Charles Esau was a bewildered six-year-old boy standing in the auditorium. His parents had just taken him to Horden Hall in Moose Factory. It was 1962 and he was one among thousands who had gone through this bewildering welcome to a new world.
Many in his group were expecting the parents to stay as well. But when they closed the gate, that was it. The teachers explained the rules to the students who had just arrived. Some, like Charles, didn’t know quite what to expect. Others had been there before and knew the drill.
“First thing, they get you in a big room, an auditorium, to tell you the rules,” Charles recalls. “They tell you which chores need to be done. They tell you in a new language.”
With a chuckle he adds, “Whenever they said ‘students,’ I thought they were going to give us hats. But after eight years you know what they’re saying.”
Then, of course, they would introduce the dreaded line-ups that
would govern everything they did from that point on. “Line up here… Line up there. You have to line up for everything: going to church; you have to line up for your breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
The dorms at Horden Hall were laid out with the beds in a row very much like a hospital or a mental institution. “Physically it’s a prison,” Charles observes. “Psychologically, you’re being controlled.”
Eat your words
The language misunderstandings would put kids in absurd situations, including moments of violence directed at them by someone supposed to be caring for them. The children couldn’t understand why this violence was directed at them.
“I heard of a boy who only knew two words in English, yes and no. They punished him for some reason. They strapped him on the hands. ‘Did you do it?!?’ ‘Yes.’ Bang! They hit him. ‘Are you going to do it again?’ ‘Yes.’ Bang! ‘Have you had enough?’ ‘No.’ So they hit him again.”
The eating habits in residential school have an effect even many years later. “I have an eating disorder,” Charles notes. “I can gobble up my food within a certain period of time without realizing it. I talked to my friend about it and he said the same thing. ‘My wife is surprised by how much I eat but I don’t even know I do that.’ It’s the regimented time we had to eat. We had to eat so much within a certain amount of time and you wanted to prevent others from taking your food.”
Of course, being in a prison-like setting meant you had to have your wits about you. “I was more like the person who knew how to maneuver in there. I knew when to back down and how to get out of situations. It was more like survival. You stayed away from the bullies because if they ever got you the others would taunt you as well.” The bullies were a constant source of stress for many students. Charles remembers that he didn’t want to draw any attention to himself through excellence.
“I limited myself in things I did,” he admits. “Like in sports or anything. And academically I limited my potential because of the teasing you would get: ‘Ever think you are good. Ever think you are smart you.’ You would get picked on. Then you avoided that. You didn’t want to stick out more than anybody else.” Life within those long, dark walls wasn’t easy and people found different ways to escape. One way was physically, some would be happy to get a sickness like tonsillitis so they would have to go to hospital and get to eat ice cream. Others found ways to get within themselves to escape.
Charles remembers himself as an “angry kid,” he says. “But that anger was suppressed. It was internal and it would come out in different forms. One way was learning to play music. Music was one way we were healing during that period. That was the 60s, you know. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Beatles, Rolling Stones and a little bit of George Jones. That’s how we coped. Music soothed our loneliness and fear. There was lots of fear. You know you’re being watched all the time. Every little thing you did. Going back to that time traumatizes me. Knowing you were oppressed by another culture.”
You’re all Indians
One pastime they had included movies in the auditoriums. The westerns that portrayed the Indians as savages were the most common. The experience almost made them forget who they were. “In Grade 7 we had a Native teacher. He asked us who the good guys were in the movies and we all said ‘Cowboys!’ He replied, ‘I have news for you: You’re Indians, your skin is brown. Take a look.’ We looked around and we suddenly noticed that we were brown.”
It doesn’t take much for Charles to be transported back to those days, he says. “Sometimes when I walk into a hospital certain smells, like cleaning fluid, bring me back. Or even a certain colour of green. Watching the movie The Green Mile I was reminded of residential school; you know, the green on the floor or the walls. It wasn’t a pleasant memory for me, to put me back in that place. My friend told me about when he painted his walls at his house. He made the colours different from the lower and upper wall. He saw his daughter standing there barely taller than the bottom color then suddenly, boom! He had a sense of loneliness. We slingshot back and forth to that time with our memories.”
Charles isn’t the only one in his family to be affected by residential school. He has five brothers (though one has passed away) and three sisters. He is the oldest boy.
“We went to nine different residential schools,” he says. “Three stayed home and never went to school. Even my dad went in the 30s and 40s. That’s when they had a half day of work for them. You’re uprooted from your own world, relocated from your culture and you feel like an outsider. Then you isolate yourself. That’s how I was feeling all the time. I felt isolated from my own family because you don’t feel close to your brothers and sisters, or your own parents. They weren’t there to parent you. You longed for things. When I saw a family walk by with both parents I would wish that I was there.”
Just like a scene in a famous movie. Charles escaped Horden Hall through the window. He climbed through, jumped down and ran. He went to his parents’ house, which was “down the train tracks in the bush.”
Many of his friends were leaving the school because of transfers to the Fort George schools or were simply going home. He felt even more alone and didn’t want to be left behind. That’s when he made the decision to run. They didn’t even bother looking for him.
“It was the 70s. Things were changing. Some schools were closing down,” he observes.
Charles was 14 or 15 and coming home wasn’t easy. It was like he met his sister for the first time. It was only then that they got to know each other.
Other issues would come up. “When you come back to your own world you have to catch up on the Cree language. I was asked to make some cooking sticks for the teepee but I stood in the bush not knowing what to do.”
He eventually turned to alcohol. “I first tasted it after I ran away. We stole some wine. That’s what I was for a long time: ‘poor me.’ Then eventually, ‘poor me’ became, ‘Pour me another drink.’”
Then his life on the road started. He lived in the big cities like Montreal and Ottawa and different places in between.
“When you go home there’s nothing really there,” he says of his lost years. “You have to search for work down south. Maybe some summer jobs, but that was it. I was living the life of the migrant worker. You don’t fit in any culture. When you are down south and you don’t really fit into the mainstream culture because of discrimination or whatever. But when you come home you don’t really fit in there also because of the language. You’re trying to catch up on what you lost. They would remark that you spoke more English. ‘Cheg whem-schtuukshiiu uu?’ (Which white man is this?)
“But if you were in the city you’d hear, ‘Why don’t you go home?’ All this time I wondered where I lived.”
Carrying the pain
Charles recognizes that dealing with the past is painful if it has been left alone. However, he says, “by going back to that memory it made me a stronger spiritual person by letting go of my emotions. For instance, a friend of mine committed suicide outside of the residential school when I was there. I didn’t think much of it during the time I was there. You’re told not to cry, don’t say nothing, don’t feel.”
The grieving process came much later. “When I talked about it I started feeling shaky, your body starts quivering. Then it comes to your throat. Then you start crying. I realized I must have kept that memory in my body for a long time.”
Charles turned to spirituality to help him cope with his pain. After 14 or 15 years of partying he decided he had enough.
“I had to clean my system of all the unwanted poisons in my life,” he says. “I became happier. That was strongest awakening in my experience that I’ve ever had.”
People also have to look within themselves to find their own way to heal themselves, Charles believes.
‘A lot of blame goes in the wrong direction for what has happened in our life. One part is mending our own personal issues. You have to take care of yourself with your symptomatic behaviours: gambling, drinking and drugs. Eating is there too.
“You try to ease that memory. You don’t want to go there. You resist it. If you don’t deal with it then what you carry around gets very strong. It turns to rage, sadness, to fear. When you overcome that you become a stronger spiritual person. That’s my understanding of what spiritual life is. You become stronger. You become kinder. You become a caring, loving person.
“It’s also to be humble. Not to put yourself above or below everybody else but to understand people on an equal level. And not to push that spiritual knowledge and say, ‘Hey, this is what I do. This is what you should do.’
“One thing I’ve done is to face my Creator and tell him what I’ve done in my life. I’ve asked him to forgive me for all I’ve done in my life. All the pain I’ve caused. All the pain I carried. I don’t need to carry this anymore.”
Finding the love
Charles spent his early adulthood in an emotional bubble, detached from any positive feelings. Instead, it was always negative: “anger, shame and guilt.” He says he couldn’t function outside of residential school because he hadn’t learned to make his own decisions in the school’s regimented atmosphere. Those inabilities lead to trouble with authority figures, including police and counselors.
“I didn’t know that I was vindictive to my parents also,” Charles admits. “I thought they abandoned or neglected me. But today I understand they tried to do the best with what they had.” Throughout it all, Charles’ wife Ethel has remained steadfast.
“There was bitterness in the family due to the alcohol. But she stood by me. She got me up when I was down. She forgave me for my shortcomings. We love each other and our connection is strong.”
The little six-year-old boy who was left at the gates had to find himself again. “I had to learn how to laugh. I had to learn how to be me.”