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Revised January 2020
Author: This is an excerpt from “The Survivors Speak” (TRC 2015)
“My father was raised by people who didn’t love him…”
~Wab Kinew, The Reason You Walk, p. 184
(We are going to hear an edited excerpt from Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future, “The History,” pages 37-43. A number of you will know these stories only too well. But for others of you, it may be the first time you are hearing them. They are very difficult to hear.
During this presentation, I’m going to ask several of you to read sections. There are 6 sections, so not everyone needs to read. If you prefer to pass and not read, simply do so and do not feel guilty as there are not enough sections for everyone to read)
It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or, perhaps, a Mounted Police officer. The bus for residential school leaves that morning. It is a day the parents have long been dreading. Even if the children have been warned in advance, the morning’s events are still a shock. The officials have arrived and the children must go.
For tens of thousands of Aboriginal children for over a century, this was the beginning of their residential schooling. They were torn from their parents, who often surrendered them only under threat of prosecution. Then, they were hurled into a strange and frightening place, one in which their parents and culture would be demeaned and oppressed.
For Frederick Ernest Koe, “And I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dad or my brother Allan, didn’t get to pet my dogs or nothing.” (1)
Participant 1: Departure from home
Larry Beardy travelled by train from Churchill, Manitoba, to the Anglican residential school in Dauphin, Manitoba—a journey of 1,200 kilometres. As soon as they realized that they were leaving their parents behind, the younger children started crying.
At every stop the train took on more children and they would start to cry as well. “That train I want to call that train of tears.” Florence Horassi was taken to the Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, school in a small airplane. “When the plane took off, there’s about six or five older ones, didn’t cry, but I saw tears come right out of their eyes. Everybody else was crying. There’s a whole plane crying. I wanted to cry, too, ’cause my brother was crying, but I held my tears back and held him.”
Participant 2: Arrival at school
The arrival at school was often even more traumatizing than the departure from home or the journey.
Nellie Ningewance went to the Sioux Lookout, Ontario, school in the 1950s and 1960s. “When we arrived we had to register that we had arrived, then they took us to cut our hair.” Bernice Jacks became very frightened when her hair was cut on her arrival. “I could see my hair falling. And I couldn’t do nothing. And I was so afraid my mom … I wasn’t thinking about myself. I was thinking about Mom. I say, ‘Mom’s gonna be really mad. And June is gonna be angry. And it’s gonna be my fault.’”
Campbell Papequash (says) “And after I was taken there they took off my clothes and then they deloused me. I didn’t know what was happening but I learned about it later, that they were delousing me; ‘the dirty, no-good-for-nothing savages, lousy.’”
Archie Hyacinthe compared the experience (of going to the school) to that of being captured and taken into captivity. “That’s when the trauma started for me, being separated from my sister, from my parents, and from our, our home. We were no longer free. It was like being, you know, taken to a strange land, even though it was our, our, our land, as I understood later on.” When she first went to the Amos, Québec, school, Margo Wylde could not speak any French. “I said to myself, ‘How am I going to express myself? How will I make people understand what I’m saying?’ And I wanted to find my sisters to ask them to come and get me. You know it’s sad to say, but I felt I was a captive.”
Participant 3: loss of Indigenous clothing
On their arrival at residential school, students often were required to exchange the clothes they were wearing for school-supplied clothing. This could mean the loss of homemade clothing that was of particular value and meaning to them. When Wilbur Abrahams’s mother sent him to the Alert Bay school in British Columbia, she outfitted him in brand-new clothes. When he arrived at the school, he was told to hand in this outfit in exchange for school clothing. “That was the last time I saw my new clothes. Dare not ask questions.” Martin Nicholas went to the Pine Creek, Manitoba school. “My mom had prepared me in Native clothing. She had made me a buckskin jacket, beaded with fringes.… And my mom did beautiful work, and I was really proud of my clothes. And when I got to residential school, that first day I remember, they stripped us of our clothes.” On her arrival at the Presbyterian school in Kenora, Ontario, Lorna Morgan was wearing “these nice little beaded moccasins that my grandma had made me to wear for school, and I was very proud of them.” She said they were taken from her and thrown in the garbage.
Gilles Petiquay was shocked by the fact that each student was assigned a number. “I remember that the first number that I had at the residential school was 95. I had that number—95—for a year. The second number was number 4. I had it for a longer period of time. The third number was 56. I also kept it for a long time. We walked with the numbers on us.”
Participant 4: Separated from siblings
Older brothers were separated from younger brothers, older sisters were separated from younger sisters, and brothers and sisters were separated from each other. Wilbur Abrahams climbed up the steps to the Alert Bay school behind his sisters and started following them to the girls’ side of the school. Then, he felt a staff member pulling him by the ear, telling him to turn the other way. “I have always believed that, I think at that particular moment, my spirit left.”
When Peter Ross was enrolled at the Immaculate Conception school in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, it was the first time he had ever been parted from his sisters. He said that in all the time he was at the school, he was able to speak with them only at Christmas and on Catholic feast days. Daniel Nanooch recalled that he talked with his sister only four times a year at the Wabasca, Alberta, school. “They had a fence in the playground. Nobody was allowed near the fence.
The only reason Bernice Jacks had wanted to go to residential school was to be with her older sister. But once she was there, she discovered they were to sleep in separate dormitories. On the occasions when she slipped into the older girls’ dormitory and crawled into her sister’s
bed, her sister scolded her and sent her away: “My sister never talked to me like that before.” Bernard Catcheway said that even though he and his sister were both attending the Pine Creek school, they could not communicate with each other.
“I couldn’t talk to her, I couldn’t wave at her. On her second day at the Kamloops school in British Columbia, Julianna Alexander went to speak to her brother. “Did I ever get a good pounding and licking, get over there, you can’t go over there, you can’t talk to him, you know. I said, ‘Yeah, but he’s my brother.’”
Participant 5: Fear and loneliness
Taken from their homes, stripped of their belongings, and separated from their siblings, residential school children lived in a world dominated by fear, loneliness, and lack of affection.
William Herney, who attended the Shubenacadie school in Nova Scotia, recalled the first few days in the school as being frightening and bewildering. “Within those few days, you had to learn, because otherwise you’re gonna get your head knocked off. Raymond Cutknife recalled that when he attended the Hobbema school in Alberta, he “lived
with fear.” Of his years in two different Manitoba schools, Timothy Henderson said, “Every day was, you were in constant fear that, your hope was that it wasn’t you today that we’re going to, that was going to be the target, the victim. You know, you weren’t going to have to suffer any form of humiliation.” Shirley Waskewitch said that in Kindergarten at the Catholic school in Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, “I learned the fear,
how to be so fearful at six years old. It was instilled in me.”
At the Fort Alexander, Manitoba, school, Patrick Bruyere used to cry himself to sleep. “There was, you know, a few nights I remember that I just, you know, cried myself to sleep, I guess, because of, you know, wanting to see my mom and dad.” …
Students’ hearts were hardened. Rick Gilbert remembered the Williams Lake, British Columbia, school as a loveless place. “That was one thing about this school was that when you got hurt or got beat up or something, and you started crying, nobody comforted you. You just sat in the corner and cried and cried till you got tired of crying then you got up and carried on with life.”
Participant 6: Hardening of the heart
Nick Sibbeston, who was placed in the Fort Providence school in the Northwest Territories at the age of five, recalled it as a place where children hid their emotions. “In residential school you quickly learn that you should not cry. If you cry you’re teased, you’re shamed out, you’re even punished.” One former student said that during her time at the Sturgeon Landing school in Saskatchewan, she could not recall a staff member ever smiling at a child. (38)
Stephen Kakfwi said this lack of compassion affected the way students treated one another. “No hugs, nothing, no comfort. Everything that, I think, happened in the residential schools, we picked it up: we didn’t get any hugs; you ain’t going to get one out of me I’ll tell you that.” (41) Victoria McIntosh said that life at the Fort Alexander, Manitoba, school taught her not to trust anyone. “You learn not to cry anymore. You just get harder. And yeah, you learn to shut down.”
These accounts all come from statements made by former residential school students to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. These events all took place in Canada within the realm of living memory.
Participant 7: Run down schools
Like previous generations of residential school children, these children were sent to what were, in most cases, badly constructed, poorly maintained, overcrowded, unsanitary fire traps. Many children were fed a substandard diet and given a substandard education, and worked too hard.
For far too long, they died in tragically high numbers. Discipline was harsh and unregulated; abuse was rife and unreported. It was, at best, institutionalized child neglect.
Now I’m going to pass around our talking stick.
We have about ____ minutes for sharing so I would ask you to be conscious of your sharing time so that everyone has a chance to speak, if they wish.
A question you may wish to consider:
Imagine you are a nine year old girl (or boy). How do you think you would feel arriving at the school the first time?
There is a full volume published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission entitled “The Survivors Speak” (2015). We encourage you to read it. Thirty different dimensions of school life are addressed. The publication is available online.