The Canadian aboriginal who forgave

The grandmother who put 25 years of hatred and drugs behind her.

– I want to be an example for my grandchildren. My dream is also to go up to the reserves in the north of Canada to bring healing to others through what God has done for me. I used to hate everyone. Now I love all Canadians, and people from other nations around the world as well, shares the grandmother who has put 25 years of hatred and drugs behind her.

As a six-year-old, Brenda Cyr was one of the 150,000 aboriginal children in Canada who were forcibly sent to boarding schools. The Canadian authorities started an integration system through private religious schools in the 1880’s, where the purpose was to assimilate the aboriginal populations into Canadian culture. The thought was that if the assimilation began with the children, the Native Canadian culture and language would disappear by itself. Most of the children were away from home 10 months a year. They were deprived of the lessons of growing up in a family, and many were unable to take care of their own children. They were only allowed to write home in English, a language most of their parents did not know. Thereby the children also lost their belonging.

– I grew up with my grandparents on a reserve in the province of Saskatchewan, not too far from Moosejaw, which has been in the news in Norway because of the competition for the biggest moose, Brenda laughs.

Taken by force
– Both my parents had gone to boarding school and struggled because of it. But my grandmother was a strong Christian, she prayed all the time and taught me to be kind. She took me to church and not powwows. I remember one time when I had burned myself and my grandmother put an ointment she made with a mixture of baking soda and sage on my burned skin. Where she put the mixture on my face, the skin completely healed, but an area on my arm that she overlooked, still has large scars.

As a result of the boarding schools, many reserves for the Aboriginals became extremely poor, families broke up and many became addicted to drugs. It led to what is called «the Sixties Scoop», where approximately 20,000 aboriginal children were taken from their homes and forcibly adopted, or placed in foster homes. Some of the children came to loving homes, but many also experienced abuse and condescending treatment because of their background.

The boarding school in Lebret in Saskatchewan. Brenda was six years old when she was sent to a residential school. She used to go to the lake for pictures and sit and cry. ( archive photo)


– I was 6 years old when the child protection team showed up at my grandparents’ place on the reserve. In the justification for taking me, it is stated that the house did not maintain a high enough standard. My grandparents were given the choice between placing me in a foster home or at a residential boarding school. They chose the school, and I was sent to the residential school in Lebret in Saskatchewan. Those were the three loneliest years of my life. I used to go to the lake next to the school and sit and cry. I didn’t understand why my grandparents didn’t like me anymore. I felt abandoned and lost. What makes me sad today was that I also lost my mother language, Saulteaux.

Compensation sums have been paid to aboriginals who were abused at the boarding schools. Here, Canadian schoolchildren learn about the history of Canada’s aboriginal on a field day in Regina, Saskatchewan. (Photo: Bente Rognmo Thakre)


When Brenda is asked what tribe she belonged to, she explains that the indigenous people of Canada no longer use the word tribe, but Nation.

-We say that everyone in the indigenous population belongs to First Nation, and then we also belong to each of our Nations, which in my case is the Saulteaux Nation.

After three years at boarding school, Brenda contracted tuberculosis. She was then moved to another school which was closer to the hospital where she could receive treatment.

– There were 7 of us at this school who had tuberculosis, and it was the principle, who was also a Catholic priest, who drove us to the hospital every week for treatment. He became like a father figure to me because I had never had a father. He was kind and he used to buy me candy. One weekend when we returned to the school, he took me into the dining hall to get me some food. The other students had already eaten, and we were alone. I remember I got spaghetti to eat. Then he raped me. I was completely in shock. I still can’t eat spaghetti. I was unable to tell anyone what had happened. Sundays were the worst. Then I was forced to sit in church and listen to his sermon. I had nightmares and couldn’t sleep. He was the one who had been my father figure.

The indiginous children at the boarding schools had to cut their hair and wear western clothes. They were also not allowed to speak their mother language among themselves. (archive photo)


Hated herself
For the next 28 years, Brenda turned to pills and alcohol to numb the pain. She had a daughter who also became a drug addict.

– I kept getting into fights and was stabbed several times. I lost my spleen. My jaw was broken three times, now I have a steel plate in it. I didn’t know I had to forgive to find healing. And you can only do that with God’s help. I tried everything. I was in and out of rehabilitation programs. I sought out my roots and practiced our primal religion. But nothing helped. I tried to commit suicide six times. In 1995 I was declared dead, but they managed to bring me back to life.

But when child protection came to take possession of Brenda’s daughter’s three sons in 1998, Brenda went cold turkey and immediately stopped her drug abuse. She managed to convince the child protection agency that she was drug-free, and was given custody of her grandchildren.

– It was sheer will power that enabled me to stop taking drugs and drinking. I didn’t want my grandchildren to be lost to us. But the hatred was still there. Hate against those who had stolen my land. But most of all, I hated being myself. I hated being a First Nation person.

Heart of stone
One of Brenda’s  grandson’s eventually started attending a church. When he expressed a desire to be baptized, Brenda started coming to the meetings. This triggered memories of her childhood faith, and she began to seek God in earnest.

-Every time I opened the Bible, whether it was from the back, upside down or the right way, it opened to Ezekiel in chapter 36: «And I will sprinkle clean water on you, so that you will be clean. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will take away the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. You will live in a land I gave to your fathers. You will be my people and I will be your God.”

– I really had a heart of stone and understood well what the words meant. It started a process in me where I began to seek God.

It took almost a lifetime before Brenda was able to tell what she had experienced at the boarding school.  (Photo: Bente Rognmo Thakre)


In 2015, Brenda sought the support of a christian councelling service, as she realized that she needed more help.

– It was the first time I opened up and told about the abuse. That’s when the healing could begin. I was told that I should ask God to show me what I needed to do, and forgiveness was at the top of the list. But it was a challenging process that I got help with. I realized that I was loved by God, that He loves my people and that I have nothing to be ashamed of. My hatred slowly disappeared and I actually began to like people from other countries and nations.  I especially love hearing stories about the Jews. They have also experienced a lot of pain and injustice. Before I could only see myself, now I saw others for the first time.

The test
The big test came in 2017 when Brenda’s daughter passed away. In connection with the funeral, she had to travel back to the reserve and the boarding school she was sent to as a 6-year-old.

– It brought back memories. And I see that I will probably always have some scars. But the amazing thing was that the grief didn’t break me. I didn’t start getting high again. If my heart was still made of stone, it would be broken into a thousand pieces. But it is flesh and blood. It can be cured. Of course it hurt, but Jesus has been with me and given me peace and strength through the grief. I have also been able to be a source of strength for my family.

Brenda Cyr with the three grandsons she has raised. (Photo: private)


God’s plan is good
Brenda’s recovery launched a new phase in her life. This time, she says that she is pursuing God’s plan for her life, and it is full of good surprises.

– As I said, I am raising three boys who are my grandchildren. When it was time for them to start high school, they complained and said, «No way, grandma, you didn’t go to high school». So then I said ok, then I’ll start high school. I signed up for a tailored program, and got my High School diploma in 2016, at the age of 56! Brenda Cyr is now pursuing a university degree after graduating high school at the age of 56!

Brenda Cyr started a degree at the First Nation University in Regina at the age of 56! (Photo: Bente Rognmo Thakre)


After a year’s break, she enrolled at Canada’s First Nations University in her hometown of Regina.

– Now I am in my second year. Among other things, I am taking a language course where I will learn Cree. I also study psychology and indiginous art. My dream is to go up to the First Nation reservations in the north and share my testimony with them. When they see that God can change someone like me, they will know that God can help them too!

First published in Troens Bevis magazine april 2019.



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