WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Judy Pelly, 69, is a trusted adviser to some of Saskatoon’s most vulnerable people and most powerful institutions.
On any given day, the residential school survivor may smudge and tell her story in a sharing circle with gang members or victims of domestic violence, then jump on a Zoom call to provide cultural advice to high-ranking officials from the Saskatoon police service, city hall, the provincial health authority, or the University of Saskatchewan.
The Anishinaabe grandmother works with 30 organizations.
“I usually like to go by cultural adviser or knowledge keeper. People use elder, and I don’t feel like I quite fit that yet. I’m not wise enough,” she said with a chuckle.
Most would respectfully disagree.
Pelly rarely turns down a request for help and works long hours, seven days a week. She focuses much of her time on helping institutions and agencies implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action.
“I’m getting calls every single day. I can’t keep up,” Pelly said.
How a “damaged little girl” from Cote First Nation emerged from her own trauma and became such a revered voice in the province’s truth and reconciliation process is a remarkable story of resilience and grace.
‘I was broken’
Pelly was born on Nov. 11, 1951, into a family of residential school survivors, many of whom struggled with alcoholism.
As a child, she said, she would run her hands through her mother’s hair and feel scarred bumps on her head where nuns had beaten her with brooms. Her mother and father, a residential school survivor and Second World War veteran, would frequently drink and fight.
Pelly was taken to the Catholic-run St Philip’s residential school near Yorkton, Sask., when she was six years old. Within a year, she was sexually abused, she said.
She left the school when she was 13 and turned to alcohol to numb her pain, she said. She didn’t stop for decades.
“I drank. I drank. I was broken,” she said.
Still, Pelly finished a teaching certificate. Then she married a man who was equally damaged from his years in foster care and residential school.
“There’s a saying, ‘Hurt people hurt people,” she said. “I was beaten to a pulp where sometimes you couldn’t even recognize who I was.”
- Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at firstname.lastname@example.org or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.
Pelly clutched an eagle feather as she shared this story on a Wednesday night at the Elizabeth Fry Society in Saskatoon. A candle flickered in the middle of a circle as 14 women hung on her every word. They had been incarcerated, or struggled with drugs, or been victims of violence.
“Don’t let your past define you,” Pelly told them. “You have time to change.”
Pelly recounted how “her inspiration” — her mother, Pauline Pelly — showed up at her apartment many years ago with a moving van and a crew of young male relatives. She took Pelly’s baby in her arms and ordered the men to load up all the furniture.
“My mom forced me to leave [my husband],” Pelly said. “They just took all my stuff and I was still sitting there with one chair in my apartment. And she took my baby and I was forced to come home.”
Pelly said she finally found inner peace and sobriety in her 40s, after attending a weekend “inner child” retreat where she clutched a teddy bear, unlocked childhood memories, and used a stick to figuratively beat her perpetrator. The experience released all her pent up shame, resentment and hate.
“I’m not ashamed of who I am. I’m Anishinaabe and I’ll never be ashamed of that. And I’ll never give up,” she said. “I have no hate for anyone.”
Calls for advice
When Pelly retired in 2015 as the dean of health at the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies, a First Nations-run college, she accepted a job with the Saskatchewan Health Authority to provide cultural guidance inside hospital acute care departments.
From there, the requests kept pouring in. She began routinely sharing her story and traditional ceremonies with Indigenous people coming off drugs in the Saskatoon detox centre. She then expanded her talking circles to mothers whose children had been seized by child welfare services. And then to people living on the streets, leaving jail, or escaping human trafficking rings.
“I’m so honoured to be here to learn from Judy,” Kayleigh Lafontaine told the talking circle at the Elizabeth Fry Society, where she, a Cree woman and former corrections officer, is executive director.
On a sunny afternoon last week, Pelly chatted with Saskatoon’s deputy police chief, Randy Huisman, on a shaded bench next to a memorial to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls outside the police station.
The two sit on several committees together, including the chief’s advisory committee.
“You know, true healing starts when we start to talk to one another,” Pelly said to Huisman. He nodded his head and replied, “We learn, we change, we grow.”
He’s been a police officer in this city since 1987.
“I’ve seen this police service crawl out from the real dark times, and the struggles with relationships that we’ve had with the Indigenous culture, and I’ll tell ya, we’ve come along way,” he told CBC News.
With pressure mounting on institutions to address systemic racism, Pelly is aware that asking elders and knowledge keepers for advice could just be a public relations strategy for some organizations.
“Some people say, ‘It is just tokenism,'” she said. “The elders are starting to say, ‘You know what? No more lip service. No more baby steps.'”
It prompted RCMP Supt. Honey Dwyer to ask for advice from Pelly, who sits on the RCMP’s Indigenous women advisory committee.
Dwyer said some front-line officers have experienced backlash over the police force’s history of assisting the forcible removal of some Indigenous children from their homes to take them to residential schools.
“Our members were being confronted with people saying, ‘It was your fault,'” Dwyer told CBC News. “A lot of our members weren’t even born… [But] saying, ‘I wasn’t there. I wasn’t part of it’ is not the solution.”
WATCH | Knowledge keeper helps trauma survivors heal:
So, Pelly and an elder recorded a video that was sent out internally to all RCMP officers across Canada.
Their advice? Listen. Acknowledge. Apologize.
“It just opened our members’ eyes that, yes, we do have a part. We have to acknowledge the past…. And hear what happened and offer an apology,” said Dwyer.
“I consider Judy to be part of this organization.”
‘It builds me up’
Pelly says she has found “strong allies” and is determined to have a seat at the table, or in the circle. Even if it means repeatedly revisiting her own painful past to teach others about the legacy of residential schools and to spread hope that change is possible.
She insists it doesn’t take a toll on her.
“It doesn’t. It builds me up,” she said. “Every single morning, I wake up with gratitude. Every single morning, I thank the Creator.”
And every single night, she says, she goes to bed and asks herself: “Did I do the right thing? Or, did I do the best I could?”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
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