According to aboriginal belief, the power of the world works in circles.
Although that symbol always has carried meaning for Shawn Johnston and his mother, Lila Bruyere, it recently became a fitting analogy for the graduates who are circling back after years of battling addiction.
The former Couchiching First Nation residents experienced the realities of residential schooling and substance abuse first-hand. Despite their circumstances, however, the pair will be the first mother-and-son to graduate from the same master’s program at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. this fall.
After years of abuse at St. Margaret’s Indian residential school, Bruyere lost her desire to learn. For nearly two decades, she gave up on herself and the pursuit of a higher education.
“I had been through so much and I had such low self-esteem, so I created my own addiction to alcohol,” she explained.
“I had some really good influential people in my life who worked with me and I started to gain a little bit of my self-esteem back.”
In 1994, a friend suggested Bruyere enroll in a social work program through Carleton University in Ottawa. Although initially hesitant, she agreed to register.
“Until then, I never thought of education because I didn’t think I was capable of it,” she recalled.
“But I figured who better to help an addict than me?”
However, it appeared that just as her life was starting to come together, her son’s was beginning to crumble.
The two always had been close, with Bruyere even saying that of her three sons, Shawn was the most like her. Unfortunately, their similarities included a dark path to addiction and a long road to recovery.
Growing up, Johnston said he was academically capable, but a lack of “proper support” at home left him with low self-esteem.
At age 16, he dropped out of school and opted for a new life nearly 400 km away in Winnipeg.
In a short period of time, Johnston landed a job in the fast-food industry, an apartment in the city, and what would be the beginning of a serious drug addiction.
“When I moved to Winnipeg, one thing just led to the next and it was a downward spiral for the next 10 years,” he recalled.
“I got to a really ugly place in my life, and became addicted to crystal meth and cocaine for a long time,” he admitted.
“I created a false life for myself, and it really took a hold of me and swallowed me up.”
On a rare trip home in 1998, Johnston watched his mother cross the stage to receive her undergraduate degree as a mature student–a milestone he cherished for years to come.
Shortly after convocation, Bruyere began working as an addictions counsellor in Fort Erie—often dealing with circumstances she could relate to through personal experience.
However, the job hit close to home when she answered her son’s life-altering phone call.
“Mom–I need out of here,” he said.
After spending more than a decade self-medicating to cope with identity issues tied to being aboriginal and openly-gay, Johnston was ready to follow in his mother’s example and get back on track.
“Like any other addict’s story, I had my bottom and I ended up losing everything in a very short period of time,” he recounted.
“I realized then that I needed [my mom’s] help or it was going to end ugly.”
After spending some time negotiating the terms of her assistance, the pair decided he would move into her home and attend a six-week rehabilitation program.
“There I was, an addictions councillor doing an intake on my own son,” Bruyere recalled.
“He remembered what he saw when I went to treatment,” she added. “He used me as a role model and said, ‘If my mom can do it, so can I.’
“He’s been on the road [to recovery] ever since.”
For the past eight years, Johnston slowly has been putting his life back together. After leaving the Native Horizons Rehab Centre, he worked towards earning his GED–four exams written as an equivalent to a high school education.
He later graduated with a diploma in social work from Lambton College in Sarnia.
Then last year, Johnston followed in his mother’s footsteps once more when he earned his Bachelor of Social Work degree from the University of Western Ontario in London.
“I wanted to get into social work because I figured I could use all of that negative and flip it around to use as a positive to help others,” he reasoned.
“If I can overcome all the racism, bullying, homophobia, discrimination, and addiction I’ve faced in my lifetime, surely I can help someone else.”
Now Johnston is preparing to embark on yet another graduation this fall after earning his Master’s of Social Work from Wilfred Laurier.
This time, however, his mother won’t be cheering him on from the bleachers–she’ll be right there with him.
“She has always wanted to do this and completing my education has always been something I wanted to do,” Johnston enthused.
“We supported each other and it’s been healing,” noted Bruyere.
Throughout their time in the program, the pair created a presentation they’ve shared with hundreds entitled “Intergenerational Trauma: A Mother and Son Story,” outlining the effect of residential schools on their family and their journey to recovery.
“We worked hard to get where we are at,” Bruyere said. “I had to look as a parent at the mistakes that I made and take responsibility in order to be able to function today.”
“We live such different lives,” echoed Johnston. “Yet we’ve been through a lot of similar things through life.
“It’s kind of like we are coming full circle with our journey.”
Johnston hopes to work with aboriginal youth while Bruyere is looking to use her experience to help residential school survivors.
But both said they hope to continue inspiring others with their presentations and in their respective fields after graduation.
“For us to be in a class together wasn’t a big deal . . . but to have her standing up there with me will be an honour,” Johnston said.