Indian residential school students have only in recent years been able to tell their stories to Canadians.
And now First Nations students in Hobbema had their chance to speak out in a public forum at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing held at the Ermineskin Junior/Senior High School July 24 and 25. Individuals could take 15 minutes in a public setting or as long as they needed in a private room with only a video camera or audio recorder to give a first-hand account of their experience.
The purpose of the commission is to give Canadians a better understanding of the effects of pulling children away from their families and placing them in a school where they were not allowed to speak their native language or practice their culture, said commissioner Marie Wilson.
Some of the stories she has heard have been of harm done and some have been of positive experiences.
“We’ve heard from many children who have never set foot in a residential school but their parents did,” she said.
People were given a forum to speak but no one was compelled to. However she advised they speak to ease the burden on their minds. “Don’t hold things back. That may harm you later.”
Leaving parents created uncertainty
First to speak out was Flora Northwest who looks fondly at the memories of being a child on the reserve before being sent to a residential school. “I had a beautiful childhood where I used to wake up to the sound of the drum.”
When she was taken away from her parents it was a time of uncertainty, as Northwest did not know the purpose behind going to the school. Telling her parents she did not want to go proved to no avail as they were worried they would be jailed for refusing. Being at the school was a time that brought alcoholism and pain into her life.
“If we were caught speaking our language we were punished or strapped,” said Northwest. “Your spirit was taken away.”
Those experiences were part of the everyday life at her school and she did not know any other way. The nighttime created some uncertainty and worry, “because there were a lot of shameful things that were happening.”
Girls would bully each other at the school because of the victimization of the priest at the time. He would use his position to take advantage of students.
“He would always say, ‘My child, my child.’ He would put his arms around you and then he would be touching you and make sure that he had you cornered,” said Northwest.
These experiences made her afraid of authority and she had no pride in herself and she could not remember her language. Northwest became an alcoholic and would verbally abuse her own children later in life.
“I hated what happened. I hated myself,” she said.
After 39 years however, Northwest was able to recover from the memories of the school. “I don’t cry as much as I did because I got stronger.”
The biggest challenge for her has been forgiveness.
“Did I forgive the people what they did to me? I question that and I say no,” she stated.
Father experienced pain and punishment
For some, the effects of residential schools were put on the children. Taz Bouchier was not sent to a residential school but her father was and she wanted people to know the mental scars he was left with until the end of his days. This was the first time she told his story publicly.
She was the youngest in the family and did not witness her father’s more abusive days. He was an alcoholic and her mother and older siblings said they were beaten by him.
“I do not know the sorrow my siblings experienced at the hands of my father,” said Bouchier. “He was a cruel man.”
She questioned him on these stories of his abuse, he was not proud of his actions. “He looked at me with the saddest eyes and said, ‘That is all true my girl.’”
Her father brought a lasting pain that would reveal itself in the early hours of the morning every day.
“At four o’clock in the morning he would scream in his sleep…We wouldn’t stop him. We would watch him fight his demons.
“He would yell in his sleep in Cree ‘Don’t do that.’ Being fed only bread and water in a closed room are just some of the punishments students faced. In the early morning hours they would wonder who was next to face the abuse of nuns. “He says they would do the dirtiest things to the children, to the other children.”
Her father never said he was a victim but “we suspect he was assaulted four o’clock every night because he was acting so violently in bed.”
Bouchier started to investigate what happened in the residential schools and with her father as well. The nuns would wash him in a bathtub with a course scrubber that would cause him to bleed.
They would continue to scrub him and not care for his wounds, stating it was part of God’s plan.
“How could people in the name of God hurt children?”
“That’s what they said, ‘That’s what God wanted,” she explained in tears.
“My dad was terrified of God,” she added.
Despite these abuses, her father and some friends would sneak into the woods to practice their Cree language.
Her father’s abuse stopped when Bouchier’s oldest sister put him in jail for assault. She feels this was a turning point in his life and he was able to quit drinking and turn himself around. But the simple phrase of ‘I love you’ was difficult for him and it took some years before Bouchier could get him to say it to all the children.
She feels foster care, reform schools and mental health services are other negative systems for First Nations people. Children would be taken away from their parents and not allowed to be with Cree people. She was sent to a reform school for missing three days of school. “That’s when I learned what a jail system is.”
Bouchier’s sister was taken to the Michener Centre after a mental learning test that was provided to Indians at the time. “I didn’t meet her until I was 11.”
Her family found later that Bouchier’s sister was sexually abused at the centre and had been sterilized.
Despite these trials Bouchier honours her father’s memory. He had a way of seeing beauty in the lone flower in the ditch and her mother was able to teach her the Cree culture and songs. She finished with these words. “We don’t have to earn a place beside God. It sits within our hearts.”
Standing up to bullies
Mary Stoney did not experience some of the hardships of her peers but her Cree culture and language was ignored for some time after she left the Ermineskin Indian Residential School.
She experienced bullying at the hands of other students. “There were a group of older girls who were mean to us.”
However, one day some girls teamed up against the bullies, which ended the bullying. The incident frustrated her and she resolved never to be bullied again. The priest at the time translated the Bible into Cree so she and other students could study the book in their own language.
“If not, my language would be in a worse shape,” said Stoney.
There was no set standard in the school for speaking Cree, some nuns allowed it and some were strict.
This concerned Stoney who asked what the purpose was behind being forced to speak English. She received this reply:
“You will have to learn to speak English so we can communicate with white people and give us the government’s rule too.”
In response, Stoney later sent her children outside of the reserve as she did not want them to feel like outsiders. Cree was not spoken very much either and children and some grandchildren do not know as much of the language as she would like. Stoney changed this habit however and has since encouraged the culture and language to flourish in her home.
“I never thought my Cree culture would be lost but we came so close to losing it,” she said.
Food quality a concern at residential schools
Questions about food testing were raised by Chris Frenchman, who went to school in Beaver Lake. “We weren’t aware of what they were giving us.”
He believes students were provided with food that had ingredients that made students sick. Frenchman attributes health issues such as TB, cancer and diabetes to this food and medicine they took. “A professor or somebody confessed we were being used for, I hate to use the word, but they used us as guinea pigs.”
There were unanswered questions for students who felt they were being tested with unknown substances.
“That food that they were feeding us, I think it’s got something to do with our sickness after we left residential school,” said Frenchman.
Coming to the school was an ordeal in itself. His hair was cut off despite a promise to his parents it would not be and he likens the school to being in jail; once he was old enough students were released with no assistance provided for the future. The experience created long-term mental scars for Frenchman.
“I ask myself, why am I alive today without my friends, sisters, brothers,” he questioned.
School beatings were a normal experience and he wishes someone had stepped in to help while being punished in a closed room. No help came.
He had two concerns for Wilson: food was unfit for students and he wanted more information on the financial resolution since he never met the lawyer who spoke for them.
Other former students spoke up over the course of the two days and viewers outside Hobbema could view their stories on a live feed on www.trc.ca.
Commissioner Wilson said the purpose of the TRC is to give Canadians the full story of Indian residential schools. Of the 150,000 students who attended the schools over 150 year period, 80,000 are still alive.