good life on the land with his family. "When I went to residential school, all that was turned upside down."

Residential schools tried to make native children ashamed of their language, culture, skin colour and even their names, he explains.

"My name was changed," he says, noting his last name was originally Tchize, meaning "little lynx." Now, he plans to start the process to change his name back to the original.

In residential school, Cheezie says, he was physically and sexually abused.

The now 56-year-old says he was also "spiritually weakened" by constantly being told he was no good.

But he says he has started to overcome the experience by talking about it. "It's sort of like an overwhelming release of tension. The more you let out, the better you feel."

Cheezie is organizing a residential school healing program for this summer in Fort Smith.

The two workshops are being presented by the Benevolent Society of Smith's Landing First Nation.

About a half-dozen talking circles are being held in advance of the workshops, Cheezie says, "just to sit down and relate what happened to you in residential schools."

The program -- which can accept a maximum of 15 people -- will be presented by a group called Indigini from Cold Lake and funded with $50,000 from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in Ottawa.

"We welcome anybody who wants to come and share their stories about residential schools," Cheezie says.

The program will begin in June with a five-day workshop on the land, and will be followed by another workshop in September.

Many of the people who have gone through residential schools have died from suicide and alcoholism, Cheezie notes. "But the legacy of residential schools still lives on through extended families and between generations."

Many residential school survivors also experienced trouble with the law, he says. "A lot of my classmates ended up in the penitentiary."

And, he points out, the descendants of many residential school children have suffered from alcoholism, abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Cheezie says he is still dealing with the effects of residential schools.

"It will probably go on until I die."