Part two in a two-part story about Maggie and Tim. An Indigenous mother who lives proudly with determination despite her many hardships endured over her 57 years, and a son who didn’t survive his own troubles over his 25 years. See part one here.
More than 50 years ago, Maggie Smith lived in the tiny and remote community of Port Douglas at the north end of Harrison Lake where she and her siblings heard and spoke the Halq’emeylem language.
Then, one day she was gone.
Maggie doesn’t remember how or exactly when, but she and her siblings, like approximately 2,000 Indigenous children in British Columbia, were taken to the St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission.
“I don’t know how I got there,” Smith said. “I just remember being there.”
Born in 1963, Maggie was at St. Mary’s from 1968 to 1971, a time that had a lifelong impact on her.
Two classroom experiences are fresh in her mind as examples of trauma that impacted her greatly. One time she recalls a teacher over her desk holding a pointer stick. The teacher was yelling at her, trying to get her to tell the difference between a capital “I” and a small “i”.
“She slapped the pointer stick on the desk and she scared me so much that I wet my pants,” Maggie said. “All the kids were laughing.”
Then there was the time when she got all her math answers wrong. She was sent to the principal’s office and got strapped for it.
Two examples of a learning environment that might not be uncommon in any school in the 1960s. But to be so far away from her family, so far removed from the culture she was born into, made everything worse.
“The hardest part was being away from your family all the time,” she said. “It was hard to understand why we needed to be taken away. You are there and you are lonely because your family is far away.
“They made us go to church and do confessions. I don’t remember my language at all. We weren’t allowed to speak our language.”
After her time in the residential school, her father, who was an alcoholic died when she was just 10. She then lived with her mother in Chilliwack where she endured all-too-common racism towards Indigenous people.
What saved her was her Christian faith. She started to go to church as a teenager and it stuck.
“Having faith helped me to overcome my past,” she said. “I think I needed that in my life.”
And while she did not suffer some of the more serious abuse many residential school survivors report, she knows some of her siblings suffered greatly. But no one much likes to talk about it.
“I don’t know what they went through.”
One younger sister is still dealing with her trauma. Her brother Lloyd lives in Pemberton but he doesn’t like coming off the reserve.
|Flanked by her daughter Sarah and eldest son Jared, Maggie White holds a photograph of her son Tim Postma who died on the streets of Chilliwack on Jan. 22, 2020. (Paul Henderson/ The Progress)
Eventually Maggie got married and moved to Ontario. She had three children, Jared, Sarah and Tim, all with their father John Postma. The marriage deteriorated and while the children stayed in Ontario, in 2008 Maggie came back to Chilliwack.
“I came so I could have a better life and start over,” she said.
A petite woman, Maggie has a strength of spirit that she shares with all who meet her. She works long hours, sometimes six days a week at a retirement home. She goes to church, and she bakes and does crafts which she shares with friends and even strangers.
Maggie’s fear of learning persisted until about a decade ago when counselling helped.
But it was her son Tim’s struggles with substances and homelessness that captured much of her attention. Tim lived in various communities, but was mostly homeless here in Chilliwack. Maggie would go look for Tim in between shifts at work, sometimes to invite him home for a meal or to clean up, sometimes she would sit with him and his friends.
Her life of experiences, from her own trauma to her faith, helped inform how she dealt with not only Tim but with his friends. And she learned from them.
“Tim taught me not to judge,” she said. “All they need is someone to listen to them and not judge.”
She wanted him to get help, but she couldn’t make him, so she just did her best to help him day by day. But on Jan. 22 at approximately 3 a.m. Tim was found by an RCMP officer on a side street inside a commercial trailer that was on fire. He was taken to hospital but he died of hypothermia and asphyxiation.
Maggie was at work when they told her.
Tim’s death has been very hard for Maggie. She is losing weight, she says, and doesn’t have much to lose. She is grieving and will be for some time.
She wanted to tell Tim’s story, and her own, to honour him so his death was not forgotten, so that Tim was not left to be just another statistic in the opioid crisis or the homelessness epidemic.
His death is one more thing Maggie will have to endure, but endure she has. So much was taken away from her and all of Canada’s Indigenous people through the residential school system, but Maggie wants to claw some of it back.
Through counselling she has overcome the fear imbued in her at St. Mary’s, and one day she is thinking of learning her traditional language.
“It took me a long time to overcome those fears. I had to find myself after being in a residential school. You don’t know which way to turn. You don’t know who you are. You have to find yourself and see who you are.
“I am now seeing myself as a person, not as that little girl who was living in fear.”
With faith and forgiveness she has overcome sexual abuse and cultural destruction, both are what she will need moving forward to get over the death of Tim.
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