My grandfather used to say that he’d never attended an Indian residential school. He’d shrug off his abuse in school as if it was no big deal. After all, everyone he knew was abused by White teachers. They were all beaten for speaking Ojibwe, beaten until they forgot how to speak it altogether.
The Methodist-run residential school for Native children that my grandfather likely attended was called Mount Elgin Industrial Institute. On the reserve, it was known by another name: Mount Elgin Residential School. But he wouldn’t call it that.
He wouldn’t name that school or his trauma, but it was still there. And I inherited it, even if I spent my early years not realizing it.
I grew up away from the reserve, in a middle-class, White-passing family in Ontario. Being Native was not a way of life for me. In fact, I didn’t know that I was Ojibwe until I was in the first grade. It just wasn’t something my family spoke about.
Once I learned, little things poked at my sense of worth—things such as regular, everyday anger and racism toward Native people in Ontario. Clashes between Natives and White communities made headlines there regularly while I was growing up. I was constantly told by the adults in my life that the Natives were “causing trouble.” That they were “bringing it on themselves.” It was easy to believe this racism. After all, I was surrounded by it.
At the same time, I was surrounded by family and friends who denied my indigeneity. The racism and denial took a toll. I was constantly anxious, especially around authority. I flinched when people moved too quickly or raised a hand around me. And I was hypervigilant, something that continues to this day.
The mental illness diagnoses began racking up, and I turned to addictive behaviors—cutting, self-hating, and starving myself. And though I sat through therapy and popped anti-depressants, I continued to feel displaced and angry.
“That’s what being an Indian is,” he replied, touching for the first…