Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
The passing of Queen Elizabeth II and the mass mourning that’s followed brings up deep-rooted trauma for some Indigenous people, including a prominent matriarch in B.C., who survived a residential institution.
Now serving as director of the Bosa Centre for Film and Animation at Capilano University in North Vancouver, Manuel founded many of the programs students starting a new term are taking. What few of them know about the filmmaker and educator is the trauma she carries as a survivor of the Port Alberni, B.C., residential institution.
“I was beaten, I was strapped, I was starved. I had my head held underwater until I passed out. I was just a child,” Manuel said of her experience at the institution of assimilation in the 1960s.
Manuel places direct blame on the monarchy as being responsible for perpetuating and supporting the systemic abuse she and generations of her family suffered. The 62-year-old says she still has nightmares, insomnia and sleeps with a night light because of the horrors she experienced as a child in the residential school system.
“That monarchy and that government has sanctioned the genocide of my people, they sanctioned children being raped and murdered… to me and many of my people who have suffered like I have, that’s what she meant,” she said.
Manuel said she’s had to shut out social media and people in her life in order to cope since the queen’s passing and the mass adoration that’s followed.
“They got rich from our lands while we lived in poverty, while we starved to death; I ate chicken feed when I was a little girl because there was nothing else to eat,” she said.
At that time, her father, George Manuel — a legendary leader known by many today as the visionary behind the modern reconciliation movement — was travelling the world fighting for Indigenous sovereignty worldwide.
“I think this country should be spending more of its time forming the relationship with us. We are the government they should form their relationship with. This is what my father asked for, and leaders before him: we need to be recognized as sovereign nations,” Manuel said.
Her father helped lead a grassroots campaign called the Constitution Express that travelled by train to the capital 40 years ago, laying the foundation for the decolonization movement that continues today.
The community-led initiative was sparked after then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau celebrated the signing of a proclamation with Queen Elizabeth II formally transferring the constitution from the United Kingdom to Canada in 1982, without Indigenous consent.
Manuel said it would likely take another similar effort to lead to any meaningful action from the monarch today.
Continuing her father’s fight against oppression, Manuel says the royal family needs to take more action on advancing truth and reconciliation, compensation for Indigenous communities, and supporting the ‘land back’ movement.
Diana Day, “Indigenous Women Rise” founder, echoes Manuel’s calls for action, while also urging King Charles to immediately denounce the Doctrine of Discovery, a philosophy that legitimized the colonization of Indigenous people around the globe.
“We fought with them through all the wars and helped to establish all of Canada and then we got left behind… thinking about the need for healing to happen and this may be the time for that to happen.”
That healing can only be possible, Day says, if Indigenous communities decide how funds are allocated towards culturally-safe programs she believes the monarch needs to play a role in providing.
For Manuel, healing happens when she focuses on helping others.
“There is so much need all the time and I just forget about what I’m going through, what’s hurting me and I just focus on that and it always gets me through,” Manuel said.
It’s a powerful example of the sensitivity needed at this moment in time, as survivors like Manuel work on moving forward, past the hurt.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misquoted Doreen Manuel as recounting eating chicken feet as a child; she actually said chicken feed. The article as been updated and we regret the error.