When Daphne Comegan made it into law school, she had overcome the cycles that residential schools had wrought on her family
When Daphne Comegan made it into law school, she had overcome the cycles that residential schools had wrought on her family.
Grief-stricken, Daphne Comegan’s water broke. Having just buried her grandmother, overwhelmed with the loss of the woman who had helped raise her, it had slipped her mind that she was in fact pregnant and it suddenly occurred to her it was time.
“I was like holy crap, this is happening,” she says.
From Eagle Lake, Ont., her grandmother’s reserve, she was driven to Dryden, Ont. only to find there was no doctor available.
“I remember somebody saying, ‘Your first labour is your longest labour.’ So, I was like, well Winnipeg is four hours away. We can make it! I made it to Kenora, Ont. and that’s where I had him.”
Caiden was born. Eight years later, his mom now 33, he wants to be a YouTuber and has his own channel on which he narrates video games.
The pain of her grandmother’s death was replaced with happiness. Comegan says the presence she thought she lost was regained.
“I knew that they had met and they made it happen this way,” she says. “I think my grandmother knew that if it didn’t happen this way, I would have had a really hard time because we were so close . . . Their spirits, before they left in different directions, I think they met and they planned it the way they did.”
Sometimes, Caiden zones out, staring, with his head tilted just so and he scratches his arm. Comegan notices this because her grandmother used to do the exact same thing, one of her mannerisms that she says is now reflected in her son.
“It kind of freaks me out. But it kind of makes me happy at the same time,” she says.
This fall, Comegan will begin her first year at the University of Manitoba’s Robson Hall Law School. Her introduction to the legal profession came when, at 26, her mother’s friend got her a job working as a legal assistant for her husband, Ron Nadeau.
The gig did not last long, as Nadeau was disbarred for stealing from his clients two weeks after Comegan started. Nadeau’s supervising lawyer, Kenneth Young, liked Comegan’s work and asked her to come work for him.
Then her work became intertwined with her family’s history. It is a history that her family shares with thousands across Canada.
Young did criminal and family law, but he was working on the independent assessment process for victims of abuse in the residential schools system. Established under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the IAP process has so far dealt with 38,000 claims by those who say they experienced serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
Both of Comegan’s parents, all her grandparents and her aunts and uncles had survived the residential schools system.
“It was interesting. Like, I learned a lot, but there came a time where I was about a year into doing it and then I just couldn’t do it anymore because I couldn’t hear any more stories,” she says.
“While I was doing these claims, I felt every emotion that anybody could possibly feel.”
Young finished the residential schools claims and went back to his regular practice and Comegan decided to go back to school. Having had a taste, she wanted to be a lawyer.
Apart from alleviating the pain of her loss and giving her a spiritual connection to her grandmother, Comegan sees Caiden as a miracle in his own right. At 23, she had a watermelon-sized tumour attached to her left ovary and fallopian tube. While at cancer care, Comegan was told she would not be able to have children.
When Caiden got a little older, Comegan and Caiden’s dad, Boniface Mason, wanted to have another child. They “tried everything,” says Daphne, even fertility medicines, but with no luck.
“Our son is actually a miracle baby,” she says.
Comegan is a member of Lac Seul First Nation, an Ojibwe community of three settlements with 860 residents on the southeast shores of Lac Seul, in Northwestern Ontario. She was raised in Winnipeg’s north end, amid the addiction, poverty and violence for which it is known.
As a young girl, she stayed with her grandparents because of her parents’ alcoholism, developing a close relationship with the older generation. When she was 11 years old, her parents got sober. Her mom went to school and became a social worker and her dad took psychology at the University of Winnipeg, later working as a trauma counsellor in Indigenous communities. Recently, two heart attacks have prevented him from working, freeing him up to babysit Caiden.
Comegan and her family got involved with softball, which she says helped her mom and dad stay clean.
After graduating at 17, she enrolled at the University of Winnipeg. That is where her own path hit a familiar rough patch. Her own drinking and drug use accelerated, affecting her marks at first and eventually causing her to drop out.
She was repeating a battle that she saw her parents fighting when she was a kid. While residential schooling meant they had trauma from which they needed to escape, their alcohol- and drug-fuelled escapism sowed the chaos and instability that produced episodes of violence and sexual abuse that Comegan says she suffered as a kid.
As she came of age and began “spiralling,” she had flashbacks of her childhood trauma.
“My coping mechanism was drugs and alcohol because that’s all I had seen when I grew up,” Comegan says.
Her parents did what they could to help her, but it got to a point where they were just enabling her, she says. As it turned out, it was her son who changed her life.
When Comegan met her partner Boniface, both of them were heavily into drinking and drug use. The couple went to Selkirk, Man. and were living in a rooming house when she got pregnant.
Once Caiden was on the way, they both got sober, quitting everything “cold turkey.” They remained so and are still together.
Caiden “is the reason I do everything I do now. He is the reason I got clean and sobered up,” says Comegan. “We don’t want him to be exposed to what we were exposed to as kids.
“We’re trying to break that cycle.”
After working with Kenneth Young, Comegan went back to school. Because she flunked out the first time, her reserve, Lac Seul First Nation, would not offer her grants for her tuition until she could prove it would not be a bad investment.
Using her parents’ residential schools payouts for tuition, Comegan started over at UW. She earned a 3.5 grade point average her first year and the next year successfully applied for a sponsorship.
In Canada, 26 per cent of the incarcerated population is Indigenous, while they make up only around three per cent of the population, meaning they’re almost nine times more likely to be in prison. They also account for 25 per cent of homicide victims and are overrepresented as victims of crime in general, their rates of violent victimization double that of the non-Indigenous population, according to Canada’s Department of Justice.
The overincarceration of Indigenous people is central to Comegan’s purpose in pursuing a legal education.
“The reason why I want to go to law school is because I don’t want our future generations to keep being locked up,” she says.
Comegan says what is needed is more Indigenous lawyers, more Indigenous legal scholars, court clerks and even court security and initiatives to help mould the justice system into something that looks more Indigenous.
“This justice system we have now is not going anywhere any time soon. So, we need to find a way to mould it into something that we can make ours,” she says.
While Comegan says she wants to see the justice system more reflective of traditional Indigenous practices, she does not think the criminal justice system is the right place for many within it who are suffering from the intergenerational effects linked to the experience of Indigenous people’s collision with the British Empire and then Canadian state.
She uses the term intergenerational effects to refer to the abuse and addiction that coloured her and her partner’s childhood, as the cycle of abuse inaugurated by residential schools and the addiction borne from the desire to numb the pain and the shame.
Comegan’s desire to break the cycle of these intergenerational effects are reflected in her and her partner’s sobriety, her desire to spur change in the justice system and in the small details of her day-to-day life, such as her obsessive attention toward the temperature of the water in Caiden’s baths.
When her mom, Rose Marie Lands, attended McIntosh Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ont., she was bathed in scalding hot water. Thinking this is how to get children clean, Lands subjected her daughter to the same painful routine.
“I would cry and tell her like the burns, it hurts. It’s too hot, and she would just yell at me and be like ‘No it’s not, you need to get clean,’” Comegan says.
She says she is very careful not to pass on the habit to Caiden, even buying a thermometer so the bath water isn’t hurting him.
With trauma and destructive learned behaviours so central to Indigenous incarceration, Comegan sees folly in seeing this system as anywhere near the appropriate venue to make positive change.
“You might as well shoot them. There’s no way that they’re going to heal in jail,” she says.