Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 29: Justice (25-42)

Residential school healing retreat had Métis survivors giggling, ‘staying up until 12:30 a.m.’

October 20, 2023

‘I felt I could say anything I want here,’ says survivor of Alberta retreat

Angie Crerar wears an orange vest while smiling brightly and looking at the camera.
Métis elder Angie Crerar says being around other survivors helped her with the loneliness and pain that comes from her experience at St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School. (Brenda Crerar-Lowen)

CBC Indigenous: Angie Crerar, who attended St. Joseph’s residential school in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., says she has carried a heavy weight for nearly three decades.

As she’s gotten older, the Métis elder and knowledge keeper says her memories have become more vivid, and more painful.  “It’s gotten harder and harder because I was always alone,” Crerar, 87, said. To help her and other survivors, the Otipemisiwak Métis Government (formerly the Métis Nation of Alberta) organized its first-ever survivors retreat at Métis Crossing, a cultural centre 120 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, last week and it is getting great reviews. 

Crerar said as soon as she arrived at Métis Crossing, she “came alive.” “It was like a brand new world,” she said.  “We were not alone.”

‘I could say anything I want’

Lorna Dancey, truth and reconciliation director for the Otipemisiwak Métis Government, said the retreat was about honouring survivors by listening to what they need.  “I love them so much and they deserve this, they deserve healing,” she said.

They recruited 30 survivors to attend the three-day retreat, with each survivor bringing a support person.  Survivors had the chance to see buffalo and white elk, take part in art therapy, get massages, go on medicine walks and spend time together. 

Back Row: Melvin Whitford, Richard Currie, Julia Auger, Bev Ferguson, Johnny Clarke, William Bellhomme; Middle Row: Cindy Ferguson, Ann Bourque Hardy, Jac Senych, Elsie Cardinal, Lorraine Parenteau, Marcel Auger, Yvonne Irene Gladu; Front Row: Louis Bellrose, Pearl Sandor, Marina Stewart, Bernice Henry, Angie Crerar, Mary Ann Stepien, Hazel Vickland.
Survivors were given special orange Métis sashes to show ‘that they are supported and they are loved and they are treasured,’ according to Lorna Dancey. (Brenda Crerar-Lowen)

Crerar was one of the keynote speakers and called the retreat one of the greatest experiences of her life. 

She said during her time at residential school children were encouraged to tattle on one another and often children were punished harshly, leading to distrust among students. “We learned to be very careful what we speak,” she said.

During their time together at Métis Crossing, Crerar said, all that fell away.  “It felt like a different world, a loving world, a positive world and that I belonged,” Crerar said.  “We all felt safe and I felt I could say anything I want here.”

Survivors connect over shared school memories

When he was just three, Melvin Whitford was taken from his home in Kikino Métis Settlement, 180 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, to St. Bernard’s school in Grouard, Alta., 370 kilometres away. 

He didn’t begin talking about his experience in Grouard until he was 77, in part because he said he was afraid of not being believed; there were times when even he asked himself if it was a bad dream. “It’s hard to try to grasp all the things that happened throughout the years,” he said. 

During the retreat, Whitford was able to meet other survivors from Grouard. Together they were able to discuss conditions at the school, the staff and even the food, he said. 

Like Crerar, he was struck by the feeling of being with others who could understand him.  “Everybody was really polite and, my God, they were caring,” he said.

A group of people sitting in chairs turn around to talk with another person at the retreat who is standing.
Survivors were able to bring a support person with them to the retreat at Métis Crossing in mid-October. (Brenda Crerar-Lowen)

Seeing the connections and friendships formed between survivors was magical, Dancey said.  “They were laughing with each other and they’re giggling and they’re staying up until 12:30 a.m.,” Dancey said. 

Dancey said one survivor told the group it had been hard for him to accept love after his experience — a revelation that impacted his daughter, who attended as his support person.  “It helped her understand why her life ended up being the way it was, so there’s healing in understanding and compassion,” Dancey said. 

Survivors were presented with orange-coloured Métis sashes, Dancey said, adding that the sashes were meant to show survivors they are supported, loved and treasured.

Crerar said she was excited to receive hers, which she said represents her life experience. “We are Métis people …. We are a strong, respectful and loving people.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at


Samantha Schwientek, Samantha Schwientek is a reporter with CBC Indigenous based in amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton). She is a member of the Cayuga nation of the Six Nations of the Grand River, and previously worked at CBC Nova Scotia.