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Alberta residential school survivor receives honorary doctorate: ‘You didn’t get the best of me’

Click to play video: 'Blackfoot elder, veteran and residential school survivor receives honorary doctorate from MRU' Blackfoot elder, veteran and residential school survivor receives honorary doctorate from MRU
WATCH: Clarence Wolfleg Sr., 72, was bestowed with an honorary doctor of laws degree by Mount Royal University. Also known as Elder Miiksika’am, he is a residential school survivor, former federal officer, and seasoned spiritual advisor at the University – Jun 8, 2021

Clarence Wolfleg remembers the day his mother took him to school.

It was 1956 and for the next 5 1/2 years he attended the Old Sun Residential School outside Gleichen in southern Alberta.

“My first memory was when my mother suited me up in my finest — my GWG denim jacket, my new pants and my little fedora hat. I said, ‘Where am I going?’ She said, ‘We’re going to go to that place.'”

Wolfleg was 6 1/2 years old. He was able to earn high enough marks to attend a public school when he was 12.

He doesn’t say the name of the residential school. It’s simply “that place.”

Read more: Kamloops residential school survivor urges others to seek professional help

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Wolfleg, 72, shared some of his not-so-fond memories on Tuesday before Mount Royal University in Calgary bestowed him with an honorary doctor of laws degree for his efforts as an elder and spiritual adviser.

“It was horrible in a sense that I could not connect with my language to soothe my pain. I couldn’t cry because they told me you can’t cry, so my emotions was hidden inside of me,” he said.

Wolfleg’s mother gave some older boys “a few dollars” to protect him from some of the priests and other students. Leaving the institution is one of his better memories.

“The most happiest moment I had was when I left there and … I wasn’t going back. I looked back and said, ‘Well, you didn’t get the best of me. I’m still alive. My spirit is still with me.'”

Click to play video: 'Tsuut’ina Nation hosts silent march to honour residential school victims' Tsuut’ina Nation hosts silent march to honour residential school victims
Tsuut’ina Nation hosts silent march to honour residential school victims – Jun 7, 2021

Wolfleg said when he first entered the school, he committed to following his father’s example of joining the military and becoming a spiritual leader to his people.

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He accomplished both.

Word that remains believed to be of Indigenous children were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has reawakened other memories for Wolfleg, known as Miiksika’am in Blackfoot.

“I had to think about three girls that were found not even 300 yards from (my) school,” said Wolfleg.

“They ran away from school and the house they went to was just a quarter mile down the road. A heavy snowstorm hit and they were found huddled on a hilltop south of the school.

“A little girl in the middle, she survived, but the other two passed away.”

Read more: A look at what Canadian students are taught about residential schools across the country

University president Tim Rahilly said Wolfleg has become an icon at the institution and helped many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people with his wisdom. He said the degree is the highest honour the school gives out and the decision was made long before the news out of Kamloops.

“We have been working for a long time on trying to recognize Indigenous ways of knowing and to recognize longer service of Indigenous folks in our community,” he said.

“I think the emotional weight of what’s happened recently is something that is on all of our minds.”

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The graduation ceremony was not unlike a drive-in movie. Graduates sat in their cars watching the stage.

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At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
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At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
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At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Chancellor Dawn Farrell paid tribute to residential schoolchildren as she addressed the graduates.

“Our hearts break for them, for their family, for their communities, for all of our residential school survivors and all of our Indigenous and First Nations people.”

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