By Siobhan Cole
It’s been said that forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. Speaking with Roger Chum, you really get a sense of that.
Roger has been through a lot in his life. As described on MHFA Canada, he is a former student and resident of Bishop Horden Residential School from 1969 – 1974. He has lived with addictions, mental health issues, suicide and overcoming many of life’s challenges.
But while enduring experiences that would have broken many Canadians, Roger has dedicate his life to helping others. In his spare time, he is now the President of the Ontario Native Education Counselling Association.
But, all stories have to start somewhere, and this one should start from the beginning.
“I am an Omushkego (people of the Muskeg) from James Bay and born into a family of eight children”, says Roger. “At an early age I spent time on the land as my parents were harvesters (trapping, hunting, etc). In 1969, my father brought me to a place and handed my hand over to a white gentleman, as my father looked at me with tears in his eyes, he turned and walked away without looking back. The next 5 years were hell for me as I was a very vulnerable young child, small, bullied by staff and others, attacked sexually, physically.”
As most Canadians know, residential schools have been a shameful part of the country’s history. While most schools closed during the 1970s, the very last one closed in the 1990s. It has been estimated that over 150,000 children passed through the residential school system during those years. Steps were taken in 2006, with the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, to heal the legacy of these schools.
For Roger, he chose to get involved with teaching, as he fundamentally wanted to enact positive change in the lives of others.
“I always helped people growing up, those in need emotionally, mentally and physically. I am a counsellor, full-time academic staff at Canadore College and have been working in education for 23 plus years. I knew that I wanted/needed to help people so I went to post-secondary and graduated in Social Services and have been working in education since. I have worked with many, many First Nation, Inuit and Metis students since and have seen many achieve their goals and dreams.”
He is also working to heal the wounds from those residential schools, and to fix outdated attitudes. “Reconciliation is only a word when you speak it, Reconciliation is an action when you walk it. I still am challenged with the racism, discrimination and ignorance of some of my fellow citizens of Canada who would rather speak of ‘tax-free, lazy, enough crying, what more else to do you want ‘Indian’ talk.’ Our people are strong, vibrant, determined in playing a role in Canada’s future. Nothing at this point has been done properly. I am waiting, like many of our people, the conclusion of the MMIW Inquiry…and then will I know where the government of Canada has its heart for its Indigenous people.”
Despite the vast amount of work that needs to be done to correct the tragedies of the past, Roger believes that education and understand go a long way to correcting prejudice and stopping racism.
“Education is a lifelong journey, we learn everyday… youth just want to get high school done with and get back to the Xbox. Our youth need to understand that knowledge is a gift that can be used to achieve goals. Knowledge used in a proper way can bring peace and rewards that are tangible. Knowledge is a lifelong process in understanding who we are, what our weakness and strengths are, and our limitations.”
Roger’s hopes for Canada moving forward are equally as positive. “My hope for Canada is that we strive to bring peace among our citizens with respect for each other and that our government works with our indigenous people in creating and implementing socio-economic initiatives that will take our peoples out of third world conditions. Also, to support our culture and languages so that our youth and generations to come will have opportunities and not hopelessness where the only way out are addictions, self-harm and suicide.”