The power of listening

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

My mentor recently passed away and for the third time in my life, I grieved.

Family and friends overflowed from the hall at his funeral. The evening prior, almost 3000 people gathered for the visitation. They waited for hours in a winding line that stretched through the doors and down the street just to see their uncle, their dad, their son, their friend, their mentor, their Kuya (“older brother”)—one last time.

But it still wasn’t enough. Young adults from across the greater Toronto area hosted their own memorial the evening of his funeral. They took turns sharing songs and stories in the same room their Kuya once stood.

Many thanked him for believing in them when no one else did. Some expressed regret because of all the unexpressed gratitude caged in their heart. Most declared that they would continue his legacy.

As a bald man, part of his legacy included jokes about having no hair, a joke cracked multiple times at the funeral by his family. I stood against the wall because there were no chairs left. Kuya’s oldest daughter, a curly-haired girl in her early 20s, connected eyes with me as she spoke from behind the lectern.

She said she didn’t know what she did to deserve being called her father’s “heart”. She felt that it was her father who had the biggest heart, the man who looked at every person—no matter their age, occupation, gender, race, religion—with dignity and respect. Her fierce gaze passed through the crowd of black suits, and her chin was lifted high even though tears flowed down her face.

She was so much like her father, whether she knew it or not.

I met Kuya because he mentored high schoolers and young adults in the community. Sometimes there were only two people in attendance on Wednesday nights. Some parents thought he was wasting his time, but Kuya showed up anyway.

He listened to our stories. We defaulted to success stories to answer his simple three-word question: how are you? Yes, Kuya was thrilled to hear we got a good grade, a good job, made a new friend, and had a good lunch.

But Kuya cared more deeply about the stories that most of us tried hard to hide, and that helped us heal even though we didn’t know we needed it.

I wouldn’t be in this job today if it wasn’t for Kuya because at those Wednesday nights I found purpose in telling stories.

Last week when I spoke to Mackenzie Archie, cultural coordinator at Giishkaandago’Ikwe Health Services, I learned more about the power of listening within Indigenous communities across the country.

“The more that they share their story, the easier it is for them to continue on their healing journey, because they’re sharing their trauma and their human journey with us,” she said, also noting that the listener may be inspired to share what they learned, therefore initiating positive change in the world.

Her sentiments reflect the findings from a paper published in 2004 by The Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series.

“There is a tendency for the older generations to avoid talking about [the] experiences that were painful, while many members of the younger generations have little interest in [the] events that are now frozen in the past,” the Aboriginal Foundation wrote.

Ginger Gosnell-Myers, of Nisga’a and Kwakwaka’wakw heritage, whose work focuses on removing barriers between Indigenous peoples and all Canadians, shared in a TEDTalk conference that many younger generations of Indigenous people have never heard the traumatic stories of residential schools because it was too painful for their parents and grandparents to share.

Gosnell-Myers said that many only saw the post traumatic stress ravaging their parent’s life, such as one boy who witnessed his father kick down his closet door when triggered from a nightmare.

“Only by revealing what remains hidden and only by reconnecting people with their memories, one may achieve the interconnectedness, interdependence and balance with the past that is so much needed for Aboriginal communities to heal at a deeper level,” the Aboriginal Healing Foundation wrote.

Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy born in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve, is one example of the horrors many children have faced in residential schools.

At nine years old, he was sent to the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential school in Kenora, Ontario. Three years later, he attempted to return to his family 600 kilometers away in Ogoki Post, managing to escape while nine others were caught within 24 hours.

Chanie’s body was found beside the railway tracks a week after he fled. He succumbed to starvation and exposure, according to The Secret Path, an animated film adaptation representing Chanie’s life.

“If this history isn’t a secret, then why does it feel like one?” Gosnell-Myers asks at the end of her speech.

Growing up in southern Ontario, stories similar to Chanie’s weren’t often told. I didn’t know about the thousands of children not much younger than I who suffered in residential schools. The shame I felt as a Vietnamese-Canadian immigrant carrying different lunches than my classmates could never compare to the shame these children endured after being stripped of their language, clothing, practices, family, and even their name.

Maybe you’re like me, and it feels like there’s still so much you don’t know, and so much work to do for truth and reconciliation.

It’s okay, it’s never too late to begin learning.

One thing I know for sure is that listening is a good place to start.