Kerry Benjoe’s journey hasn’t always run a straight course. Only three years ago, she was homeless and caring for a young daughter. Two years ago, she faced the difficult decision to have her left leg amputated below the knee, the tragic result of spousal abuse. But Benjoe did what Benjoe has always done – she picked herself up. In 2020, she earned a master’s degree in journalism and in February 2021, she was hired by CBC Saskatchewan as the broadcaster’s first Indigenous Storyteller.
As a long-time journalist, I’ve told many stories of triumph and tragedy. But now I’m sharing the story of my own journey.
I grew up in a big family on reserve. Although we lived just outside Regina, we didn't have the same amenities as our urban counterparts such as indoor plumbing, running water, cable television or a corner store. Still, it was a happy life and we never went without. My parents made sure of it.
Unfortunately my protective bubble burst when I was 13. For years afterwards, I tried to recreate that life, but failed because it was my parents' journey and not mine.
My mom and dad were residential school survivors, as were my grandparents and my great-grandparents. In fact, I was the last generation of my family to attend an Indian residential school.
Four generations of my family attended the residential school in Lebret, Saskatchewan. This school was one of the first three residential schools the federal government opened in 1884; it was closed in 1998. This long line of residential school survivors shaped me and the decisions I've made along the way.
My parents had no choice but to attend residential school and it impacted them differently. They rarely spoke about their experiences. Years later, I learned the true history of residential schools and only then did I begin to really appreciate my parents.
My dad only shared one story about his time at the school and he told it with a gleam in his eye and always ended it with a laugh.
He was dubbed a chronic runaway. He ran away so often that he spent his final year at the school completely bald. Back then, runaways were hunted down and returned to the school. As part of the punishment, the children had their hair shaved off, regardless of their gender. The purpose was two-fold: one was to humiliate the student and the other was to easily identify “the runners.”
During my parents’ time, the school was called the Fort Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School, which was a place where gaining an education was secondary to learning a skill. The goal was to provide a source for cheap labour for the school itself and other non-Indigenous businesses. My dad was taught basic agricultural skills so he could become a farm hand.
When my dad was around 12 or 13 years old, he gained his freedom. That final year at the school, he began running up and down the hills during breaks, but always returned once the bell rang. He ran in the rain, the snow and the sunshine. After months of this, the priests and supervisors believed he had changed his ways. What they didn’t know was my dad was waiting for the perfect time and for his hair to grow back. One warm spring day, he ran up the hill and kept running. He ran so fast and so far no one could catch him.
This time, he didn’t go home. Instead, he found work as a farm hand. He lied about his age and said he was 15. Once harvest was completed, he returned home and by then, the school had given up on him.
The only story my mom told me about her time in residential school was that it was the place where she learned to cry.
For a six year old, it was a scary and lonely place. She started school late in the year, so when she got there everyone already had their bonds and she had no friends. Her job was to darn socks, which she did every afternoon after morning lessons.
She said her dad travelled by wagon to visit her and take her home at Christmas and at the end of the school year. This routine continued until a day-school opened on her reserve when she was about 12.
My mom was 80 when she said, “To this day, I still don’t know why my dad ever put me there.” I gently explained that in her day, residential schools were the law and her dad was probably threatened with incarceration, which explains why she started late in the school year.
Despite the trauma my parents likely endured – but never talked about – they provided a stable and safe home. It's the greatest gift they could have given us and I carry their stories with me.
Unfortunately, as the youngest of eight, I didn’t get as much time with my parents as my siblings did. My dad died when
I was 13 and my mom had to change from caregiver to provider virtually overnight.
I can go on and on about my parents and the many obstacles they both overcame. Knowing their struggles has helped motivate me even in my darkest times.
My experience in residential school was different from my parents but it still had a big impact on me. When I attended it wasn’t mandatory, but with no high school on reserve, my choices were limited. The bottom line is that I had to leave my community if I wanted to graduate high school. My dad was big on education, so graduating high school was expected.
School is where I developed the skills I needed to survive. I didn’t face the same trauma as my parents, but living in an institution surrounded by strangers changes a person. I learned to depend on myself and make my own decisions. I was solely responsible for my actions and I dealt with the consequences of poor decisions on my own. I lived at the school, so there was no going home to mom with my problems.
I learned to work to earn privileges and rewards. Most of all I learned family isn’t determined by blood. The downside was rarely going home or seeing my biological family. It was a lonely time but I adjusted and worked towards that day when I could leavefor good.
I excelled in school and my high school principal recognized my potential and encouraged me to get a degree.
“Get your education, Benjoe, that’s the one thing they can’t take away from you,” he said. It wasn’t until years later
I realized how true his words were.
Once I completed my time at the school, off to college I went. I was completely unprepared for the culture shock.
I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I knew I needed to get my education, not only for me, but for my dad who had never had a chance and for those, like my principal, who believed I was capable.
Leaving Lebret was a lonely time because I had no place to call home. I was 18 and responsible for myself. I failed university that first year but I met my future husband. We started our own family. Barely out of high school, I became a mom and the first time I held my baby, I promised I would give her a good life.
Truth be told, all I really wanted was to have a happy home and a career.
My daughter was three months old when I returned to university, determined to succeed. There were times I brought her to class with me. Twenty-eight years ago, this was unheard of, but I did what was necessary because I refused to quit.
I became the first in my family to graduate when I received a bachelor’s degree in English and Indigenous Studies. My plan was to become a lawyer. However, life can throw you curveballs and, in my case, I adopted four children, so I adjusted my life accordingly. Around this same time, I realized I loved writing. For fun, as well as to maintain my sanity, I freelanced while working and raising seven children. The writing led to a gig at the Regina Leader-Post where I became the first Indigenous reporter hired in the paper's history.
Unfortunately, during this time, my marriage broke down and I became a single mom. It was a struggle sometimes, but
In 2011, I met a person who would change the course of my life forever and not for the better. I realized too late that I was stuck in a cycle of violence and it was hard to get out.
In September 2014, I turned to walk away from an argument when I was shoved from behind with a force that knocked me off my feet. When I landed, I heard a loud snap. I thought it was just from me hitting the floor, but when I stood, my leg buckled. When I looked down, my toes were pointing up. The arch of my foot was broken.
Sadly, it wasn’t the first time he broke one of my bones. I was silent about the abuse partly out of embarrassment and partly out of denial. The relationship came to a dramatic end in December 2017. I left with nothing but the clothes on my back and my youngest daughter in tow.
In January 2018, I was homeless and living in a shelter with my daughter, but that was the easiest part of the year. While
I was rebuilding my life, I had to face my abuser in court. It was a difficult but necessary part of my healing journey. I thought my life was finally going to be normal again, but the injury to my foot reared its ugly head. I faced yet another tough decision.
The bones in my foot were damaged beyond repair and I had to decide whether to have part of my foot or all of it amputated. After several consultations, I decided to have my foot amputated below the knee to end years of pain.
I began 2019 in a wheelchair but determined to walk. However, I had to rethink my career path. Returning to my job as a reporter wasn’t possible because it’s a physically demanding job. I resigned my position with a heavy heart but, rather than dwell on what I couldn’t do, I focused on what I could and I returned to university.
In 2020, the pandemic threatened my education goals but I figured out how to complete my research. In October, I received my Master of Journalism and joined CBC Saskatchewan as part of a 12-week program. In February, I was hired as the Indigenous storyteller for CBC Saskatchewan, which is a newly created role.
Some people have asked why I’m not angry or bitter considering everything I’ve experienced, but the way I see it, I’ve gained knowledge. In each hardship, there’s a lesson I've learned.
I had dark days but I also experienced the very best in people. When I was at my worst, I had friends and even strangers reach out and lift me up. Any time I ever thought of quitting, I remembered where I came from but most importantly, who I came from. My life isn’t all sadness. I’ve had many opportunities and I’ve been very blessed.
The road I chose has been one of privilege, in that I've had opportunities my parents never imagined could be possible.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
Photos by Trevor Hopkin, University of Regina Photography Department, unless otherwise noted.