‘How did our community survive this?’

Aboriginal pupils at Edmonton Residential School, Alberta in the 1950s. Embedded in a wider policy of assimilation, the church-run schools have been accused of cultural genocide.

Library and Archives Canada / e011080263

The Missing Children Project, part of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is investigating the deaths, disappearances and burial places of more than 4,100 aboriginal students who died in government-funded residential schools.

From the 1870s onwards, around 150,000 aboriginal children across Canada were taken from their families, often by force, and sent to government-run schools where they were forbidden to speak their language or practise their own culture.

‘It’s a huge project,’ explains Kimberly Murray, a member of the Kahnesatake Mohawk Nation and executive Director of the TRC. ‘We are continuing to add [deceased or missing] children’s names.’

Disease was rife in the dorms of the church-run schools, where students died from malnutrition, neglect and in accidents. Physically, mentally and sexually abused, some children committed suicide or died attempting to flee.

‘This is sacred work and it is not easy. As a mother of two young kids I ask myself, “How did our community survive this?”’ says Murray.

She relates the story of Charlie Hunter, a 13-year-old residential school student in Ontario who drowned while rescuing a partially blind classmate in 1974. He was buried 500 kilometres from his home village of Peawanuck, without parental consultation.

After seeing his story in the Toronto Star newspaper recently, readers fundraised to bring home the boy’s remains. Among those attending the reburial service was Joseph Koostachin – the man Charlie Hunter had saved.

The testimonies of survivors – who number around 80,000 – have provided crucial evidence, along with records from federal and provincial government and churches.

More submissions are anticipated. Murray encourages anyone with relevant information to contact the TRC, which has just over a year left of a five-year mandate.

‘We are keeping a side list,’ she says, ‘and will continue to look where there are suspected deaths but we can’t find documents.’

Eventually, survivors’ testimonies and all other TRC documentation will be archived at the University of Manitoba and made publicly accessible, with some privacy stipulations.

Many Canadians are unaware of this hidden history. Other initiatives such as the education package ‘100 Years of Loss’, recently developed by the Legacy of Hope Foundation, are working alongside the TRC to increase understanding and help the healing process.

The residential schools policy was active in Canada until the mid-20th century, with the last school closing its doors as recently as 1996.

Burundian peace worker Pascaline Nsekera

Pascaline Nsekera searched for peace during war. And now, from her new home in Canada, this refugee of Burundi’s long and violent conflict is passionate about helping others.

‘I lived every day not knowing if I would survive,’ Nsekera says about her life in the small east African country. ‘I was a student at the university and looking for a way out.’

When Burundi’s first democratically elected president was assassinated in 1993 after only a hundred days in office, widespread ethnic violence erupted between Hutu and Tutsi factions. Amid the chaos, Nsekera – who is of mixed heritage – joined the Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation under the Cross (MIPAREC). This pacifist non-governmental agency, started by a minister in her home town of Getiga, sent Nsekera to South Africa in 1995 for conflict resolution training. While Nsekera studied peace tactics, the military seized control of her country.

‘I was stranded,’ she remembers. ‘They closed the borders and I couldn’t go home.’

So Nsekera went to Kenya instead, assisted by members of a United Nations refugee programme.

Through her contact with the UN, Nsekera learned about the World University Services of Canada (WUSC) and its scholarships to refugees – an opportunity she seized.

‘I am one of 1,000 lucky students who have been sponsored by WUSC,’ Nsekera enthuses. ‘It was fate.’

In 1997 Nsekera, then 25, travelled to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. After earning a degree in social work, she was hired as an administrator within the faculty.

‘I worked with the Africa Awareness Network; our goal was to promote an African Studies programme,’ Nsekera explains. ‘We shared African culture and studies with students who were very interested and open.’

Nsekera also helped refugee students adjust to campus life and became a board member of WUSC.

Five years later she went to work as a counsellor at La Boussole, Vancouver’s only francophone immigrant service agency. In her spare time, she helped establish the Burundi Community of British Columbia, a cultural, social and solidarity society. ‘Many who come to us are disoriented,’ Nsekera says of her French-speaking immigrant clients, several of whom come from former French colonies in Africa. ‘They can barely catch the bus. We help them get started and take them through the whole process. Integration can take a long time. They need to learn English. It’s difficult for them to find work in their own field. We have to be realistic; I try to be as knowledgeable and connected with the resources in the community as possible, so I can help them. I tell them “I can help you get this far.” And I tell them my story.’

Nsekera also gives refugee teenagers a chance to tell their own stories. ‘Illustrated Journey’ is a programme she initiated three years ago, teaching 20 immigrant and refugee youngsters – many of whom are orphans – how to draw comic book art.

The idea for the programme came to Nsekera when she was helping four refugee orphans from Rwanda. Their father was killed in Tutsi-Hutu clashes in 1994 and their mother died later from health complications, after they had escaped to Burundi. When one of the children needed medical attention, authorities at the hospital were able to assist, eventually leading to their move to Vancouver. Nsekera found foster home placements for three of the four siblings but the eldest daughter was too old to qualify.

‘She was on her own,’ Nsekera says. ‘I was her counsellor, but I was also like a big sister to her and we still keep in touch. I was inspired by her to create this programme. She was illiterate but needed a way to express herself without using language. She also needed a network of support.’

Participants of ‘Illustrated Journey’ gather once a week to learn the basics of drawing from professional artists. The result is a booklet of stories of how these teenagers came to Canada.

‘These young people don’t speak very much English. Comics are an accessible medium,’ Nsekera reveals. ‘This project gives them a bigger view of Canada. They have the support of others and a space to express their thoughts.’

Family roots may explain some of Nsekera’s desire for peaceful solutions. Her father was a Tutsi, the dominant minority in Burundi, and her mother a Hutu, the majority ethnic group. The struggle for control between the two groups (as also experienced in neighbouring Rwanda) began even before Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962. The eruption of full-scale war led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people; 48,000 others fled to Tanzania and another 140,000 were internally displaced.

‘It was a grinding 10-year war,’ Nsekera recalls. ‘Technically it is safe there now, but there has to be rebuilding before more people go back.’

Burundi is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Landlocked and dependent on agricultural exports, including coffee, tea and sugar, the country’s post-war economy has required substantial international aid.

Illiteracy is also a major problem. Nsekera dreams of building a vocational college in her home town, giving local people practical skills.

While Nsekera’s immediate family survived the war, some members of her extended family were not so fortunate. Still, Nsekera is hopeful and believes ongoing economic and educational projects in Burundi will bring positive results.

‘My mother was always generous and shared with others. I learned not to be held back by circumstances. I have always been touched by what is missing. I’ve always wanted to make things better.’

Pascaline Nsekera talked with Janet Nicol

Helen Gray

Helen Gray talked with Janet Nicol

‘More than 100,000 mines have been destroyed since 1994.’

Photo by João Madomal.

It may be the most dangerous job in the world, but it doesn’t seem to faze Helen Gray. The feisty Scot heads a team of female ‘de-miners’ in Mozambique, a country littered with thousands of lethal landmines after nearly two decades of deadly civil war. Over 900,000 died in the fighting, which began in 1977. Five million civilians were displaced, while thousands lost limbs as a result of the landmines. Gray and her Mozambican colleagues work for the HALO Trust, a small non-governmental organization whose sole mandate is to rid countries of military debris. And in Mozambique they’ve had resounding success. ‘More than 100,000 mines have been destroyed since 1994,’ according to Gray. ‘The four provinces in the north are now mine-free.’

De-miners’ work differs from that of sappers – soldiers who plant and disable landmines – so only the peace-minded need apply. Once an occupation dominated by men, HALO began recruiting women in the 1990s. Gray was just 24 when she signed on in 2004. She spent two years in Angola, then in 2007 transferred to Mozambique.

‘I wanted to work in the humanitarian field,’ Gray recalls from her temporary home in Chimoio, a city in the centre of the country. ‘This is tangible work. You destroy a landmine, it’s gone. De-mining is not a black art or rocket science. It just needs to be carried out methodically and safely. When the mines are cleared, we’ve removed a problem for the local community.’

When Mozambique’s conflict began, the Soviet-backed FRELIMO Government set landmines to defend power supplies and transport routes, while South African-supported RENAMO rebels countered with their own mines aimed at closing roads between towns and markets. A portion of the war debris can be cleared with mechanical devices, but most of the detailed clean-up requires people.

‘We make a difference,’ Gray admits. ‘Once the land is cleared, the local population can move freely, till the soil, build houses, walk to the river or simply not worry about their children running into the bush behind the village.’

Gray is well acquainted with the rural life, having grown up on a farm in East Lothian, Scotland. She worked as an environmental interpreter at the Scottish Seabird Centre and then spent a year as an expedition guide in Peru’s endangered rainforest.

‘First we survey the area,’ Gray says. ‘We speak to people in the community – ex-police officers, farmers and soldiers. It’s been 16 years since the war ended, but many still know where the mines are. We then create accurate surveys to identify minefields.’

A team of 10 people don face shields and bullet-proof vests before heading into the field.  All have been highly trained and four of them, including the section commander and supervisor, also have paramedic skills.

Concentration is critical. ‘We use metal detectors and our work is very methodical,’ Gray explains. ‘We have tight rules for safety reasons. We mark the area with lines of red sticks and de-mine along clear wide strips, inch by inch.’

A mine could still explode unexpectedly. This means de-miners must stay on marked paths that have already been cleared. If there is an explosion, workers are trained to stay calm and follow the path out. A Land Rover ambulance, fitted with a radio for communication, is on site in case of emergency.

‘We start at 6 in the morning and finish at 1pm, six days a week,’ Gray continues. ‘Most of our teams are in camps near the worksite. We work for 50 minutes and take 10-minute breaks.’

HALO Trust currently employs 270 people across Mozambique. ‘It is important to hire local people so the salaries go back into the communities,’ Gray stresses. In fact, of the 8,000 employees working for HALO in nine countries, most are locals.

Recruiting women hasn’t been a problem. The women de-miners working with Gray are enthusiastic about their job.

Luisa Paulo Mondlane, 22, is single and says she became a de-miner ‘because of curiosity and necessity’. Her colleague Sheila Chiponde, 21, is proud and disciplined. Chiponde is single with one child: ‘I feel like a queen. It’s like a military life.’

Ercilia de Fatima, 24, and Flora Armando, 27, are both married with one child, and have been de-miners for almost two years. Both enjoy the strong friendships with staff, although Armando points out that ‘the tents allow water in when it rains’ and ‘it can be too hot when the sun is strong’. All four women hope to use their wages for more education.

HALO’s goal is to clear all the mines in Mozambique by 2014. But more funding is urgently needed to help pay salaries.

Last spring HALO teams near the capital, Maputo, began working in an area supposedly cleared by the state electrical company. They discovered thousands of landmines and unearthed human and animal skeletal remains. ‘It just goes to show the difference between commercial de-miners and humanitarian clearance,’ Gray says.

By ensuring the land is completely safe, Gray and her co-workers are building a hopeful future in Mozambique – mine by mine.

For more information visit the HALO website: www.halotrust.org

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