Forgive and Be Rich
Merle Assance-Beedie lived her idyllic childhood years in Christian Island, Ontario, with loving parents, but she was abruptly confronted with internment in a series of four residential schools, starting at the age of five. These residential schools were operated for aboriginal children during the 20th century for the purpose of educating them in the English language, converting them to Christianity, and discouraging their native ways of life. In these schools, many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children were deprived of loving homes and endured sexual, physical, and mental abuse, along with cultural assimilation.
Merle survived the four different residential schools and was released at the age of sixteen.
She went on to heal and live in a traditional native culture despite her horrible experiences. Eventually, she had a family of her own and was able to give others knowledge and examples of how to live in kind and respectful ways.
Merle, a very humble Ojibway woman (Anishinabe Kwe), became active in making positive contributions by giving people information about residential school life. Her approach was gentle, and despite her own traumatic experiences, she was able to communicate and share her ideas and opinions without a negative emotional charge.
She made a conscious decision to choose to think about kindness and respect for good relationships. Her ideology and belief for good relationships involved treating people with a kind heart, which was translated from the word “Canada” or “Kina Da,” which means “Everything has heart; everything has truth.”
Throughout Merle’s lifetime of contributions as a nurse and as a volunteer on boards that serve her people, her door was always open to empower those in need. Her reflection always rooted back to her traditional and spiritual way of thinking, speaking, and feeling with a kind heart. She empowered people to carry on her legacy of being gentle, kind, and loving, and living as though family meant everything—because it does. Blood relatives and strangers alike adopted her as an aunt. Merle’s ability to connect with people was her gift to the Anishinabek Nation. Over time, she became known as Aunty Merle to many.
Merle often brought tears to the people who heard her speak, although she never had to elaborate on the cruelties she had endured in residential schools. Her voice carried the impact. She had an unshakeable conviction that kindness and compassion are much better solutions than hate and revenge.
Merle educated the general public, government, and other residential school survivors with a speech titled “The Missing Chapter: What You Didn’t Learn About Aboriginal Peoples in School.” The following is a powerful excerpt from Merle’s presentation to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People in 1993. It teaches us how to apologize and how to move forward.
As Anishabe people, we try for balance and harmony from birth until we go through the Western door. This balance and harmony is our role in life, so we live every day toward this positive way.
When relationships turn sour, what is the healthy thing to do? We apologize. We say, “I’m sorry. Let’s start over.” That is basic, but fundamental to the process of change inside the relationship, whether it be a marital relationship, with children, teacher, or student. When you say, “I’m sorry,” you begin on another positive note.
Victims of abuse must talk to their perpetrator to say, “This is what you did to me.” The perpetrator then has the opportunity to respond, and the healthy response is, “I’m sorry. How can I make amends?”
As survivors of the residential schools and their families of children and grandchildren, we need to hear this from the intellectuals of this country, the educators, the religious organizations, health professionals, doctors, nurses, social workers, police, and others. Until we get this response, we cannot move forward toward healing.
We, too, must say, “I’m sorry too, and I forgive you.”
Merle paid a visit to a dying clergyman who had abused her during her childhood. “This is what you did to me,” she explained in full detail. He apologized to her. Her last words to him were, “I’m sorry too, and I forgive you.”
As a result of making that conscious decision early in her life to choose to think only about kindness and respect for genuine relationships, Merle was able to forgive and received the riches of a full life. Through her having practiced love, kindness, and respect, Merle’s legacy lives on to create a positive ripple effect on the relations between the Anishabe and all races.