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Local First Nations woman named to national residential school survivors’ circle

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Sarnia woman Lila Bruyere, recently from Aamjiwnaang, has been named to a Canada-wide residential school survivor’s circle at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Manitoba. A retired social worker and advocate for indigenous rights, Bruyere says she hopes the survivor circle can create change on a national […]


Sarnia woman Lila Bruyere, recently from Aamjiwnaang, has been named to a Canada-wide residential school survivor's circle at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Manitoba. A retired social worker and advocate for indigenous rights, Bruyere says she hopes the survivor circle can create change on a national level. (Louis Pin/The Observer)

Sarnia’s Lila Bruyere is a residential school survivor, recovered alcoholic, reformed mother, and one of seven people recently named to a national residential school survivors’ circle in Manitoba.

Bruyere agreed last week to join the circle in September along with six other Indigenous people, all at one time forced into Canada’s residential schools. Together they will help guide and inform the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, an Indigenous-lead institute created to oversee recommendations from a decade-long inquiry into the nation’s infamous residential school system.

For Bruyere, a retired social worker and outspoken advocate for Indigenous issues, the appointment is a chance to enact change across Canada.

“We’re still working on a plan,” she said, days after her meeting with the other soon-to-be circle members. “When (the government) talks about a call to action … really there hasn’t been much action.”

Bruyere grew up on the Couchiching First Nation near Fort Francis, where she was sent to a residential school in 1959. She speaks openly about the next 50 years of her life — eight years in a residential school followed by decades of addiction and depression, both which harmed her relationship with her three sons.

It’s taken years to recover from that experience and to fix those relationships. The culmination of that journey came in 2014, when Bruyere graduated with a master’s degree in social work from Laurier University alongside her son Shawn Johnston, who later nominated her for the survivors’ circle.

Meeting those other residential school survivors in late May was an eye-opening experience, Bruyere said. They connected instantly.

“It was amazing,” she said. “What happened this time was we just got to know each other. Seven council members, but then there were a lot of elders there too … It was like we knew each other right away. There’s no wall between us.”

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is, in part, a reminder of residential schools and the lingering multi-generational effects on people forced into those institutes. Bruyere and her sons have spent years rebuilding trust and respect, to the point where their relationship now is “stronger than ever,” her oldest son Gary Johnson said.

Bruyere’s experience in a residential school affected her children as well, she said.

“I wasn’t the best mom,” she said. “Eventually I ended up raising my kids on my own. (Gary) became like the father to his brothers, he became the responsible one. He took care of them.”

“(We’ve) heard a lot of people say ‘Get over it’,” Bruyere added. “But it’s not going to go away, not for us or our kids.”

Bruyere, until recently a resident of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, will be the only representative from Ontario on the new survivors’ circle. The province has 133 First Nations and more than 220,000 self-identified First Nations people.

The survivors’ circle is part of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, directed by a seven-person governing circle and housed at the University of Manitoba.

Correction: a former version of this story said Bruyere lives in the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Though Bruyere lived in Aamjiwnaang for roughly 20 years she now lives on the north side of Sarnia. The Observer regrets the error.

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