“I’m not as silent as I used to be. Nobody really knew about my past; That I went to Shingwauk. I used to think that I was pretty lucky because I got to go home most weekends. But as I got older, I realized that I wasn’t really lucky at all.”
‘Feelings for Life’ is a collection of poetry by storyteller Sharon ‘Dolly’ Syrette. The journey to publishing her first collection is one that rises and falls, weaves and bobs with the emotional splashes that paint her life. Dolly’s life is painted in many colours. For many years, most especially in the earliest years, her life was painted in darker colours. Textures that were rough and edgy. Being able to find solid footing in those years was not to be had.
Her story is one that is entwined into the residential school experience. Rough and edgy could even be considered tame words in the big picture. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has taught us so much. Saultonline recently sat down with Dolly Syrette at her sister’s property along the St. Mary’s River, where she introduced ‘Feelings for Life.’ After sharing time with Dolly, it is easy to understand how her first published poetry collection would come to be called that. Her authenticity is distilled in each and every one of the poems, told as a story, where real life intersects, and it’s not always pretty.
Dolly’s poems include personal connections to friends and family, relationships both good and bad, and her Ojibway culture, and reveal insights into how all of these things have come to frame her.
“We never really talked about Shingwauk Residential School.” she said Dolly shared a story about a large pot of ‘something green’, which may have been pea soup. “I don’t know what it was.” she said “But none of us would eat it, so the staff removed all of the bread & desserts from the table. We had to sit there for what seemed like hours. None of us were fed that night. We all went to bed hungry.”
My dad wasn’t able to read or write. CAS (Children’s Aid Society) and the Courts told my dad that I would be better off at Shingwauk. Being a seasonal worker, he wasn’t always able to provide. Me and my three brothers were sent to residential schools. My mom left us when we were young; she came and went. I don’t recall seeing her very much while I was growing up.”
“I was at Shingwauk for four years. My twin brother was there at the same time, but he ended up being sent to Fort Frances (northwestern Ontario) and he lived in a boarding home. I was sent to Fort Frances at 16 to attend high school. I was boarded out with a white family on the outskirts of town.”
“I have a younger brother who lives in North Bay. My twin brother lives on the east coast in Nova Scotia. One of my sisters passed. My other sister lives here.” Dolly is referring to the lovely property along the St. Mary’s River near Garden River, Ontario where our interview took place.
“I never got married. I could never quite get there, to commit to marriage.” Dolly’s life moved in and out of relationships with men, some that were fraught with abuse. “I didn’t really ever know love growing up, and at Shingwauk, there wasn’t any. I just couldn’t understand what I was feeling.”
Dolly has been writing stories through poetry for a long time, she said. “Writing poetry was a hobby. Whenever a situation happened, I would write a poem. At Christmas time, or baby showers, I would write a poem and give it as a gift.”
“I never wanted to tell my story about my time at Shingwauk. I was in one of the last groups before it closed in 1970. My twin brother was there at the same time as me. But boys were on one side and girls were on the other, so I didn’t see him very much. At night, sometimes, I would try to sneak over to the boys area to see my brother. But that didn’t happen very often. My brother was eventually sent away to training school. He had a very hard time at Shingwauk.”
“I received a portion of the Residential School Settlement, and after that, an announcement was made in 2012 about a Personal Credit Claim that could be accessed. There was a section that addressed literacy initiatives, and after a long process, I received a Credit Claim, which was issued to FRIESENPRESS in Victoria, B.C., for me to work on my poetry collection. I can’t believe how blessed I am to have found them. They (FriesenPress) worked and worked with me, right down to the littlest of details. They were so easy to talk to, and they listened to what I was trying to figure out in my vision for the book. I have to pinch myself. I can’t believe I have this is my hand right now.”
With her book held in hand, Dolly pointed out the feather in the bottom corner of each page. She wanted the page numbers laid into the feather. It was her way of sharing that each poem is wrapped in culture. Each poem is an extension of her anishinaabe self. “My Anishinabek name is Yellow Thunder Woman.”
“The rainbow image for the front cover came to me in a vision. Skarlet, my granddaughter’s hand, who is now 4 years old, is the child’s hand featured on the front cover. The two hands together represent family. The elder and the child. The feather represents culture.” From life to death, and all the poems represent feelings in between.”
“When I opened up my book for the first time, I was overwhelmed.”
“When I was designing the front cover, I approached Chief Dean Sayers about borrowing a feather for a picture. He surprised me and gifted me with the feather featured on the cover. He presented it to me in a wooden box. That was very special. Since Chief Sayers gave me the feather, I find I’m a little calmer when I speak publicly about my poems. I’m not as nervous as I used to be. When I speak, I have the feather with me. I have all of my ancestors with me.”
“My book is in three parts. It starts out with poems about Family. Then Relationships, Then Spiritual Inspirations represent culture.”
“My job has sustained me. I’m a receptionist at the Band Office. I stayed at the job so long, in the hopes that Christina would register looking for her biological mother.
Christina is a child, that at 6 months old was given up for adoption by Dolly. “When I gave her up (for adoption), I thought I was doing the right thing; What would be best for her. She got adopted right away. I have been able to find out that she was raised in a rural area in southern Ontario, but that is all that I know.”
Dolly longs for the day when she will meet Christina, now 44 years old.
“I have a dream that she finds me. And I feel such peace when I have that dream.”
Including the child Dolly gave up for adoption, she has four children, James, Christina, Eugene and Melanie.
“I knew that if I wanted to give my kids something I would have to go back to school. I enrolled at the Sault College west end campus in 1978. I learned switchboard, and office management, and shorthand. Then I got a summer job at the band office. I did a library book outreach programme one summer and I loved it. When the receptionist job opened up, I was able to get it.”
Reflecting on her many years as the Batchewana First Nation Band Office receptionist Dolly said, “If my girl ever walks in that door .. But 35 years later, nothing yet.”
With a deep breath and tears welling in her eyes, Dolly said, “I hold onto hope that we will be reunited some day. I have to hold onto hope. It sustains me until I find her.”
Dolly is hoping that someday her daughter will register through various channels available to children who are adopted. Because of Christina’s First Nation heritage, there is a potential for her to receive that particular call herself, at the Band Office. “I don’t know if she even realizes that she is Anishinaabe.”
Dolly will be attending The Shingwauk Gathering July 29 – 31st, where her official book launch will be held on Saturday July 30th, 4:00pm-5:00pm. There is an ‘Open Mic’ time, taking place in the Shingwauk Auditorium 5 – 8 pm on Friday evening, and Dolly said she might get up the courage to do some readings from her collection, ‘Feelings for Life’.
“I got to meet Murray Sinclair.” she said with unbridled delight. (The Honourable, Justice, Murray Sinclair, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chair. Canadian Senator) “I even have a picture with him. He spoke at our Gathering last year. (Shingwauk Gathering 2015). And then I saw him at a Language conference later on and he remembered me. He asked if I had done the book yet. “You were mentioning a book you were going to do.” When he said that to me I was so excited. I had the bookmarks ready by that time, so I was able to give him one.”
Sharon ‘Dolly’ Syrette’s life in the present moment is painted with splashes of bright colours and new beginnings. Yellow Thunder Woman is gaining strength.
‘Feelings for Life’ will be available for sale at The 2016 Shingwauk Gathering, as well as through friesenpress.com.
The 2016 Shingwauk Gathering and Conference will take place at Algoma University. The theme of this year’s event is ‘Fulfilling The Vision’. The complete schedule is here:
‘The Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA) have been holding reunions of the students, staff, clergy, and descents of those involved with the Shingwauk and Wawanosh Indian Residential Schools since 1981. Gatherings were held in 1981, 1991, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. Over the years the gatherings expanded to include Survivors and their families from other Indian Residential Schools across Canada.’
” Darrell Boissoneau bought one of my books, and put it in the collections at the Library at Algoma University.” Mr. Boissoneau is President of Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig, Centre of Excellence in Anishinaabe Education, which was founded to fulfill the vision of Ojibway Chief Shingwauk.
From ‘Feelings for Life’, a published collection of poetry by Sharon ‘Dolly’ Syrette. FRIESENPRESS. (FRIESENPRESS.COM)
How you must look
What you must feel
anger, disappointment, sadness
I feel them too.
Your tears, I still see
Your cry, I still hear
after all these years.
Did I love you?
Yes, I still do
Do you ever wonder why
or do you even know?
To see you just once would make my life complete.
To feel you in my arms again
would be so wondrous.
No longer a child
but a grown woman.
How sad to have missed those years.
You’re still here in my heart
you weren’t in my life.
May we, one day
get one day back.
I can still dream.