Three generations of Anishinaabe women are helping our community by sharing their personal story of overcoming the legacy of residential schools.
Elder Mary Courchene, daughter Elaine Isaac and granddaughter Dawn Isaac help teach people about the intergenerational effects of residential schools. Their knowledge helps Indigenous families heal and aids counsellors and practitioners to understand the complexity of the situation faced by our First Nations Peoples.
The threesome works in part through Aulneau Renewal Centre, a charitable organization offering personalized counselling services for individuals and families, as well as professional training opportunities.
In order to help others, the family must face and overcome its traumatic past. For Courchene, her residential school experience is inextricably linked to the Missionary Oblate Sisters of St. Boniface, who formed Aulneau Renweal Centre in 1971.
“This was the Order, the nuns, that were part of my residential school experience growing up as a child in Sagkeeng. This was the very order that had supervised me as a child when I was forced by law to attend residential school,” Ms. Courchene says.
The residential school Ms. Courchene attended was next door to her parents’ home.
“It was very traumatic for me to have to live beside my parents but yet never be able to communicate with them, or be a part of a family. Consequently after 10 years our family began to disintegrate,” she says.
Fast forward a few years. It’s 1971 and Mary Courchene is 31-years-old with seven children. She wants to give her family the opportunities she never had, so she packs them up and moves Winnipeg to pursue post-secondary education.
Fast forward another few years to the late ’80s and early ’90s when the residential school era first started to come to light.
“The floodgates were opened and everyone wanted to talk about this… incarceration of generations of children,” Ms. Courchene says. “Naturally there was resentment; [I] had to live through that trauma. And now in my adulthood I had to relive all of that, looking at all the mistakes I’ve made as a result of being a child in residential school.”
Ms. Courchene received a request from a nun from Aulneau to sit on its Board of Directors. Since coming to Winnipeg, Ms. Courchene has been hugely influential; she was the founding Principal of Children of the Earth High School and Dean of Aboriginal Education at Red River College, amongst other achievements.
At first, Ms. Courchene flat out refused. But after the nun’s persistence, she reconsidered.
“I thought to myself, ‘When is it time to get over the anger, the resentment? I’m getting on in years, why don’t I put that aside and why don’t I just sit on the board and see what happens.’”
It was around this time that Ms. Elaine Isaac was doing her Masters in Social Work and dealing with her own issues surrounding residential schools.
“At one point I thought I had a mental illness,” Ms. Elaine Isaac says. “Like many people I was just feeling the effects of the trauma that we had sustained as First Nations people, and as a family. Our family was particularly affected because both my parents were in residential school.”
Ms. Elaine Isaac attended a conference put on by Aulneau, and soon after agreed to develop an Aboriginal focused approach for programming.
“The program took a look at the effects of trauma and the ways Anishinaabe people are portrayed as being less than ideal parents and that they basically fill up the child welfare system,” Ms. Elaine Isaac says. “I wanted to point out there was a historical reason and then to point to some of the wonderful parenting paradigms that were in place since time immemorial.”
Soon after Ms. Dawn Isaac became involved at Aulneau, adding another layer to the intergenerational tale. Today, she works as Aulneau’s Director of Development.
The family offers workshops a few times each year.
“It’s really experiential for everyone in the room,” Ms. Dawn Isaac says of the workshops. “Everyone’s sitting in a circle facing each other, no barriers. And at the end of the workshops people have shared and cried and we’ve found it connects to their own history whether they’re First Nations or not.”
The Winnipeg Foundation has supported Aulneau Renewal Centre with numerous grants totaling more than $515,000 since 2000. The Foundation is committed to upholding the principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Its grants support a wide range of projects that celebrate Indigenous cultures and promote healing.
Hear more about the Courchene/Isaac family on rivercity360.org.