June 06, 2008 Features & Images » Feature Story

The Dreamcatcher Commission 

Canada’s attempt to make amends with its stolen children

click to enlarge Residential School Survivor Majorie Natrall at her house in Squamish
  • Residential School Survivor Majorie Natrall at her house in Squamish

Marjorie Natrall seems to remember it like it was yesterday.

It was 1936. She was eight years old, a young Squamish girl living with her family in a small house on Marine Drive in West Vancouver. One day a Catholic priest visited her home and saw young Marjorie standing behind her mother. “Who’s that?” the priest asked. “That’s Marji, my daughter,” her mother responded.

“How come she’s not in school?”

Marjorie’s mother told the priest that her daughter was very sick and would be better served by staying at home. He was unmoved, telling her that both she and her daughter would go to jail if Marjorie didn’t go to school.

Her mother relented when she learned that her daughter wouldn’t be too far off at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver, just a city away.

For Marjorie, however, that was no consolation.

“They brought me there, this big school there with a bunch of kids,” she says. “(The) first day I was so scared, you know, I’d never been away from my mother.”

Over the next five years, Marjorie became one of over 80,000 aboriginal kids that history would come to know as “stolen children” — kids taken from their families by churches and government and placed in residential schools where they would be assimilated into Canadian society.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

To date, the history of residential schools has been rough at best, but Marjorie will soon have a chance along with thousands of others to enter her story into Canadian history as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — the first of its kind in Canada. It comes as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which, with individual payouts to survivors that have reached $30,000, is the biggest class action settlement in Canadian history.

The commission is a five-year, $60-million project that began its work on June 1 and ultimately hopes to hold events in seven Canadian cities. Overseen by a panel of three commissioners, it has a number of objectives — chief among them is to give former students and anyone else affected by residential schools a chance to share their experiences either through truth sharing or statement-taking.

It is open to hearing from numerous parties, including First Nations, Inuit or Métis former students, as well as their families and communities. It also welcomes testimony from church representatives and former school employees.

The commission’s work will coincide with an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to be made in the House of Commons on June 11.

“It is not simply a session to say, ‘here’s what went wrong,’ but it’s also, ‘how do we move to reconciliation?’” said Chuck Strahl, the federal minister of Indian affairs and Member of Parliament for the Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon riding that includes the Pemberton Valley.

“Part of it is to basically document for the first time in a holistic way what happened and why… At least part of it will be the truth of what went on in that sad period.”

The commission expects to prepare a comprehensive record on the operations and policies of the residential school system and detail the experiences of students and former employees.

Strahl stressed that the commission is not a criminal court, and that it is intended solely as a vehicle for Canadians to learn the history and experiences of residential schools.

“If people have accusations towards individuals that are of a criminal nature they shouldn’t wait for the commission, they should go to the RCMP,” he said. “If there’s a commission, you can’t simply say someone can be accused of criminal activity, and not be able to defend themselves.”

Those who wish to identify school employees who engaged in abusive acts will be allowed to do so in additional in camera sessions, out of the public eye, according to Jane Morley, one of the TRC’s three commissioners, though it has not been determined how any testimony will be carried out.

“Certainly, absolutely, they’ll be able to do that in private,” she said. “It’s much more about people standing up and saying what happened, and therefore the names of individuals are not what it’s about.”

Though a first in Canada, the TRC is not the first of its kind. It bares a strong similarity with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place in South Africa between 1996 and 1998.

Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it sought to investigate crimes that occurred during the country’s apartheid era. Focusing on human rights violations and reparations, the TRC granted amnesty to anyone, including perpetrators of violence, who agreed to come forward and make “full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated with a political objective.” Perpetrators could be summoned to testify, but they would suffer no consequences if they agreed to tell the truth.

Unlike in South Africa, Canada’s TRC will not summon anyone to testify.

“We’re not just talking about reconciliation of victims of abuse and the perpetrators of abuse,” Morley says. “We’re talking about a broader form of reconciliation that will hopefully be reconciliation between aboriginal peoples in Canada and the broader Canadian society.”

In a way, the commission will act like a dreamcatcher, taking in the sad memories of those who experienced the system personally.

From reserves to residential schools

The system in question is one that, according to the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, aimed to lift aboriginal children from a condition of “savagery” and into one of “civilization” as envisioned by the government of the time.

In 1857, the Canadian government adopted a policy of assimilation through passage of the Gradual Civilization Act. The act aimed to remove legal distinctions between aboriginals and non-aboriginals in order that aboriginals could be absorbed into colonial society.

With an eye to this policy, Duncan Campbell Scott, a senior bureaucrat in the Department of Indian Affairs, said education was “by far the most important of the many subdivisions of the most complicated Indian problem.”

The government and churches endorsed a report from 1879 that called for the establishment of “off-reserve schools” that could teach arts, crafts and industrial skills that students could later employ as contributors to the country’s economy.

The Royal Commission said that both government and churches were fulfilling what they saw as a “Christian obligation to (their) Indian bretheren” that could only be achieved by educating children. By 1931, students would be taught and cared for in government-funded schools by members of four different churches – the Roman Catholic, the United Church, the Church of England and the Presbyterian.

Throughout their existence, the schools were gravely underfunded, according to the commission report:

“In the building, funding and management of those purported ‘circles of civilized conditions,’ it failed to make of those schools homes where children would always be well-clothed and fed, safely housed and kindly treated,” it reads.

The initial curriculum at residential schools deemed that students would spend a half-day studying the same material as other schools in a given province, while the rest of the day involved training in practical skills. For boys that meant learning skills in trades such as agriculture, carpentry and blacksmithing, while for girls it meant jobs such as sewing, knitting and cooking.

Students were taught to speak only in English in an effort to “stamp out” aboriginal languages. The philosophy behind this practice was that destroying their native languages could go a long way to assimilating them. The report goes on to say this was sometimes done through positive reinforcement, but more often through punishment.

Laura Susan Toman, Marjorie’s daughter, saw this firsthand. A student at the Sechelt Indian Residential School between 1958 and 1959, she describes it as a place where students would be punished for things they didn’t know they were doing wrong.

“Basically, if we made a mistake in school we got punished,” she said. “We weren’t told ahead of time, ‘don’t do that,’ you just got punished right then and there if you did it wrong.”

Laura recalls one instance where she was punished simply for writing with the wrong hand.

“Me and my brother were left-handed, we wrote with both hands,” she said. “The nun said it was the devil if you were using your left hand, so they’d either hit you with a ruler or these long sticks that they use for pointing, they’d swat you on the head and say, use the other hand.”

Toman’s experience at Sechelt coincided with that of a Mount Currie resident who identifies himself by his Indian name, Qaciam (meaning “very wise old man.”)

He went to Sechelt for ten years and left of his own volition at age 16. Before starting at the school in 1959, he remembers having an agent from the ministry of Indian affairs visit his family’s home in Mount Currie when he was just six years old.

The agent, whose responsibilities include monitoring social welfare and housing conditions, saw that Qaciam’s father was a single parent and felt his kids, nine in total, could be better served by going to school.

“He felt that my dad couldn’t be looking after the kids and working at the same time,” Qaciam said.

He and his siblings were thereafter shipped to a number of different schools – some attended school in Williams Lake, while others went to St. Paul’s in North Vancouver, the same school that Marjorie attended.

Qaciam remembers a fairly routine day at school often punctuated by strict punishments for making mistakes.

A typical day would begin with prayers at the foot of one’s bed just after waking up. Students would then go to a recreation room and pray again before breakfast. Then they’d go to breakfast and say prayers once more.

In his first year at the school he remembers that a gravely sick boy died in his dormitory.

“I could hear moaning all night, the boys went to see him, see what was the matter,” he said. “In the morning I woke up, they were packing him out in his mattress. He had died in his bed. He should have been in hospital, no one was looking after him.”

The boy, a member of the Samahquam Nation, was buried outside the school, according to Qaciam.

The government did away with the half-day focused on trades around the WWII period, so Qaciam’s day was more a matter of going to classes – with, of course, prayers in between them. As he recalls it, classes consisted of very basic instruction in mathematics, social studies and science.

“They taught you just enough to get by,” he said, adding that his education had only reached a fourth-grade level when he was supposed to be in grade eight.

It was likewise carried out in a very strict manner.

“While you’re sitting in class you couldn’t talk, you couldn’t whisper, you couldn’t do anything,” Qaciam said. “If you were caught talking they would whip you on the back of your hands with a ruler.”

Laura, meanwhile, remembers punishments being meted out on her brother Frank during a math lesson at the Sechelt school.

“He would count up to 10, but he kept missing eight,” she said. “The nun kept hitting him on the hand and kept saying, eight! Eight! Eight! That’s not a way to teach somebody, hitting somebody with those long things.”

Some of the punishments went a little further. Qaciam remembers that girls caught talking in class would sometimes be brought before the class. The teachers, usually nuns, would lift up their dresses, pull down their underwear and whip their bare bottoms with straps normally used to tie lumber together.

Marjorie spent five years at the St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver and only sent her children to Sechelt when she heard it was a good school. She describes her own school as a decrepit place that served rotten, sickly food to its students. Of all the things that stick out for her, the food seems to figure most prominently.

“We’d go down for breakfast… it was just porridge. You know, I don’t know who cooked it… it was just awful, I wouldn’t eat it,” she said. “There was a basin… where you can dump your porridge, so I brought mine down there, you know… The nun caught me, she said, you put that back in your dish, and there was lots of others’ in there too, I had to eat all that.

“Nothing we can do, you know, we just have to do what we’re told by the nuns.”

While the weekdays were reserved for class time, students would go on outdoor trips on the weekend. Marjorie remembers a regular field trip where students would walk from the school to the Capilano Suspension Bridge — a lengthy distance, according to Marjorie.

“They made us walk all the way up there, no lunch, nothing,” she said.

She and her cousin Bernice, also a student at St. Paul’s, once stepped away from the group to eat some berries on the side of the road.

“I was happy about that, they were huge berries,” Marjorie said.

After sitting and eating for just a few minutes, Marjorie said they ought to get back to school or they would be punished. Bernice, however, insisted they stay behind a little longer.

Sure enough, they got punished when they got back.

“We got in there and we were going to get strapped,” Marjorie says. “Bernice went in first, oh, she was just screaming. The strap is what they use for sharpening razors, so that’s what they strapped us kids for.

“Jeez, you know, on your little hands, it really hurt me. I was so scared after that to do anything.”

Marjorie found her way out of school when she contracted tuberculosis at age 13. The nuns tried to treat her by rubbing “hot mustard” on her chest. When that didn’t work, she was sent to St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver, where her mother was told that she only had six weeks to live.

She was then brought home to die — but that was before her uncle told her that Indian medicine could save her life. It was a simple formula that consisted of herbs and tree roots. Every time she got hungry or thirsty she would drink the medicine – besides that, she said she only ate lemons and oranges for some years after that.

One day she lifted herself up from her bed and saw her mother tending to a boat on the river. Marjorie poked her head into the window and then quickly lay down again just as her mother turned towards her.

“I’d pretend I was lying down,” she said. Her mother would then come in and say, “‘Just what you been doing, Marji?’ ‘Oh, nothing.’ ‘Yeah, you were doing something.’

“I was happy. I lived. And I’m still alive.”

Qaciam, meanwhile, didn’t wait to get sick – twice he attempted to run away.

One day, he and a friend snuck out of the school at lunchtime and made their way to a ferry terminal. Without any money to pay the fare, they snuck on by hiding themselves among members of a baseball team.

The two of them made it to Vancouver before being spotted by police. They were brought to a lodge and then taken to the ferry the next morning, where someone from the school picked them up and brought them back to Sechelt.

Once back at school, the two of them were made to lie down on beds with no clothes on and were whipped repeatedly. They were then stood before fellow students in a dining room so that the children could see what happens to runaways. But it wouldn’t be the last time Qaciam tried to escape.

1969, his 10th year at the school rolled around and he decided he’d had enough. He told a friend to go to the school’s office and see if she could get him two dollars – he added that he planned to run away.

She got him the money, just enough to get him on the ferry and keep him from having to sneak on again.

Qaciam carried his lunch with him and got on the ferry to Horseshoe Bay. From there he had no way to get home except walking. His feet took him halfway to Squamish in the dark, walking in the middle of the road so that passing cars could see him.

He walked for hours before a car stopped to pick him up halfway. A member of the Squamish band drove him the rest of the way. When he got to Squamish, he met a cousin there who paid for him to get back to Mount Currie.

Once home, it took some time to sink in that he was free of residential school.

“There was a lot of fear, kind of sneaking around here and there,” he said. “I was worried that they were going to come and pick me up again. It took about three or four months before I realized they’re not going to come get me.”

Qaciam carried anger with him for a long time before he started to heal. For 18 years he was addicted to tranquilizers and was an alcoholic. Today, however, he is 18 years sober and has forgiven the Catholic Church for what happened to him.

As for the Prime Minister’s apology, he’s happy that it is happening but seems ambivalent about how it’s being delivered.

“I’ve always thought… if they’re going to give me an apology, I would have liked it in a letter sent to me personally,” he said. He does, however, welcome that it is happening.

Marjorie, meanwhile, seems indifferent about an apology from the Prime Minister.

“Doesn’t mean nothing to me,” Marjorie said.

Laura thinks an official apology should go a little further than a simple sorry in the House of Commons.

“I’d like someone to make them some bread, with some peanut butter and jam, and the peanut butter’s really dark brown, and see them eat it,” she said. “That’s what I had to eat. A rotten apple, oranges. It’s an experience you can’t say sorry for, what’s happened in a way.”

Neither Marjorie nor Laura seem certain as to whether they’ll testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Marjorie has already shared her story with a healing circle, but she admits that she is still angry over her time in residential school.

“I still keep that in my heart what happened, you know, I can’t forget it,” she said. “You can’t heal something like that with me.”

Qaciam seems to welcome the commission more than they do, but he doesn’t think it’s the be-all end-all of a healing process.

“It’s going to be a long, long process,” he said. “Those experiences don’t go away. You’ve got to heal from it, you’ve got to talk about it, you’ve got to learn to accept it and move on to the next one… until you finally make some peace with all the garbage you’re carrying for years.

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