‘We decided to figure out how to love again,’ Sask. residential school survivor says of 69-year marriage

Saskatoon

This is a story of one of Canada's longest-running Indian residential schools, but it's also a love story.

Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation elder Therese Seesequasis said she forgot how to love after eight years at St. Michael's Indian Residential School. But she and her husband Kenneth found it again, and shared that love with a growing family that now includes 22 great, great grandkids.(Jason Warick/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Therese Seesequasis remembers everything about her first dance with Kenneth in August, 1941.

"It was a waltz. I was only 12 years old. I was so nervous," she said.

Therese, Kenneth and the other St. Michael's Indian Residential School students were back home for the summer at the Beardy's and Okemasis Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan.

When the music ended in the community hall and their families took them home, Therese and Kenneth didn't see much of each other for the next few years. He worked every summer. At school, the separation of the boys and girls sides was strictly enforced.

The extreme deprivations and abuse perpetrated at St. Michael's have been documented and described by former NHL player Fred Sasakamoose and many others. In 1910, one Indian agent reported 50 per cent of all incoming students died of tuberculosis, a disease exacerbated by the unsanitary, cramped conditions of the schools.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission compiled a list of 3,200 children known to have died in Canadian residential schools. More than 100 of those are St. Michael's students. The TRC report notes these names form only a "partial record," and the actual count is likely far higher.

In 1996, after more than a century, St. Michael's was one of Canada's last residential schools to close. The school building is gone, but dozens of stuffed animals and children's shoes have been left on the grass field following the discovery of 215 children's remains in Kamloops.

Therese said this painful history must be exposed and remembered, but people also need to hear about resilience and love.

"I don't like talking about that any more now. It's too emotional. I promised myself I wouldn't talk about St. Michael's this time. I did my healing," she said, wiping tears from her cheek.

Survivors Therese and Kenneth Seesequasis were married for 69 years. Before he died in 2017, Therese promised she would continue helping any child who needed her, just as they did while raising their own eight kids and 29 from other families over the years.(Submitted by the Seesequasis family)

Four years after that first waltz — Aug. 7, 1945 to be exact — Therese and Kenneth met at the Prince Albert exhibition.

Therese wanted to try the roller-coaster, but was too afraid to go alone. She noticed a group of kids from Beardy's nearby. She asked if someone would sit with her. Kenneth agreed.

The ride was much faster than Therese expected. Her long, frilly skirt flew up over her face.

"I was holding the bar with one hand and trying to push my skirt down (with the other hand). It wouldn't go down. I was thinking, 'Oh my goodness,'" she said.

They got off the ride. Neither of them mentioned the skirt and they went back to their own group of friends.

A week later, they met at a wedding. They danced again and agreed to become boyfriend and girlfriend.

"I told him I always had a crush on him. He said, 'Me too. You're a doll.'"

Therese still had one more year of school, while Kenneth had graduated and was working at Beardy's. Kenneth said he'd wait for her.

For the next eight months, they caught occasional glimpses of each other when Kenneth and his family came to the school to visit siblings. They were not allowed to speak to each other.

Therese finished school and returned to Beardy's. Eight years at St. Michael's had taken its toll on her and the other students. Even though the school was only 10 kilometres from Beardy's, her Cree culture seemed distant, almost foreign. She believed her parents didn't love her.

"I know that wasn't true but that's what we thought. It was the same for Kenneth. Love was taken from us at the school."

Kenneth had waited for her. They spent the next year getting to know each other before getting married Feb. 10, 1948.

"We decided to figure out how to love again. We promised each other we'd get that back."

"We were so poor, but we said our love would be enough."

They grew closer, began to trust each other, and started a family. A few years later, with the only good jobs at the school, they went back. She worked as a cook, and he was a maintenance worker.

Their four boys and four girls started their own families. Therese and Kenneth remained at Beardy's after retiring, helping to care for their grandkids.

At their 25th wedding anniversary dinner, in front of friends and family, Kenneth had to make a confession. He told the story of the roller-coaster and admitted he was sneaking looks while she tried to fix her skirt.

"Then all the kids were running around (the hall) yelling, 'Mooshum is trying to see your thighs! He's looking at your thighs!'"

They became caregivers for the community, raising 29 kids from other families over the years.

Several years ago, Kenneth was diagnosed with cancer. In October 2017, just months short of their 70th wedding anniversary, Therese visited him in the care home for the final time. He asked her to make another promise: if any child needs you, you will never say no. Therese agreed.

"It's hard to lose a partner. But we had a great marriage.

"We tried to be honest, work things out, not argue so much. We always said we have to love each other because we lost so much love at the school."

Today, in addition to the 29 kids from other families, they have eight children, 24 grandchildren, 69 great grandchildren and 22 great great grandchildren.

Therese Seesequasis, 91, says her husband Kenneth, who died in 2017, helped her find love again after it was taken from her at St. Michael's Indian Residential School. (Submitted by the Seesequasis family)

It was one of those grandchildren who came to her house last week. He drove her to the old St. Michael's site and told her the news of the 215 children's bodies discovered in Kamloops

"I couldn't speak. I felt like someone had a hand on my throat."

A couple of days later, Therese and dozens of other survivors attended an emotional ceremony on the school grounds. All she could think was, "How could this be? How could they do this?

As Therese and other survivors across Canada move through their grief, she said it's important to share her story.

Inside the Beardy's community centre, a pouch of tobacco and baked goods have been placed on the table as a sign of respect and protocol for the interview. Daughter Emelda Seesequasis sat with Therese throughout.

Toward the end, Emelda said she knows her parents have always loved her, but she's never heard them say it. Emelda, who also attended St. Michael's, couldn't say those words for many years, either.

"My kids would say it to me and all I could say was, 'Me too.'"

Therese and Emelda said they're simply doing their best to chart a healthy path for their family.

With the interview over, Emelda and another relative help Therese into the passenger seat of a truck.

They're urging Therese, who still lives mostly on her own, to let them move her washer and drier out of the basement so she doesn't have to climb the stairs.

"Maybe some day," she tells them. "But not yet."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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