This blog post was created to explore the intersectional and humanistic nature of disability. People with disabilities live with and experience the physical world in a variety of ways and disability can arise for a multitude of reasons. We wish to explore how people with disabilities are affected by their lived experiences and how systemic discrimination, policies and legislation can affect individuals in society.
This story contains sensitive subject matter relating to physical and sexual abuse, Residential Schools, as well as Missing and Murdered Indigenous children. The topics discussed may cause trauma; if you need assistance, please seek support at the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line which has been set up to provide support for former Residential School students. You can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling 24-Hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
For the purposes of anonymity, the interviewee’s name has been changed and any identifiable information regarding her location, ancestry and specific Residential School has been removed. We have tried to keep her words as much as possible in our editing. This is her story.
Suzie is an Aboriginal woman from Alberta, Canada. From the ages of 5 to 13 years-old, Suzie had been abducted from her community and was forced to attend an Indian Residential School hundreds of miles away from her family.
Suzie recalls growing up in her community as a healthy child, raised and loved by her grandparents. She did not think of herself as having a disability prior to attending Residential School. Taken from her community at 5 years-old, Suzie spent the next 8 years separated from her family. She recalls the egregious actions done to her and her peers during her time at the school. She witnessed instances of physical and sexual abuse, forced isolation, starvation, forced labour, as well as the emotional and mental toll and cruelty of the Residential School legacy.
Suzie discussed the physical and sexual abuse that she experienced at the hands of school officials. Suzie acquired multiple concussions and brain bleeds, subsequently experiencing blurred vision, as a result of the beatings. She remembers several of the children, including herself, would always take the blame to try and mitigate the harm to the other students, especially on the younger children. Throughout her childhood, Suzie and others were often locked in a cupboard as a form of punishment. She was starved, soiled and left isolated for days at a time. Suzie was often on high alert and has high sensory awareness and at times, sensory overload as a result. Suzie stated that “looking back, so many had developed Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) at the school, although there was no name for it then.”
Children were not given adequate health care at the Residential School, and Suzie’s wounds were never tended to by professional physicians. Many children feared sharing their pain and suffering due to the fear of School officials having information that could be used against them, or potentially further harming them. Children were also punished for being vulnerable or emotional, speaking their Indigenous languages or not looking an adult in the eyes. Due to the instances of prolonged isolation in the cupboard and other types of punishment, Suzie spent many days with her head bent in a small space, resulting in damage to her upper spine. Suzie began seeing spots in her vision but did not share this information with School officials or anyone for decades. Due to her low vision, she was called clumsy, insolent and was beaten for it.
Much later as an adult, Suzie received multiple brain scans which showed unresolved and unhealed brain injuries as a result of the physical abuse. In part due to the unhealed brain injuries and to years of starvation leading to malnutrition, Suzie was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) later in life. She was told that the unresolved brain injuries showed up like “pieces of confetti” on her MRI, causing the progression of MS. Suzie also discovered that she lives with heart issues due to the lack of vitamins and minerals from years of malnutrition. Suzie was told that her persistent vision loss was as a result of the brain injuries caused by physical abuse and poor nutrition, all at the hands of Residential School officials. She also experiences joint problems, mobility and some cognitive issues as a result of the physical abuse. She did not learn to read until she taught herself in her teens; she was very quiet and barely spoke until her early 20’s. She now uses a white cane to aid in maneuvering an inaccessible world, while sometimes utilizing a walker or wheelchair, as well as a service dog. Suzie recognizes that her disabilities were a direct result of her upbringing at the Residential School. The abuse experienced caused persistent and untreated injuries, both mental and physical.
At first, when recalling the years spent at the school, she found it hard to think clearly, to reiterate how she was feeling or to avoid flashbacks of some of the memories during that time in her life. Now she can more easily look at it. Though it still brings back feelings of a life that was cut back from what it could have been. She recalls spending much of her time lashing out, but now she utilizes therapeutic practices and her culture to support her recovery. She explained that despite living with physical disabilities due to the abuse, she also fought for years to ensure she could work through many of the traumas.
However, she found that the more she spoke of her experience, the less people believed her recollection of abuse and the disappearance of children. Trained therapists told her that she was transferring her fear and making up the unthinkable to compensate. She described that “it was like being abused all over again.”
Recently, with the news of the 215 children found in Kamloops, many conversations arose regarding the trauma Indigenous children experienced and what sort of assistance was available to deal with the trauma. Suzie described that “it was like the oppressors had control over what our truth was to be believed.”
Suzie commented that “it was ingrained into all of the children that they were not okay and never would be. For so long so many of us believed we were somehow inferior and deserved this treatment.” It was only years later, as an adult and talking to others, that it became clear that the children were not the problem. Suzie stated that “the attitudes and legal abduction of children are ingrained in systemic racism which was and is the issue. This also was part of taking Indigenous land and destroying Indigenous life.” Suzie stated that these same colonial tactics of the mass removal of children to destroy Indigenous communities continues today through the child-welfare system.
Suzie stated: “Colonizers tried to say our abuse and responses to the abuse was normal practice for Indigenous peoples. It became a collective thought, as we dealt with so much trauma, pain and decades of abductions of Indigenous children in the communities. Now through our own sheer determination and work towards healing, understanding and talking to each other, we know what really happened to us and ask the rest of Canada and the world to stop the continued oppression of anyone. Let all the dirty secrets out into the light, as its only then we collectively can heal.”
Receiving her MS diagnosis and the realization that her vision would continue to deteriorate prompted a persistent thought-process, “I will always be a product of my upbringing.” The medical conditions she acquired as a result of her upbringing would follow her for the rest of her life, as would the emotional, mental and spiritual scars she bears. She realized that the Residential School legacy went far beyond the trauma, it changed the entire trajectory of her life and health. When she realized that her long-term disabilities were as a result of the physical abuse at the hands of School officials, she became physically and emotionally ill. She progressed on a decline emotionally and mentally for some time re-living the sense of isolation, anger, imbalance and trauma which snowballed into an emotional rollercoaster. She realized that her disability was a product of her lived experience, which now informs how she will maneuver the world, both physically and emotionally today and informs the way she wants to live well in her living experience. Suzie stated that “Hate causes hate if you let it take over you. Feeling victimized is not a place I want to remain being pushed into. I will not let that happen within myself anymore. It is not mine as it was put inside me and I have taken my power back to let that go. I seldom become angry anymore. I sit still and just let people do their worst. Then I brush off their arrows and walk in my own peace. I will however use my found voice, along with others who are not toxic, to identify, and then strategically go after, the change that needs to happen.”
Suzie began her journey to reconciliation, concentrating on healing the 4 quadrants: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. She stated that she “had to come to terms with accepting my body as it is.” She realized that she was unable to turn back time, but instead, could educate others to refrain from engaging in modern-day colonization and upholding the oral histories of Indigenous people and of all people with disabilities.
Indigenous peoples have all been hurt, punished and pushed to the margins by a system designed to oppress Indigenous communities. Suzie is determined to move towards health alongside other survivors, and her community. She states that “The one thing I know for sure is we have been here since time immemorial and have proven that we will continue, no matter what.”
Suzie began with sobriety, healing and acceptance of herself and others. She allowed herself to be taught by others and used her righteous anger to propel her into human rights work. As she learned more about systemic change, she started working as a disability rights advocate looking to incorporate her lived experience into the realm of disability rights. She became an advocate to help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and trauma, and to advocate for the rights of women with disabilities. She continues her work as an advocate and mentor for BIPOC women with disabilities within the national and international disability rights movement.
Beyond all else, Suzie is a happy caring woman, Residential School Survivor and thriver with a disability who is on the journey of healing, learning and spreading her love and passion to all those around her. She is “ONE OF US”.
LDSC Research Assistant, Roxana Jahani Aval (JD Candidate, 2022), conducted Suzie’s interview and transcribed her story for this post.