Paul Dixon bought a sledgehammer with the little money he had left once he arrived in La Tuque on February 1. His sole purpose: to demolish the building that swallowed the lives of many of his Cree brothers and sisters and in some way use the tool to help him on his path of healing.
Approximately 200 others came from Oujé-Bougoumou, Mistissini, Nemaska and Dixon’s hometown of Waswanipi on February 2 to revisit the La Tuque Residential School where many feel their innocence was lost. They also came to witness its destruction.
“I think we’re looking for some kind of closure,” Dixon said. “And by taking down this building – it represented all of them and their ‘kill the Indian inside us’ policy – that’s exactly what we’re getting.”
Dixon was 12 when he arrived at the Anglican residential school in La Tuque. Snatched from his parents in 1963 under the guise that the children would just be “going for a ride,” he stressed the importance and symbolism of being able to witness – and be part of – the destruction of a place where souls went to die.
“It felt good to swing that sledgehammer. I think I’ll put it on Ebay, and I won’t accept anything less than a million bucks,” said Dixon, triumphantly.
“Aboriginal people are strong and we’ve stood the test of time,” he added. “The white man wanted to and keeps trying to get rid of us, but they will never be able to. We’ll be here forever.”
That sledgehammer could very well be worth $1 million. What it helped to destroy is considered by most to be the root of many of the problems in Eeyou Istchee.
A ceremony was conducted beforehand during which Mary Coon of Mistissini talked about a five-year-old girl who died in her arms many years ago.
“They will never be able to take a five-year-old child from their family anymore,” an emotional Coon said.
“We’re the lost generation, my father used to tell me,” said Dixon. “This place brought many tears to the Cree people and it’s important for the white man to know what we went through.”
Hundreds of school kids from Eeyou Istchee attended the school between 1960 and 1978.
Sexual, physical and psychological abuses were rampant at La Tuque and places like it. Many things have been done to help heal the scars, including a $2 billion compensation package announced late last year by the federal government. But money alone cannot heal these deep wounds.
“I’m glad it’s gone,” said a former student at the school, who didn’t want to be identified. “We’ve put up with and still live with everything that came from there. It’s about time we get a little bit of closure.”
Dixon hopes that the lessons learned from the residential-school era don’t fall on deaf ears. He still talks about those days with loved ones, but said he keeps certain things inside where they are stored away, perhaps forever.