Lila Bruyere, a residential school survivor, never thought she would be attending Wilfrid Laurier University to earn her Master of Social Work with her son Shawn Johnston. Being in the same program, they saw each other every day, worked together on the same projects, and are in the same classroom together. Does this create a problem? Not at all. They think it’s a great opportunity to help encourage others to earn their education.

My name is Lila Bruyere, and I am originally from Couchiching First Nation. My spirit name is Dancing Eagle Woman and Bear clan. I am a Residential School survivor from the St. Margaret’s school in Fort Frances, Ontario. I attended this school from the age of 6 – 14 years of age.

When I wasn’t in residential school, my parents who were survivors of the same school, created their own addiction to alcohol. I grew up seeing a lot of alcoholism and neglect. When I reached my youth, I started my own addiction to alcohol and carried that through after I had children. My marriage ended and my drinking career headed for my bottom, I was defeated. I tried to gain an education in college but my drinking got in the way along side the affects of residential school. I needed help. My first step to sobriety was to attend treatment and start a long journey to healing. It’s been twenty five years since I had a drink and remain in counseling today.

I knew my sons and I needed help. I suffered trauma in the residential school and my sons suffered trauma in the home. I had to admit to them I was not a good mom, I had no parenting skills and I needed to help us as a unit to heal. The hardest thing for any parent to hear is “Mom – where were you?” I took full responsibility as their mom and we started our journey to heal.

My sons and I learned to talk and we still do that today. It’s not always easy but it’s a tool I encouraged to remain in my family. Shawn is the middle son and little did we know that one day we would sit in the same classroom.

I worked my way into education in 1994, through an educational program from Carleton University, where they brought the professors to you, on your First Nation. The program was held through Seven Generations in Fort Frances. I spent the next four years working on my Honor Bachelor in Social Work and graduated in 1998. After that, I always spoke of earning my Masters in Social Work but never returned to school due to work.

My job ended in March 2014, and I wondered at my age, ‘what’s next’. I always talked about going for my Masters in Social Work and saw an opportunity. I applied at the Aboriginal Field of Study program held through Wilfrid Laurier in Kitchener, Ontario and got accepted, I asked Shawn how he was going to feel having me in class every day and he said, he thought it was pretty cool and it has been.

My name is Shawn Johnston, and I am Anishinabe from Couchiching First Nation. As an Indigenous youth, growing up was challenging because of the many obstacles I faced while trying to earn my education. I faced so much racism, homophobia, and bullying both in and out of school. I was too afraid to ask for help and learned to cope with these problems. These issues eventually took a toll on my mental health and I dropped out before I even reached high school.

I couldn’t have made it this far in my educational journey without the support from my family. My mother and I have always been good friends while growing up. We always lived different yet similar lives.

At a young age, she sat me down and told me about the residential school system and the impact it had on her family. This helped me to understand the impact it was having not only on me, but my family and community. Many years of family therapy had taught us to be open with talking about issues with one another.

I watched as she battled with her own addiction to alcohol for many years. She would “clean up” years later only to have the tables turn when I entered into my adult years. I became addicted to cocaine and crystal meth and eventually started to deal. This lifestyle led me down a dark road and I allowed myself to get to a point where I wanted it all to end. My mother was the only person I had in my life who was willing to help me despite years of lies and mistrust. Two rehabs later, I came to the realization that I wanted a better life for myself and it wasn’t going to happen unless I started making choices with positive results so I decided to go back to school.

Five years ago, I made the decision to attend post-secondary as a mature student. I applied for the Social Service Worker (SSW) program at Lambton College and received an offer of enrolment a month later. I knew that being a mature student would be challenging because it had been a long time since I was in school. Being in the classroom again reminded me of how much of a passion I have for learning.

My two years of hard work paid off, allowing me to graduate. Walking across the stage and receiving my SSW diploma is a moment I will always remember. Before I graduated, I knew I wanted to continue with my education and earn a university degree. I applied at King’s University College and was accepted for the fall of 2010. My years at Western University provided me with the knowledge and tools that have helped me become the leader I am today. I learned to ask for help and that is what helped me earn my Bachelor of Social Work (Honors) degree in 2013.

My mother had always talked earning her Master of Social Work but was always working and did not want to quit her job in order to go back to school. She knew I would be relocating to Kitchener as I had been accepted into the program. When her job ended unexpectedly, she asked me how I felt if she applied for the same program. I told her I thought it would be cool and if we ended up in the same program…and so we did.

The goal of the Master of Social Work – Aboriginal Field of Study program at Wilfrid Laurier is to develop social work practitioners who demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the history, traditions and culture of the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

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