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Sep12FriA First Nations mother finds healing through storytelling and faith in God. September 12, 2014 by Brianne Zelinksy
It was a day Inez Shanoss would never forget. Shanoss was just 13 when she was taken from her home on the First Nations reserve, along with many other Aboriginal children from British Columbia's Nisga'a Valley and the surrounding communities. She stared out the bus window and watched in terror as the buses departed, leaving behind an entire community of helpless, weeping parents. Her final destination was a government boarding school, where years of traumatic events left her with deep emotional scars.
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It was a long time before Shanoss, who attends the Salvation Army church in Prince Rupert, B.C., took her first steps toward healing. “I can't see any other way but through prayer and asking God to help me, and trusting and believing that it's going to happen,” she says.
A Long Way from Home
After leaving the reserve, Shanoss was first taken to Prince Rupert. “I was brought to a hairdresser and got my long, black hair chopped off to my ears,” she recalls. “They ripped out all of my top teeth and stuffed my mouth with gauze. I didn't look like who I was anymore.” In just hours, Shanoss was stripped of her smile, innocence, culture and family.
Ill-equipped for the journey and paralyzed by the agony of undergoing an oral procedure without proper care, Shanoss was crammed into one of ten buses and transported to a boarding school in Surrey, B.C., where she lived from 1970 to 1975.
“It was far away and I only came home once a year in the summer and sometimes during Christmas,” Shanoss says. “They were inhumane to the First Nations children and families of that era.”
Much like the Indian residential schools, some boarding schools attempted to assimilate First Nations children into Canadian culture by forbidding their native language, religious practices and cultural values. “I lost my language, my culture and who I was. I lost my spirit. I lost my identity,” Shanoss laments.
At these boarding homes, some students faced physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of those in charge. “It's really terrible how trauma continued to debilitate me. I lost my talking, walking and mobility,” says Shanoss, who still struggles to discuss her boarding school experience.
From Trauma to Turning Point
In the wake of the traumatizing events she faced away from home, Shanoss developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Loud sounds triggered terrible memories from her teen years, putting her in a constant state of anxiety. “When people raised their voices or if somebody was angry, it made me anxious and I would literally taste blood in my mouth,” she shares.
“I used to get sick every August for about 35 years, not knowing why I wanted to throw up and get sick all the time,” Shanoss continues. “It was because my body and mind were unknowingly preparing me for leaving in September. It was a trigger.”
This fear prevented her from going back to school for nearly three decades. But Shanoss eventually completed high school with a smile on her face, and as valedictorian, she spoke on behalf of her graduating class. “It was pretty awesome to have reached that point and bloom into who I could have been and should have been,” she says. “I got my voice back.”
Shanoss went on to attend Northwest Community College where she was chosen as a representative for a Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) meeting in Ottawa. It was there that she first told her story in public. In front of a large audience, Shanoss reached her arm in the air and clasped her hand tight. As she drew her fist toward her heart, she declared, “I take my spirit back that the government took from me.”
That moment was a turning point, after which Shanoss began to reach out to other residential school survivors who did not know how to deal with their pain. “I opened myself up to talk with them and listen to them. I started going to workshops because I wanted to know what I could do and how I could help them,” she says. “It was amazing to know that my story could help others.”
In 2007, Shanoss' journey toward healing took on a spiritual dimension as she started attending Prince Rupert Community Church.
“Counsellors were minimal in Prince Rupert, so I started going to church,” she recalls. “It's by the grace of God that I have Christian counselling and that's what has pulled me through to today.”
At the church, Shanoss received encouragement from her corps officers, church family, Aboriginal outreach initiatives, counselling programs and Bible studies. “Praying about it every day with the help of the corps officers made a big difference,” she says.
The Salvation Army was also where her children, Adam, Caitlin and Norman, came to know Christ. “All three of my children went to the Army's Camp Mountainview in Houston, B.C., and that's where they gave their hearts to the Lord,” she shares.
A Healing Family
Despite the progress she'd made in her own spiritual journey, Shanoss was concerned that her family was still carrying the pain of past events. “It must have been traumatizing for my parents to lose their children,” she says. She wanted to do something to bring peace to her family.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized to the former students of Indian residential schools in 2008, Shanoss was determined to get recognition for boarding school survivors as well through her connections with the CFS.
“Before my beloved mom, Flora Haldane, died, the CFS put it in their policy that they would recognize boarding school survivors along with residential school survivors,” she says. “I felt like I had made history.”
Shanoss, a single mother, was also concerned with how her boarding school experiences affected her children. “The unfortunate part is when I was physically and emotionally sick, they took care of me,” says Shanoss. “I had to go on the healing journey so I could be a good mother for them—to be strong and enable them to be strong.
“That's why they call it a generational curse,” she continues. “It didn't just affect my parents; it affected me and my children because of the kind of parent I was. It has only been in the past few years that I have taken each of my children aside and apologized to them. As a family we have come a long way.”
But on December 29, 2013, Shanoss and her family faced tragedy again when her eldest son, Adam, died suddenly in a car accident. He had been missing for a week when he was found in a river, where he remained strapped in his car's seatbelt.
“I thank God every waking moment that he was brought home,” she says. “Not the way I wanted, but I thank God that he was taken out of that water and we were able to put him to rest.” It was a devastating loss for the family, one that has challenged Shanoss to rely on God more than ever before. “God is the rock of my salvation and on earth my children are my rock,” she says.
Leaning on God
In the months following Adam's death, Shanoss never expected a miracle to happen. But this past June, her family took another step toward healing when Shanoss' sister, Dena, attended Rising Above, a Christian conference for the survivors of the Indian residential schools. The conference was hosted by The Salvation Army, in partnership with the Rising Above Association.
It was there that Dena renewed her faith and recommitted her life to healing in Christ. “I am no longer going to be worrying that she's left behind because she's praying to God and gaining so much faith,” beams Shanoss. “Rising Above opened doors of hope.”
Her brother, Maynard, was also involved in the conference as a member of the planning committee. “I thank God for blessing us with a praying mother who taught us to pray about everything,” Shanoss says. “My family is now a praying family and we thank God together.”
Although the sting of her past still lingers, Shanoss walks in faith toward a brighter future of loving her family, ministering to others and fighting for the restoration of the First Nations people.
“I have become a stronger person, which has made me want to help women become survivors,” Shanoss says. “A lot of people have gone home and reunited with their families because of my story. I find that very rewarding.
“It's a tremendous amount of leaning on God every day,” she concludes, “but I'm awake again.”