Thank you for having me here.
My name is Jeffry Nilles, as you know. I am a former foster care resident.
I was in foster care in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is my story that I'm going to share with you.
I am from Winnipeg, Manitoba. I'm here to share some of my memories of my early childhood in foster care and afterward.
First, I'll tell you a bit about me. I'm Ojibway. My mother is from Waterhen, Manitoba, a reserve four hours north of Winnipeg. My father is from Luxembourg, Europe. As for me, I am a single father. I have five children. The three youngest live with me. I am 53 and am currently enrolled at Neeginan College and taking a training course to be a building operations technician. My being here is part of my journey in healing and having a better understanding of who I am as an Anishinabe person.
I will begin by telling you that these are my memories, good and bad. I never told anyone about my stay in foster care until last year, when I started participating in a men's healing group at the aboriginal centre in Winnipeg. I started opening up and sharing my past in my men's group, which led me here to Ottawa.
I will begin by telling you about my first memories of growing up, before I was in foster care. I will start by telling you about my first puppy, Skippy. I remember getting him from my mishoomis, my grandpa, in the country. My earliest memories of my grandpa are about bedtime. He would tell stories about Nanabush for me and my sisters. I still remember him fiddling in the evening, with me and my other cousins trying to jig, and everyone laughing. I also remember getting my first stitches from falling off my bike. Sadly, I also remember my parents drinking and fighting. One day, my teacher came to our house, and we were taken away. I saw my sisters crying for my mom. I was six years old that year.
I've spent over 45 years trying to forget my stay in foster care. It still makes me upset to remember my time there.
These are some of my memories. I will share them with you. One of my first memories is being yelled at by a lady. I think it was because I wouldn't stop crying. I remember wanting my mom. I was put in a corner and told to get on my knees and face the wall. I remember being in that corner until I stopped crying. There were other times when I was put in the corner. I remember that one mealtime I needed to go to the washroom, and I said it in my language. I was put in the corner, and I started to pee myself. I remember her grabbing me and taking me to the washroom, taking my clothes off and screaming at me, calling me a “dirty Indian”. I didn't understand what “Indian” was.
On another occasion, the lady made raisin biscuits. They were cooling on the top of the stove. I don't know why, but I picked a couple of raisins out. Later that day, the lady was screaming again about who took the raisins. Again I was put in a corner and was told that all Indians know is how to steal. I didn't know that what I did was wrong. There was another occasion when I was riding my bike and got lost. I remember the police taking me back to the lady's place that night. I remember her screaming and saying, “I want that Indian out of my house” and saying to take me back where I belonged. I was reminded of this statement more than once.
I don't recall how long I was in care. When I was reunited with my family, my parents moved us to B.C. in 1972. This I know because I still have the grade 2 class pictures from school. My mother started teaching me and my two younger sisters how to speak Ojibway again because we couldn't remember anything that she was saying to us. My sisters picked up what my mom was saying really fast, but not me. I always had an excuse for not learning, saying that it was too hard. I think I just didn't want to learn.
We moved back to Winnipeg in 1974, and that is where I heard “dirty Indian” again. I was in school. I was nine at the time when a bigger kid in my class pulled out my chair when I was about to sit down. I jumped up and everyone laughed. I remember him saying, “Look at the dirty Indian.” The next thing I knew, I was in my first fist fight. I don't know why I was so angry; I could just feel everyone staring at me. I asked my mom later that day what “Indian” meant. She explained to me that we were the first people of this country, and she said to be proud of who we are. I didn't understand this. I didn't feel proud.
We moved two more times before my father bought a house on Alexander Street in the summer of 1976. We went to visit my mom's dad on the reserve. I remember being teased by my cousins because I couldn't speak with them or understand what anyone was saying.
I didn't like this place; couldn't wait to go home. The last time I was on my mom's reserve, we buried my mom's brother in 1978. I hated everything on the reserve; the food, the water, the outhouses. I just hated the way everyone lived. The houses had broken windows. To me, everyone was drinking all the time. I don't know why, but this was the last time I ever came there.
In 1980, my parents divorced. My younger brother and I stayed with my dad, and my sisters left with my mom. The following year, I dropped out of high school and started working. I was told if I worked hard and paid my bills on time that life would be great. Looking back at the last 30 years of my life, I realize I turned my back on my family and relatives on many occasions. I didn't go to my family's weddings or events that were being held on the reserve when invited. It seems I always had an excuse not to go.
This was more evident when my mom died in 2006. Being selfish, I had my mom buried in Winnipeg instead of being buried on the reserve so I wouldn't have to go out there. This was my behaviour; always thinking about myself. I started having troubles in my own relationship. After 17 years with my partner, we separated in 2016, and my son came to live with me. The following year, my oldest daughter came to live with me too. She graduated that year with honours. She received a full scholarship from the Tallman Foundation, a proud daddy moment.
I developed a hernia at work and was let go just before Christmas of 2017. I would have to have surgery in the new year, and I got a knock on the door just before New Year's. It was child and family services asking if I could take my twin girls. I didn't hesitate; I invited everyone in. I was told the mother could not take care of them. This was January 8 of last year. I was so happy to have all my children with me and not with some stranger.
I was told I would be primary caregiver to my twin girls and that CFS would visit me every two weeks to see how I was doing. I struggled the first month, taking them to school by transit. It took two buses to get there. I didn't want to change schools because it was their last year there.
Coming home one day after dropping my girls off at school, I decided to walk home. As I was walking, I came upon the old train station on Main. I could see it was some kind of educational centre for aboriginals. I went inside and found a men's group on the directory and introduced myself to the elders. I told them a little about me and was told they had a sharing circle and a men's parental program going on, where at the end they would be going to a retreat for a sweat.
I was curious, so I signed up and starting coming to meetings of both groups. This was the first time I was introduced to my culture. I was intrigued by the stories the group shared. There were 12 strangers from their early twenties to their late fifties. Over the next 10 weeks, I learned the seven teachings regarding Mother Earth. I was also taught how to smudge and pray, as well as ask for forgiveness for myself and others.
I would go home after meetings thinking about my past, but mostly I was thinking of my mom and how she would be so proud of me. I shared some of my stories with my children. I was asked by my youngest if I knew my language. This is the first time I believe I cried in front of my children in trying to explain why I don't know my language, the feelings of guilt and my being ashamed of who I became. I loved it when my children told me it's never too late to learn, but deep down I knew what I did.
Then came the day of the sweat. I was very excited and nervous at the same time. The sweat took place in Beausejour, Manitoba. It was beautiful. I was told to strip down to my shorts and bring a towel with me. I crawled in on my hands and knees. It was a humbling experience sitting in the dark; the elder throwing water on the grandfathers, the steam sizzling, the beat of the drum was powerful, my heart beating and the singing. It was an awesome feeling.
We went around giving thanks to Mother Earth, and at the same time asking the creator to heal our sick, our addictions and praying for forgiveness.
When it was my turn to share, all I could think of was my mom and how I had turned my back on my culture. I was overcome by guilt. I admitted that I was angry—all the time. I had made racist comments to my mom, my family and my culture. I was ashamed of being Indian, and I didn't understand why I felt this way. I wanted to know who I was.
The elders spoke of letting go of my past, forgiving myself and sharing my stories about healing. When the sweat was over, I felt a sense of pride in understanding a little bit about our culture, our beliefs and our laughter. I found hope and a second chance at being a better father to my children. I'm not so serious all the time. I laugh, I cry, but most of all, I've learned to love myself again. I am currently enrolled in a training program at Neeginan College. I am involved in educating myself and my children about our culture. I have opened my eyes and my heart to this new way of living. I smudge every morning with my children. My twin girls' favourite saying is “sharing is caring”.
This is part of my story. Meegwetch. Thank you for having me here, and thank you to everyone who was involved in bringing me here, especially the aboriginal centre in Winnipeg.
If you have any questions, I will graciously answer them. Thank you very much.