Amber Ruben’s father was around six years old when he was taken away from his family and put into the residential school system. He lost his language, became alienated from his culture and never lived with his family again.
His story echoes that of many Indigenous children who were removed from their homes and subjected to the abuse and atrocities that took place in residential schools. It was a devastating impact that continues to be felt by survivors and Indigenous communities to this day.
September 30 has been designated by the federal government as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Amber will spend this important day in reflection. She hopes that this day will inspire all Canadians to pause and acknowledge the impact of the residential school system on Indigenous people. More importantly, she hopes it will motivate us to take meaningful action to enhance awareness and understanding and to pursue the journey of reconciliation.
September 30 also marks the one-year anniversary of Covenant’s Call to Action, which commits the organization to positive action to raise awareness and address systemic discrimination and every form of injustice towards others.
“I think it’s wonderful to have symbols and words. I think the important thing now is for there to be action,” says Amber, a pharmacist at the Misericordia Community Hospital.
“So much of what I’ve been doing for the last year has involved so much reflection because I am from an Inuit background. I feel like I’ve spent hours and hours reflecting upon and pondering over and really putting my whole self into all of these things that I can’t say I just need to set aside one day to recognize it, just because it’s ongoing.”
To redress the legacy of residential schools and advance reconciliation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada called on governments, educational and religious institutions, civil society groups and all Canadians to respond to 94 Calls to Action. The discovery of mass unmarked graves this year was a stark reminder of what took place in residential schools, but Amber says that is just part of the reconciliation that’s needed.
“A lot of people’s sympathies were drawn out. I think it’s important to not allow that to fade into the background and to continue that movement forward."
"But that’s just the tip. There are so many areas that need this reflection and reconciliation, like the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, reserves and Indian hospitals.”
Like her father, Amber’s grandmother (nanuk) and aunts were put into the residential school system in the Northwest Territories. Her aunts told her almost nothing about their experiences, though one of them who attended for one year said she lost her language in that single year.
Her nanuk has shared very little with Amber about the trauma she endured but told her that when she shared her story with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “grown men were in tears.”
However, Amber’s nanuk was able to find a path that led her back to her culture.
“Meeting my daduk (grandfather) and marrying him helped heal her. They spent a lot of time on the land, and she managed to reconnect with her culture and, of course, with somebody who was so important to her.”
As for her father, Amber says he passed away when she was young. Her parents, who were “excellent role models,” were busy raising a young family and rarely mentioned residential schools.
It wasn’t until Amber became a mother that she began to reflect on her family’s history and the similar fates of many Indigenous children during that time. “I feel like as a child I had almost no awareness of it. I didn’t feel its impacts as a kid growing up, even in my 20s. It was when I started having children myself that I realized that I don’t have my culture because of the residential school system. I’ve almost had no ties to my dad’s side of the family because of it.”
She is trying to change the narrative with her three children, aged seven to 12, by telling them as much as she can about her father’s story.
“I’ve talked to my kids and told them that Grandpa Jerry left home when he was really young because he had to go to a residential school. He wasn’t allowed to speak his language or learn his culture, and he never lived at home again. Even as young children, they know that that is wrong. They had tears in their eyes. I’ve not gone into details, but they’re aware that bad things happened there.
“It’s not just the abuse that the children suffered but loss of family, community, culture, language. The many consequences these children bore over and above the abuse have led to loss of identity, self, self-worth and confidence as adults. This has made their loss even more profound.”
Amber says the keys to reconciliation are education, knowledge and awareness.
“I think for many years we were not taught about a lot of these things. When you don’t have that background and education, it’s really difficult to have cognizance surrounding some of these issues. It’s really easy to dismiss what Indigenous groups are saying if you don’t have that background.”
She adds that with knowledge comes the understanding to help different Indigenous groups with what they are hoping to achieve and gain, and that will make it easier to try and push governments forward on essential issues like having access to clean drinking water.
“Once people have the education piece, they are more likely to speak out against some of the things that have happened and continue to happen and are more likely to advocate for change."
"I think the more people we have advocating, the farther we’ll get and the faster we’ll get there."
She encourages everyone to play a role. “Everybody can take a small chunk and bring more awareness and understanding and move things forward.”
Amber is helping to grow that awareness as a member of Covenant’s Indigenous Advisory Body, which was created last year to support work in fulfilling the TRC’s Calls to Action, especially those belonging to the health sector. The intent is to bring a trauma-informed lens to patient, resident and family care and to be sensitive to those who are triggered by their experiences with the residential school system and other injustices suffered through colonization.
In June, Amber gave a presentation to physicians and staff at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital Multidisciplinary Grand Rounds on how the past has shaped current issues in Indigenous health, as well as sharing her family’s history. She will be presenting on this topic again on September 30 to Covenant’s board of directors.
While she is saddened by the loss of her Inuit culture due to her father’s experience, she has come to terms with working for Catholic-based Covenant Health, where she started her career as a pharmacist with the Misericordia hospital 15 years ago.
"The compassion of my co-workers is one of the ways I do reconcile working for the organization. I think about the lack of compassion shown to the children within the residential schools, which is a stark contrast to the compassion shown by my co-workers.
"I always think of compassion within Covenant Health, and I see compassion so much at work — within my colleagues, for each other, for patients, for their families, in ways that make me so proud to be part of my teams over the years. We operate with such a different mindset and with values that are in line with my own values.”
As part of her own reconciliation journey, she is currently completing a master’s degree in pharmacy with a focus on Indigenous health at the University of Alberta.
Amber, who has undergraduate degrees in neuroscience and pharmacy, says her love for education is something both her parents passed on to her. “My mom went back to school when she was 40, and my dad was an elementary school teacher and was really active within the community. He managed to not just survive but thrive at that.”
She is still seeking closure about the missing details of his early years, which she says will help her move forward. “They have amassed records at the TRC, and I think I’d like to go look for them.”