By Kelly Anne Smith
POWASSAN – Life has been nothing short of profound for an ex-RCMP officer ever since he had a breakdown. Semi-retired now and living in Powassan, Ron Shortt was attending a meeting at the Chisholm United Church about two years ago.
“During the course of the meeting the minister brought up that we would be talking about the residential school system. And bang, I started to shake and I started to cry and I didn’t know why.”
Shortt had been stationed at Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. He remembers the incident happening sometime between October of ’64 and April of ’65.
“I was assigned to go assist an agent from a residential school to pick up two kids from a family. I didn’t think too much of it initially, but when I got there the mom was crying and the children were crying. I actually took one girl out of her mother’s arms. That was rough. At the time I didn’t like what I was doing. I thought it was wrong. Why would you take kids away from their families? I didn’t realize what the residential schools were doing. I just thought it was an education opportunity for children who didn’t have schools in their area. I’ve learned quite a bit different since then.”
Ron Shortt was seen by a North Bay counsellor soon after the church meeting. The counsellor determined Shortt’s mental health crisis was rooted in guilt from his role as an RCMP officer enforcing Canada’s Indian Residential School System.
“I went to a counsellor here in town (North Bay, Ont.) and within 20 minutes she found that the incident of taking the sisters from their mother came back and bit me. The counsellor referred me to the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre. It has been a healing journey ever since. And it’s still ongoing.”
“That’s where I learned a lot about First Nations culture; and about residential schools and how they affected people.”
Shortt explains that the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre has a healing circle that takes place about every two weeks. “That is working great for me.”
Shortt says Rick Dokis, the Aboriginal Healing & Wellness Coordinator, and counsellor George Hughie have been a big part of his healing process.
Hughie says the sharing circle led by Rick Dokis helps men talk about different topics such as coping with stress, depression, understanding healing, and life coping skills. Hughie says Ron Shortt’s wellness started with tradition.
“When he first came, he didn’t really open up. He didn’t really understand about traditional ways such as smudges and healing circles. We referred him to an Elder and other ceremonies.”
Shortt says the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre has been a blessing in more ways than one.
“A fellow I worked with in Sault St. Marie twenty five years ago, I knew he was Cree from Chapleau, but other than being a good guy to get along with, I didn’t know much about him. Well I found out through the North Bay Indian Friendship Centre that Mike Cachagee went to residential school. So I reconnected with him and found out that he is the president of the Survivors of Residential School Association. He arranged for me to go to Ottawa and speak to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
Counsellor George Hughie also felt impelled to be in Ottawa for the official release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
Hughie is an Indian Residential School Survivor with the experience at a young age having an impact on him over the years.
“There were nine of us in our family and I was the only one that left my reserve and I was only seven years old.” Hughie was gone for four years. After that, he was sent away to high school. Hughie says that in those days, people went to work really young, so he moved to find work.
“Residential school broke my family connections. I always felt left out and not close in the family. I was more attached to the kids at residential school. They were my family. We were there for each other.”
Because it was important to George to hear the report in person, Hughie left work Monday night and travelled to Ottawa. He went very early to get a seat in the ballroom.
The event was overwhelming for him. “That day was powerful. History has been recorded.”
“Personally, there were a lot of flashbacks. I was sitting there with tears that I couldn’t hold back. I questioned myself why did that happen to me? Why did I have to go to residential school?”
Hughie credits Ron Shortt with his apology for his part in the residential school system and his personal growth. “It’s been almost a year now since Ron attended the Centre here. He came in not knowing how to forgive himself for forcibly taking children from their parents in his job as an RCMP officer. He wanted to reconcile with Aboriginal Peoples.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Walkers travelled through North Bay stopping at the Indian Friendship Centre. One walker, John Edward from Attawapiskat couldn’t continue for health reasons. Patrick Etherington presented Edward’s Eagle Staff to an honoured Shortt, to continue the journey in the elder’s place.
Ron’s speech to a workshop was received well at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final summary release. He called the week of events, “Like an extreme roller coaster with extreme highs and extreme lows and everything in between.”
Ron Shortt says he had a life changing episode when he attended the Sacred Fire Ceremony.
“They kept that fire burning the whole time. Every morning about 4:30am, they had a ceremony on Victoria Island. I met an elder there, and was able to tell my story to him. He was very receptive and gracious. Just then, three of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners came down to have him bless the documents (the final summary). That was amazing.”
“And now the elder, Hereditary Algonquin Chief Dominique Rankin, has invited me to his lodge in the Laurentians during the Coming of Summer Celebration. He would like me to speak to his people.”