Woodland Cree gathering allows residential school survivors to foster healing by sharing stories

Residential school survivor Agnes Parenteau speaks at the Woodland Cree Gathering in Prince Albert on Aug. 15, 2023. – Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

Agnes Parenteau didn’t know her name for much of her childhood.

The residential school survivor spoke at a Woodland Cree Gathering in Prince Albert on Tuesday, telling attendees that her name was one of many identity factors that the system stripped from her. 

Rather than her name, she was known as a number.

“Our caregivers were nuns and priests from the Catholic church. They were supposed to be our caregivers, but there was a lot of abuse, you know, physical, mental, social, sexual,” she explained.

“I know many of my school mates passed away – they never told their story.”

Parenteau, now 82 years old, is a retired nurse. Over 45 years, she worked in eight different First Nation communities, giving her a startling look at how mental health and addictions are plaguing youth. Much of their trauma has been passed down from generations of residential school survivors, she said.

“I have become really strong, really resilient, I have learned to use my voice,” said Parenteau.

“The youth, you all have a voice, too. You can do whatever you want to do.”

The Iron Swing drum group performs for the Woodland Cree Gathering opening ceremonies. — Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

The Woodland Cree Gathering is an annual event, hosted in rotation between the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (PBCN), Lac La Ronge Indian Band and Montreal Lake Cree Nation.

PBCN is hosting the event all week at its Prince Albert urban reserve.

Chief Karen Bird introduced the residential school survivors who spoke. She said listening to their stories has been healing.

“I’ve never heard my dad speak about it, and he went there for many years,” she said.

“I know that with all of the things that come out…from our hearts and minds, we have our mental health workers, our counsellors. We always say that if there’s any triggers, make sure you talk to somebody.”

Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (PBCN) Chief Karen Bird speaks at the Woodland Cree Gathering’s opening ceremonies. PBCN consists of eight communities. — Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

Some Indigenous leaders in attendance addressed their continued work for former schools in Île-à-la-Crosse and Timber Bay to be recognized as residential schools.

Former students have not received compensation because they were left out of residential school settlements.

Opening ceremonies took place on Tuesday.

Speakers included each of the Woodland Cree chiefs, Karen Bird, Tammy Cook-Searson and Joyce Naytowhow-McLeod, Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC) chiefs Brian Hardlotte and Chris Jobb, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron and Prince Albert’s interim police Chief Patrick Nogier.

‘We don’t want to lose history’

Throughout the week, the Chief Joseph Custer reserve in Prince Albert will be filled with traditional food and teachings.

Urban Coun. Clarisse LeCoq said members are serving community breakfasts and lunches each day, along with traditional suppers. There’s also meat and fish smoking, as well as fish filleting and cultural food preparation.

A variety of events are taking place, such as a fashion show, crib tournament, horseshoe tournament, ironman competitions, singing and jigging competitions, canoe races and Cree storytelling.

“We don’t want to lose history. Besides that, there’s youth involved here, so they know what teachings we bring them and it will be continuous. We’re trying to keep our culture together,” said LeCoq.

Part of continuing on their culture is keeping the Woodland Cree language alive, she said. PBCN members can take part in a survey, which will be used to determine the state of the language and facilitate workshops led by elders.

The Woodland Cree Gathering’s grand entrance included multiple Indigenous leaders and representation from communities across northern Saskatchewan. — Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

“Everybody gets to meet each other,” said LeCoq about the importance of the yearly event.

People from First Nation communities across Saskatchewan, even some from Alaska, are attending the event to celebrate Woodland Cree ways of life.

“The food is always great, but kinship, fellowship and coming together with friends and relatives is greater,” said Chris Jobb, vice-chief for the PAGC.

“There’s two things that I go by in life – all we have is time, and family is important. When I say family, it doesn’t necessarily have to be your biological family.”

The Woodland Cree Gathering is taking place until closing ceremonies at 1 p.m. on Friday. Each day begins with breakfast at 8 a.m.