The freedom to choose in this rich country of ours was never meant for everyone. Aboriginal peoples, the poorest of this country, would constantly fight to have that right. This beautiful country Canada would only recognize or give back “Aboriginal Rights” to areas where natural resources – supply of wealth – do not exist at all or are already depleted and exhausted by the “Industrialized World” it governs. This same country when signing treaties (old or new) with its First Nations peoples would only be full of hollow promises and those treaties would be forgotten right away. Or the Aboriginal peoples would be forced to surrender or release all their rights under a gun – duress.
To add insult to injury, when Aboriginal peoples use the country’s highest courts rather than violence, judges or court decisions that favoured them would either be removed or the case thrown out, if “the decision” had not been already reversed against them by another judge. And because laws in this country could be made or changed so, Aboriginal peoples – the first inhabitants of this continent -would never have their traditional lands and waters to themselves or their future generations. Canada, through its actions and behaviour, shows it would not hesitate to use its police force and the army to keep Aboriginal peoples and their lands under its rule always.
In my personal opinion, sending us (Indian children) into their residential schools run by the “Churches of the State,” against our will and our parents’, was all part of “The Scheme of Plots” happening in this country so they can force us to assimilate into a system, unbeknown to us, so as to go down the same road of destructions, where one generation gets rich while the others suffer.
Also, to preoccupy a Nation’s future generations in these “Residential Schools” so as to make them unaware of what is happening exactly, either to force them off the land(s) now or at the least, in any event, hope they would not be in the way, so this same country could claim and steal at will the land and its resources from Indian Peoples they say “they found.”
Paul Dixon, Windy Lake, Iinuuschii
I do not know exactly where to begin my story, but somehow it must be told. Maybe time has passed long enough. I do have my own family now. It is not easy for me, because this story brings back distant memories I would rather forget. I was only a child then. Like so many others we were forced into a waiting bus to attend a residential school somewhere far from home.
It surprises me now how far we can remember our childhood days, only when we want to.
Looking back now at the residential schools, nothing would have prepared me or any other Indian child for what we would go through in the years to come, back then.
And also, never in any of my wildest dreams could I have imagined that in the history of our people such a period would exist, where by law just Indian children would and can be separated from loved ones any time, so as to assimilate them into a foreign system. That this act alone would impact a certain race of people to such extent, these same people would later believe that genocide was for real.
On one of the first trips of many to these faraway places, I remember while staring out the bus window, wondering when and if I’ll see my mother again, my eyes caught two moose standing close together on a small hill, just as we were taking a curve. It was a mother moose and her calf, not moving, just staring at our bus, as if to say “goodbye.” For some reason, that image still haunts me to this very day.
Seemed to me, back then, we were traveling in the buses forever to get to these residential schools. While on the bus, I used to hear children cry now and then, but mostly it was quiet. As for me, I just stared outside the window into the dark beyond, lost in my own little world, not knowing where we were going and how long we will be gone.
Some other child beside me whispered into my ear “that they were taking us, to the edge of the world, so that we could never run home.” To see all these towns for the first time in my life as we were traveling was frightening for me as a child, because I was never this far way from home, alone.
However, I was lucky. I came home once a year in the summer, for a short period, where others who went to residential schools before us were never allowed to go home until only when they could not speak a word of their mother tongue or until they forgot who they really were. Stories were, they left as children and came home as young adults; some could not even recognize their own parents, let alone understand them when speaking.
Stories elsewhere in the remote Cree villages mention that as the fully-loaded big seaplane taxied to take off, some children started crying. By the time it was in mid-air, all the children were crying, as the parents themselves were, still waving “goodbye” from the shorelines.
Growing up during “these times” was very hard and rough. Many times we would go to bed hungry. I remember feeling scared, homesick, and at times confused about everything. We were not allowed to speak our mother tongue, and if you had any brothers all were put in separate dorms, so as not to sleep together I guess. And of course, your sisters and the other girls, you rarely saw. They were confined in a separate area, never allowed to play or mingle together. No matter how much you wanted to. We all rigid schedules, hardly ever playing outside.
We were like robots programmed only to do certain things at a certain time. It was like a prison – you slept alone, like clock-work you all did everything together, making no exceptions. Certain places we were not allowed to speak at all. We would stand in lines or rows for hours at an end. I thought back then, we were part of some army too.
I felt more sad than scared when I used to see the older boys get beaten up by the counselors in front of us. I remember the time I broke my eye glasses accidentally while playing. I tried to explain, but instead I got my ear pulled very hard right away and was led into this small room and this white man pulled out a thick black strap. The man told me to raise both of my hands and not to move them at all anytime while he was strapping (hitting) each hand very hard many times. Then and there, I learned and made my first “promise” never to break my glasses again. Then I was to go and stand in a corner, facing the wall, until bed-time. During at night, I do not remember when fell asleep, but I do remember the pain I felt in both of my hands and legs (from standing) before sleep rescued me.
I am lucky again that there is no lasting physical damage done to me, but this was not the case for everybody. There are those who have problems with their hands today because of the strapping they had back in the time of the “residential schools.”
Sexual or physical abuses, I cannot speak for and do not have the liberty to discuss the “residential school diseases,” as someone else referred to them. This part of my life, “the residential school days” and everything involved with it, I want to forget it ever happened, to erase from my life or to escape the past if I could now, because the opportunity to pull off “the great escape” from the dreaded residential schools back then had never happened. I do not dwell on the above-mentioned subjects and have never discussed any of this with my children, because it brings back painful memories, not just about the “dreadful schools” but the world we left behind, our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other cousins, what they went through while we were away attending the “residential schools.”
Today, we have our own big school to run, through the elected body, the parents’ committee, where I am chairperson. Some of the school committee members like myself have been through the “residential school system.” We have only waited for this day, as they say, “to be in the driver’s seat,” never to be driven again.
As chairperson, I know the committee members are dedicated, they are there because they care about the children, the type of education they should have and in a safe environment, with teachers the children know and who understand them. We also encourage the parents to drop by the school now and then. And we show the children that it’s alright to hug and be hugged, which I only realized late in life; people who have been through residential schools are always afraid to hug, especially their own parents or Elders. Maybe because it had to do with the fact that nobody was ever there for them, back in their school days, or any other time of need.
Our mom, the centre of our lives, recently passed away. Heaven will not be missing an angel now, but we will. I found our beloved mom overly protective and surely spoiling every grandchild and great-grandchildren she had. Many times, at her home in the bush, we got her doing things for our children which our wives were capable of and our cabins were just a stone’s throw away. She would cook meals for them and have them sleep over in her cabin. She owned our children. We did not mind; all our children loved her very much. At times, I would catch her alone with her grandchildren – the fondness she had for them, caressing and kissing their hands… It seemed at times she would not let them go.
I partly attribute this to the fact that my late mom had seven children — five boys and two girls -who were all taken away at a very young age. My parents were not allowed to raise us. Residential schools situated elsewhere would be given this responsibility.
The sweet moments as you nurture and watch your children grow everyday, which every parent is entitled to – my parents imagined and could only wish for.
My mom, in her final years, was determined to make up for lost time by surrounding herself with all her grandchildren, because she never truly experienced the satisfaction of raising her own children in peace. In her final days, her weeping grandchildren were at both sides of her bed, holding hands with her. During her very last breath, the children mentioned that they felt her last strong tug of her hands against theirs. She had planned never to let go again.
Without my mother, we realize now as a family not only is life short, but time is precious. Loved ones should never be separated from each other, especially by force; that’s including all relatives. Nothing should be just a wish.
When both of my parents were alive (my father is still around today), I never heard them talk about the times when we were away at the residential schools. Only after, when my mom passed away, did my father tell me some stories about how much they used to miss us, when we were all away attending the residential schools, back then.
How my father had wished otherwise, but felt powerless and helpless when all the Cree children were gathered, some crying already, to be forced into the buses. For some, this was to be their first bus ride, ever.
There were some young men, who put up quite a struggle not to get on that bus, but eventually were all over-powered by authorities there. Some mothers, I remember “back then,” would hold back their tears, but others could not hide their crying eyes, and some waited until the bus left. Both of my parents were born and raised in the wilderness. My father goes on to say, how quiet the bush was and loneliness was a constant companion after all the children had been taken away. He mentions also how my late mother could not get over it soon, crying for months on end.
It was during these times, when the children were away attending residential schools, that my father (he was and always will be a great hunter) mentioned he was not so enthusiastic about hunting and trapping.
Here, in our village, situated along a beautiful river, similar stories abound – parents, grand-parents shedding tears on a lonely spot down by the river, after the buses have long gone with their sons and daughters. I have never told this story or that part of life to our three wonderful children, who are all teenagers now -that both me and their mother (my wife) were forced to attend residential schools far from home, back then. And everything that did happen then was done against our wills and parents’ wishes. Me and my beautiful wife, Caroline, we never talk about the “residential school days” because we both learned in life, some things just happen, whether you like it or not, especially if you were an Indian. I want to forget some things in life. To forgive, do I have to “turn to the other cheek?” I really don’t know.
But this I know for sure, you need courage to love, courage to believe, courage to hope and, as humans, you need your children by your side, as they grow older and wiser each day.
I for one feel that the bonding between families and family members – the ties even with cousins – were tremendously affected, if not beyond repair, or totally severed in some circumstances by and during the “era of the residential school days,” to the extent that our forefathers (Elders) today question our motives, our powers of believing and trust, if we can carry on our traditions and cultures with the same strength and perseverance they had.
Today, the generation that lived through the residential school system and their children must prove their worth practically every day of their lives, to gain the trust and blessing of their Elders, so one day we will have taken back our rightful place with honour and dignity, not only for our future generations, but for the ones who never made it through alive.
I have never hated the white man, and I know my children never will.
My father who is very old now, but still strong, once said, “Even the white man, when his children are nearly starving, will eat from the same table as one.” For me, it meant that “love” endures and believes all things; it can conquer all. I can only hope and pray, our great white brother can understand the struggles and sufferings we Native people have been through and why we are so determined to live, to take back everything that has to do with our lives, so we can be at peace with ourselves. I find nothing wrong with this.
The suffering and anguish the Indian people went through here in Canada during and after attending the many residential schools across the country is enough to last them for generations to come. And understand this, a part of us died there, in those stone-cold buildings.
Indian residential school days and the upheaval they caused to a nation(s) and the aftermath that followed years after the last school was closed are the consequences of dictatorship in this country, where oppression is just another name for it.
I am very glad that the residential schools are closed now, but the empty stone buildings still stand today, as eerie reminders that scars do remain forever.
I have come to understand that when a man wants to turn back time for some reason of his own or has regrets in life, I question nothing, but listen. Did I learn anything at all in the residential schools? Let me put it this way. Because of trials at an early age and life’s endearments, instead I learned a lesson in life that we must have the courage and the will to look harder to find life’s buried treasures and to dig them up, before they are forgotten, forever.
And also, we need not all be chiefs to be great leaders, when in the midst of battle eons ago the survival of a nation depended on how well the young brave warriors fought, so the chief, Elders and children can live another day.
And, we must know this, early on in life: There are no barriers strong,
deep, high or wide enough they can hold back a person or peoples when they start believing in themselves.
After spending eight or nine long years in different residential schools, finally, in one of our trips home in the summer, I decided not to return to that “system.” On the day we were supposed to go back to the residential schools, I hid in the bush all day, eating berries. As a young person then, I had my own reasons, to “escape” now or never. I remember thinking to myself on that day, life is not fair, when everyone around you is either “crying” or “sad” all the time, that one day, the sadness and crying must stop, for all.
The same year I left, while in the bush with my parents, somehow, I received a letter from the principal where I last attended a residential school. I read and discarded it, never looking back.
Fast forward to the future.
It’s been only seven years that I worked in this office now. Our department caters to the hunters and trappers of the community.
In one of our many programs, we ship and auction the fur they get from animals they need to survive to the world markets. I am glad to have been part of a nation that took only 20 years to get what other nations took 100 or 200 years to have. Maybe, because we had to make up for it, time did stand still once for us (during the residential school days), and the world had passed us by then.
Before I was here at the office, and ever since leaving the residential school, I spent most of my life in the bush and wilderness with my own family and other members of our clan at our traditional lands, hunting and trapping. I know when me and my wife are old and gray, we will be at home in the bush. Nothing will ever overshadow or overcome, or even come close to it, what I chose to do with most of my life, to have been part of and experienced a culture and a language that were born and found here since the beginning.
I want to say also, even without luck, “against all odds, you can beat the system,” if you have it in you, to want to.
For me now, each day is a new beginning; life is still full of challenges.
I believe now that our people are on a long journey where there is no turning back, ever. We have no choice but to take back our hopes, dreams, rights, responsibilities and our traditional lands which to a large degree were lost during the “upheaval and aftermath” of the “era of the residential school days,” also referred to as “when time stood still and the world passed by.”
One way or another, the taking back of lands and everything else will happen, even if we do not like it, because our sons and daughters are well-trained. Like their ancestors, they were born here, it is in the blood, it is only natural for them. Sons and daughters, the strength of a nation cannot in any way be held back forever. They know they have “The Freedom to Choose,” today. Mine is one story. If I have offended you or hurt you in anyway because I wrote this, I am deeply sorry, but this happened, and a lot more horrible things, which nobody will ever want to write about or even share with another person, ever.
This was only a “flashback” for me and part “vision,” nothing else.
I want to thank the people for giving me the courage to write this story. Without their support and help, it would not have been possible. Also, I will always be grateful for the moments, “the small gestures of the white man made,” when he or she knew something was very wrong then, when we were at these residential schools.
In conclusion, I want to say, “May the Creator bless our leaders always,” and also bless our chiefs who never or ever will sell our rights and lands. And to the lonely brave warrior, the day shall come when you can rest, until then… Also, to chiefs and warriors who have gone ahead,
“Let mother earth stay with us,” we miss you all, like the deserts miss the rain.