Influential Indigenous Elder and residential school survivor shares his story with NWMO employees

Elder Fred Kelly, advisor on the NWMO’s Council of Knowledge Holders, shares his story as an Indian residential school survivor and his experience meeting the Pope.

Elder Fred Kelly, advisor on the NWMO’s Council of Knowledge Holders, shares his story as an Indian Residential School survivor and his experience meeting the Pope.

In recognition of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s (NWMO) employees were honoured to attend an employee learning event with an influential First Nations Elder, who was responsible for co-negotiating the historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (that among other elements led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). He shared his experience as an Indian Residential School survivor and his visit with Pope Francis.

Also a drum keeper and pipe carrier, Elder Fred Kelly, who often goes by his Spirit name Kizhebowse Mukwa (Kind Walking Bear) of the Lynx Clan from Ojibways of Onigaming, is an advisor to the NWMO’s independent advisory body, the Council of Knowledge Holders. The NWMO works with the council to enhance organizational learning through meaningful discussions about Indigenous worldview and history that is anchored in Reconciliation.

“I want NWMO employees to know that regardless of any trauma you have gone through, in a world where you can be anything, be kind,” said Elder Kelly. “Do not let those who have wronged you keep you down. Instead, take the time to heal and reconcile. And be better.”

Elder Kelly reflects on his experience as an Indian Residential School survivor

Elder Kelly, like so many Indigenous children forced to attend Indian Residential Schools, was subjected to horrific acts of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual violence.

At the age of five, he was forced into an Indian Residential School at St. Mary's School in Kenora, Ont., for 10 years, and St. Paul's High in Lebret, Sask., for two years. The first thing they did was cut his braids and shave his head to make sure he had no lice.

“The religious staff called me Dirty Pig and Dog and other derogatory names that because I did not speak the language that I thought were my names. We were also severely punished if we spoke our language,” he said.

Elder Kelly was taught to believe in a punishing God forever looking for every transgression and every sin he committed, instead of the kind Great Spirit of Indigenous traditional spirituality.

“The truth and weight of Elder Kelly’s words held the hearts of people in the room, as he described his experiences in a Residential School. I was deeply moved, and heartbroken,” said Cheryl Teoh, Human Resources Coordinator at the NWMO. “I am inspired by his resilience to rise out of trauma, the passion he has for his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that despite the tough parts of his journey, he is still open, sharing wisdom, and has excellent comedic timing with his jokes.”

The NWMO’s commitment to Reconciliation

Reconciliation is embedded into the fabric of the NWMO, and through our Reconciliation Policy, we have committed to addressing historical wrongs in Canada’s past and co-creating a better future by addressing the challenges of today.

Providing meaningful learning and training opportunities for employees is an important part of this commitment and one way we can support them on their personal Reconciliation journeys. 

This commitment is highlighted in our recent Reconciliation Report. One of these opportunities involves staff learning from the Council of Knowledge Holders’ teachings and experiences.

Elder Kelly reflected on his journey and the suffering he went through in life because of his experience at an Indian Residential School. His resilience, however, allowed him to turn the hurt and shame he felt into compassion and personal serenity.

Elder Kelly connects with Pope Francis

Elder Kelly was a spiritual advisor to the Assembly of First Nations delegation to visit Pope Francis in Rome in March 2022.

"I could connect with the Pope because of his humanity, heart and compassion," said Elder Kelly.

During his most recent visit to Canada, Pope Francis delivered a public apology for the Roman Catholic Church's primary role in operating most Residential Schools in Canada – something Indigenous organizations have demanded for years.

Elder Kelly demonstrated how his healing journey over many years brought him to the people and institutions that had wronged him and gave him the wisdom and strength to offer love in place of hate.

“As I walked towards Pope Francis in our private encounter at the Vatican, I saw this vision of the white eagle flying above the clouds descending upon the white dove above the Catholic church. I told him he is the white eagle and gave him a large white feather to commemorate the eagle that now flies with the white dove towards peace and harmony, Reconciliation, and healing,” said Elder Kelly. “I also told him in my language that his Spirit name is ‘White Eagle.’”

Next steps in the NWMO’s Reconciliation journey

Elder Kelly also spoke about his long relationship with the NWMO and told employees, “You should be proud of what you have accomplished and continue to accomplish in the spirit of Reconciliation. You have come a long way. Continue on this path.”

“We are grateful to be able to share space with and hear Elder Fred Kelly, and we are thankful for the guidance and advice shared with us during this emotional discussion,” said Ms. Teoh. “The organization’s leadership and employees recognize there is much work to be done in the spirit of Reconciliation and hope they will take the same compassion Elder Kelly showed into their personal and professional Reconciliation journeys.”

About the NWMO

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is a not-for-profit organization tasked with the safe, long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel inside a deep geological repository, in a manner that protects people and the environment for generations to come.

Founded in 2002, the NWMO has been guided for 20 years by a dedicated team of world-class scientists, engineers and Indigenous Knowledge Holders that are developing innovative and collaborative solutions for nuclear waste management. Canada’s plan will only proceed in an area with informed and willing hosts, where the municipality, First Nation and Métis communities, and others in the area are working together to implement it. The NWMO plans to select a site in 2024, and two areas remain in our site selection process: the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation-Ignace area in northwestern Ontario and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation-South Bruce area in southern Ontario.