This article contains descriptions of trauma that may be triggering. Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line.
The trauma from residential school experiences is intergenerational – passed from one generation to the next in different forms. It’s not always physical.
For Janet Hanuse, one of the most harmful ways it presented itself was in a community’s silence. “What was normal was concealing each others’ secrets.”
Hanuse grew up in Port Hardy, a descendant of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw and Wuikinuxv Nations. Both of her parents went through residential school – her mother for three weeks and her father for 11 years. Both of them were left with scars – seen and unseen.
“My father never spoke of what happened,” Hanuse recalled while sitting on a seaside bench on a warm, sunny day. Lined with strands of silver, her thick black hair framed her face. “He said, ‘it was enough that I went through it. There’s no sense putting you through it, too.’”
When Hanuse would later recount stories she’d read from residential school survivors to him, her father would simply nod and say, “it’s true – all of it.”
Hanuse said both of her parents were good people. Her father was a very smart, sensitive man. “I never once doubted there was love from my parents.”
But, they carried pain. Her mother was violent towards Hanuse and her four siblings. Her father was violent towards her mother, and both struggled with alcoholism.
Before she was seven, Hanuse said her mother was nothing but kind. She remembered learning to make and fry bread with her. After that, things changed, becoming violent and turbulent.
“I later realized that my mother went to residential school when she was seven, that’s when violence started for her.”
What Hanuse didn’t discover until many years later was that despite the homelife violence, her parents were doing their best to shield their family.
“I didn’t know it, but they were protecting us. My mother was protecting us from things that were so much worse happening in our community,” Hanuse said. “If someone else was a threat to us, she would turn 10 feet tall and bulletproof … Her protection cultivated a fight in me.”
The violence of intergenerational trauma was so prevalent in Port Hardy it was an unacknowledged, omnipresent norm.
“I never knew. Sometimes I’d be sitting, laughing, playing with classmates. Then they wouldn’t come back after recess … I didn’t know what was happening to them.”
It was in adulthood that she spoke with her former classmates and learned the truth about what the community was experiencing.
“It was horrific – gut-wrenching. It was not a relief to know that I was not alone.”
Hanuse learned about residential schools and was struck with a passion to know more. She studied residential schools, trauma, psychology and mental health in her post-secondary education.
She also sought out mentorship from other women who could teach her compassion, patience, strength and courage.
This, Hanuse said, was a pursuit of resilience.
It was through learning the truth that Hanuse could begin her own healing journey, part of which was coming to better understand and forgive her own parents.
When Hanuse was 25, she was pregnant with her fourth and youngest child.
“At that point, I had a total regression. I felt young and small and like I needed my mom – which I’d never felt before.”
Before that point, Hanuse didn’t realize everything her mother had experienced – from residential school to violence from the community. She had been resentful and unwilling to need her mother.
But then she called her, and they spoke openly of needing one another, and of past pain. During that call, Hanuse’s mother apologized to her for how she’d been as a parent. It wasn’t the first time she had apologized, but it was the first time Hanuse could forgive her.
“She cried,” Hanuse recalled between tears of her own. “She finally felt that forgiveness.”
But the healing journey isn’t linear; it has ups and downs and twists.
When Hanuse had to leave Port Hardy to pursue her education, she left her children with their paternal grandparents and came back to discover that they had suffered from mental abuse while she was away, washing Hanuse with her own wave of parental guilt.
Hanuse’s children were growing up and struggling with their own mental health, including anxiety and alcohol abuse. Hanuse herself had a brief reliance on alcohol and had gone through two turbulent romantic relationships.
It was when Hanuse’s youngest child, Elleanna Hunt – who uses they/them pronouns – gave an ultimatum that Hanuse made a life-changing decision.
“I told her, ‘you need to get us out of here. We need to leave. I need to go to Victoria, and if you don’t come with me I will get there myself,” Hunt said, chin high while sitting next to their mother.
After moving to Victoria it took six months before their guard came down.
“We didn’t even know our guard had been up,” Hanuse said. “When our guards came down … we were hit with a ton of bricks with all that trauma. We didn’t realize we weren’t processing it before.”
Since then, there’s been a huge effort within the family to talk about those feelings and to learn about mental health and healing together.
That has meant learning, making mistakes and growing together.
“We used to use a lot of blame,” Hunt said. “’You made me feel this when you did that’ … We do that less now. We apologize, give each other space, and talk about it later.”
Hanuse said as a parent she’s trying very hard to see her old patterns and name them – addiction, codependency, enabling and overcompensation. Most importantly, she wants to practise openness with her children, and with herself.
“It’s my mission to kick butt and break the cycle,” she said. “It’s acknowledging what my contribution was to that. I need to understand it so I can change it and can break it.”
For anyone just starting their own healing journeys, Hanuse said you need one thing – courage.
“It started out having the courage to speak up, to confront it and say no, this is not happening anymore,” she said. “As a parent, it’s having the courage to instil hope and commit to learning – about yourself and your children and your own survival, and to forgive yourself. Be kind and compassionate to yourself.
“Know that your parents did their best with their tools and teachings they have, and now you’re doing the best with what you have.”
This is part three in a special series prepared by Black Press Media. You can find more of the series and other articles on truth and reconciliation online here.
READ MORE: Stories about truth and reconciliation
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