Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
Gary Têtu’s life story is told in dozens of tattoos all over his body.
Some are from his past life – a time of “self-hatred” – but others are a monument to love, healing and the sacred teachings of his people.
On one arm, a Medicine Wheel, a Métis infinity symbol and a peace sign are visible. On the other, motorcycle handlebars overlook a road leading into the sunset – his “happy place” – while an orange ribbon honours Le Estcwicwéy̓, the missing children who never made it home from residential schools.
That same arm also has a graveyard with tombstones marking everything in his life he wants to put to rest, including “rage,” “ego,” “worry,” and “IRS,” which stands for Indian residential school.
“I had a lot of shame, obviously, from what happened to me,” Têtu told Global News, through the din of an Edmonton hotel lounge at the start of the papal tour in Canada.
“Depression and anxiety have been my enemy my whole life, and I can’t count how many times it almost took me.”
Têtu, who is Métis, attended St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, B.C., for one year when he was eight years old as a new elementary school was being built to accommodate the region’s growing population.
With fair skin, he passed as a “white kid.” Unlike the First Nations children, the white kids were able to go home each day.
He still wasn’t spared, however, from the violence of the Oblates who ran the residential school, which operated from 1933 to 1984.
“I was sexually abused, emotionally, physically and spiritually abused, and I never talked about it,” he said quietly, his beer untouched on the table in front of him.
Têtu has also never talked about how the First Nations children at St. Mary’s, who believed him to be white, hated and resented him. He doesn’t blame them, he told Global News, but it was a lot to process as a child while dealing with his own abuse.
He said he still doesn’t feel comfortable using the word “survivor” to describe himself, preferring to say he was “impacted” by residential schools. When he began his healing journey, he said, he found more shame than he knew was there, and for the first time, linked it to his early life experiences.
“I couldn’t own that I’m a survivor because I don’t look native at first glance. I didn’t spend 12 years there. I didn’t have to spend the night. I downplayed it all,” he explained.
“I still to this day have a lot of anxiety about claiming who I am overall and standing up for myself in that way.”
Displaced from their homelands and robbed of their language, many Métis people have, at times, felt uncomfortable claiming “Indigeneity,” according to Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron.
She also attended Pope Francis’ stops in Maskwacis, Alta., and Edmonton. The four-day “penitential” pilgrimage, focused on atonement for the Church’s role in residential schools, also includes Quebec City and Iqaluit.
For generations, Caron said many Métis people claimed to be French-Canadian because it was safer and her family was no exception. Têtu said his family did the same.
The “discomfort” with claiming to be Métis also stems from modern systemic racism, and years of miseducation about who Métis people are, Caron added. There’s no one way to “look Indigenous,” she said, and that notion “of having to look one way comes from the outside.”
“That’s something that we have to work on in educating the greater Canadian society about,” she told Global News as she prepared for a news conference responding to Pope Francis’ apology earlier this week.
“We look different and we sound different and we speak many different dialects of Michif and different Indigenous languages. There’s diversity across the Métis Nation.”
During the Indigenous delegation to the Vatican in March, B.C. Métis representative Pixie Wells revealed they didn’t know they were Métis until they were 40 years old.
“I am still trying to figure out where I sit in this world, how I fit into this world, and what piece of it I can bring forward,” they said after meeting Pope Francis on Monday and presenting him with a yellow face mask that read, “All children matter.”
They brought another gift for the Holy Father at Ermineskin Cree Nation in Maskwacis: An orange beaded pin and lanyard of spirit beads, akin to a rosary, made by a residential school survivor.
“Hopefully when he sees those, they will remind him not to forget about the children,” they said, dressed in a bright turquoise shirt embroidered with an image of First Nations, Inuit and Métis women.
Wells, interim president of the Fraser Valley Métis Association, said many Métis people come to their culture late in life. Têtu, who has been a member of the association for many years, “has come a long way” and is “giving back to his community,” they said.
“He comes out to our youth camps. He helps with that mental health part and being okay with you are: Understanding that, even though these atrocities happened to you, (it) doesn’t make you not a good person later on in life. It’s how you deal with them.”
They described Têtu as “a little bit modest.”
Over the years, Têtu has been a keeper at sweat lodges, attended harvest dinners, played music and volunteered annually at the youth camps.
When more than 200 suspected unmarked graves were detected at Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc last spring, he hopped on his motorcycle with a group of riders to offer support to the Kamloops, B.C., First Nation.
“It was just people loving people, supporting people,” he recalled. “They were absolutely blown away by the fact that there’s people out there unlike them that really, really care.”
Têtu has worn many hats on his journey to healing. He has worked as a mental health, addictions and personal support worker, a bingo caller, a commercial fisherman, and a chimney sweep. He has managed maintenance in medical facilities, been a caregiver for his parents, and more.
In a 50-minute interview – his very first one – he talked about the different stages of change, of forgiveness and kindness, and letting logic guide him rather than emotion.
He attended the papal stops in Alberta not for himself, he said, but to gather internal resources he can bring back to others at Chehalis First Nation, where he lives, and to the nearby Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village, where he eventually wants to work. The minimum security institution for Indigenous people has about 87 inmates and focuses on spiritual and cultural teachings.
“I’m a ‘show me’ type of person. If you’re going to teach me something, don’t tell me,” he said. “So I figured this is the way I need to learn – to come here. I have to push myself to come out of my comfort. I don’t grow if I’m in my comfort zone.”
It took Têtu until his 30s to embrace his Métis identity. It was around the time his father passed, and at the suggestion of a cousin, he took part in a sweat lodge, albeit hesitantly.
He feared he wouldn’t be welcome.
“I took off my shirt and right away the lodge keeper came over and said, ‘I really like your tattoos.’ And that was it, that’s what I needed. I needed that acceptance.”
He said he doesn’t need the Pope’s apology, which is reactive – not proactive – and “too little, too late,” in his opinion.
His wish is that all Indigenous Peoples and Canadians can learn how to live their own Medicine Wheel or wellness wheels, and that the government and Vatican give something back to Indigenous peoples for all that was stolen.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers culturally competent counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous Peoples experiencing trauma, distress, strong emotions and painful memories. The line can be reached anytime toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.