Resistance on the Giimooch: The Life of Mary Courchene, a comprehensive learning resource that includes sixteen lesson plans and a teacher’s guide, launches this month on The Manitoba Teachers’ Society website mbteach.org. Through storytelling both written and oral, Mary Courchene, Elder in Residence in Seven Oaks School Division, shares her life and how her history, family, culture, language, and ways of knowing preserved her spirit, sharpened her focus, fuelled her determination and led her to the place—and person—she is today.
When asked about the title of the project, Mary says, “It means on the down-low, in secret,” with a little laugh, she adds, “We had to hold onto our identity quietly, unseen. It was very risky, but there was power in it.”
Gift of Truth and the Power of Stories
It was only near the completion of the project that its title, Resistance on the Giimooch, came to Mary.
“When I was about 12, a nun locked me and my best friend in the bathroom so we couldn’t go to supper. We were being punished because we didn’t pick up the things in the playroom that we were told to. I got my friend to stand on my shoulders and squeeze out the window. She came around and unlocked the door so we could go to supper. When we were eating, the nun saw us and took us back to the playroom. When we got there, she told us to get back into the bathroom and I said no. She picked up a bat and aimed it at my friend. I thought she was going to kill her, so I ran and grabbed the bat. The nun fell and I unintentionally stepped on her veil, and it came off. I said, “don’t do that again”, in the language. I didn’t think about it, I just knew I had to protect my friend. The nun just sat there on the floor; she was so stunned by it. We went back and ate supper and she never came to punish us again. We sure got away with that one.”
Stepping Into Role of Teacher
Throughout her time at Residential School and the years since, Mary has routinely reflected on the intentional acts of genocide against her being and spirit. As an adult, undefeated by the loneliness and devastation of her past and an education system determined to destroy her, Mary would step into the role of a teacher. She recognized that one of the ways she could change a school system that attempted to erase who she was as an Indigenous person was to disrupt it from within.
“In the early 70s, I found out there was a new program starting at Brandon University. And I thought, wow, there’s an opportunity for me. I lived on the reserve, but I wasn’t going to leave my kids. So I wrote a letter to the university about my life in the Residential School and why I wanted to leave the reserve to take this program. I felt it was an opportunity to do something for me and for my children. I basically wrote an autobiography. And based on that, they wrote me back and said I was accepted. The only problem was they wanted me for an orientation the very next weekend. I had very little money, with seven kids from ages three months to 13 years old, and I thought “What am I going to do, how can I get to Brandon with my kids?” Then I thought of a plan, once again on the Giimooch. I decided to borrow my husband’s car, and I say my husband’s car because back then you were subservient to your husband. I couldn’t just ask him if I could go because he would have said no, and I would’ve listened as he was the authority. So, I told him I wanted to go to bingo, and he gave me a bit of money for it, which I used for gas. I didn’t even have a driver’s license, but that was beside the point. I drove my husband to work, went back to the house and packed up the kids. We put our stuff in garbage bags and took off. I wrote my husband a note and told him “I’m going to School in Brandon, I’ll talk to you later, love Mary”. That’s all I said. We went to Brandon and showed up at my brother’s place because I had nowhere else to go, and he let us stay. When my husband found the note, he got someone to drive him to Brandon to find us. He had quit his job on the reserve and followed us out there. He understood. He knew it was so we could have a better life, so our children could have a better life.”
“We are Sorry”
Fast forward to June 11, 2008. Mary sat in Ottawa in the gallery of the House of Commons as then Prime Minister Stephen Harper read a statement of apology to survivors of Indian Residential Schools in Canada.
“The Government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly,” he said. “Nous le regrettons. We are sorry. Nimitataynan. Niminchinowesamin. Mamiattugut.”
As the apology was read, Courchene began to sob. “My first instinct was to feel shame that I was showing emotion. But when I looked around, I saw other survivors openly crying, too. It was a moment of finally hearing the government say yes, you’re right, this happened, you were wronged. And we did this to you.“
Events such as the apologies by the Canadian prime minister and more recently the pope were particularly searing for Mary, as she felt her childhood experiences were being unpacked on varying levels—the impact on herself, and in the broader Canadian context.
Mary’s goal in sharing her story far and wide has always been in the name of a better future for Indigenous children and youth. Despite the genocide of Indigenous people, their culture, rights, language, and ways of knowing and being, despite the pain and suffering that have spanned generations, with Resistance on the Giimooch, Mary and her family have both re-claimed and shared their power. The power to be, to heal, and through education, to change the course of history.
The Healers will Prevail
“I can see the changes over the years, over the generations,” she says. “There is my generation, my children’s generation, the third generation of my grandchildren and now their children, the fourth generation, my great grandchildren, who are the young people now. I can’t help but notice that the third generation, my grandchildren, they’re angry. They’re mad at the world for the way their parents and grandparents were treated, and they are strong in claiming back what was denied them. And I understand that. But with the fourth generation, my great grandchildren, it is already different and that fills my soul. They are joyful and happy being who they are, and they embrace the language, they embrace the culture. I am a hopeful person, and my hope is with the little ones. They are the healers.”
Mary concludes that it is the healers who will prevail, the healers who have heard the voices that cannot speak and will pass along hope to future generations.
Dedicated to the Young Ones
“Resistance on the Giimooch: The Life of Mary Courchene,” is dedicated to both the young ones who endured Canada’s Residential Schools through quiet, unseen, courageous moments of resistance and to the young ones today who will resist in plain sight. In their joyful defiance, they will help create a better life for themselves and generations to come.
– To read more from the Resistance on the Giimooch: The Life of Mary Courchene series click here
– To view the Resistance on the Giimooch Teacher’s Guide click here
– Originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of the MB Teacher
Anne Bennett is the Editor of the MB Teacher magazine and the Communications Department Head for The Manitoba Teachers’ Society.