Like all other school survivors I have heard the apology from the federal government concerning the residential-school era.
The apology was done on national TV on June 11,2008 and if you missed it I am sure someone told you about it.
I have been asked to forgive and with the recent compensation payments allocated to survivors this was to help forget all the bad things that happened in residential schools and in my case while I was attending the Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Sometimes I find it much easier to forgive but find it extremely difficult to forget. I say that because there are things that happen to us in life we just can’t forget. They can be good memories or they can be just plain bad.
The latter are the things we try to forget but they are etched in our minds forever. Sometimes our minds work in a funny way but that’s the way life is.
I will forgive the federal government, the churches for the hurt, the suffering they have inflicted upon my family when they took me away to attend a residential school. I will forgive them for the loneliness I suffered, the pain I endured on being separated from my mom and dad, the confusion I experienced from cultural shock and all the times they hit me or kicked me for no reason.
But I will never forget nor will I forgive them for what they took away from us until they bring back my brother where he rightfully belongs.
This story is shared to all the people that have suffered the same fate as my
mom and dad or to the people whose children never returned from school.
One of my fondest memories was going to school for the first time. I was excited in more ways that one. After all this is where my older brother John went the last time I saw him.
I was only seven years old at the time and I always imagined I would meet him there. After all my parents did tell me when he left for school that I would go with him the following year.
My story starts at home the year was 1957. The family was somewhere in the bush on my dad’s hunting ground. We were like maybe 80 miles from the little island village known as the Waswanipi Post.
It was sometime on a cold crispy day in the latter part of January while I was playing outside in my rabbit fur outfit, my mom suddenly picks me up and takes me inside the winter camp. I remember her saying that someone was coming from the lake on snowshoes. Our visitor was Bertie Happyjack. He was with my brother Wally Saganash.
It has always been my understanding even at six years old (I would be seven in March) that when you had visitors everyone was happy. But this time something was wrong. Everyone in that winter camp was crying. I mean it was hard for me to understand why full-grown adults were crying. Only children cried I thought.
I was not old enough to completely understand what was going on therefore I was not told that our visitor had brought some very bad and disturbing news that shocked everyone in that winter camp.
The news was that my brother had died while attending the residential school in Moose Factory, Ontario. Someone from the federal government agency had told Bertie Happyjack, who knew where our camp was, to go and inform William Saganash that his son John Saganash had died and that he was buried on December 6, 1956.
John was my older brother; he was my best friend, my companion, my idol. He was the person in my life that paid the most attention to me.
He was much like my younger brother Romeo, a little on the dark side of the family but he was my whole life. We played together, we did everything together. We were inseparable and we needed each other. I have two daughters – Joanne and Micheline – who were like that when they were kids and I have two grandchildren like that now – Benson and Eldon – who are “always together”. Maybe this is a message from God that life keeps repeating itself. When I look at these two kids, they remind me a lot of my brother John and I. Thank God the residential-school era has ended.
My brother John had left for school that fall sometime in September of 1956 and I wanted to go with him so badly I cried for a very long time after he left. It just broke my little heart when they took him away although I never knew I would never see him again.
I had no other brother to play together with after John left and I felt so alone and cried a lot according to my mom.
My mom would tell me afterwards the last time she saw John, he was looking at us through a small window of an otter bush plane which would take him away from us forever. He had this funny look on his face like he was so scared and ready to cry. I guess he saw me crying and he did not want to leave me.
The plane left and that was the last time I saw my brother John. He never came back. They took him away and never brought him back. How can you forget or forgive someone that does that to you.
Spring came that year when John passed away and as usual I remember collecting young jack-pine seedlings in a can which I would use later for my slingshot. My mom told me I would also collect one other can. I would say this was for my brother John when he comes back from school. According to mom I never stopped talking about my brother John.
I said and did so many things that year that hurt my mom and dad. I was too young to understand that John was gone forever. It must have been pretty tough for the whole family to go through such a terrible ordeal especially in those first few months.
Summer came that year in 1957 and as usual the Indian agent came to the village to register the next string of kids that would go to school in the coming fall. I was one of them.
That summer I was so pampered by my parents. They practically gave me everything I wanted. I guess you can say I was pretty spoiled.
To tell the truth I don’t blame my parents for all the attention they gave me that summer.
Who knows what went through their minds when they knew I had to go to school that fall. I am positive they had this uneasy feeling, the impending fear that they would never see me again if I left. Just like my brother John.
I guess you could say it took a lot of courage and inner strength to let me go. That summer I use to see my mom cry a lot practically every time I said something about John.
I remember grandma explaining to me and trying to make me understand that I would never see John again and that he was gone forever to be with Jesus.
I always prayed when I go to bed. I always prayed with John before he left. My mom always made sure we said our bedtime Indian prayer. I still remember the words we recited together with mom. So when grandma told me that John was gone to be with Jesus that helped me understand a little that he was gone.
But the thought of seeing him again never stopped especially when I heard people talking about the school kids coming home that summer.
When the plane arrived with the school kids that summer in June 1 understood one thing only, that John would finally be here and that we would be together again.
I remember a lot of people coming to our home that day when the plane arrived. There was a lot of crying and at that time I still couldn’t understand why.
I remember playing outside in the sand just in front of our tent. I had taken two of my toy trucks to play with that were given to me at Christmas. The red one was for my brother John I always said. I would give it to him I always thought when he comes back from school.
The kids from school arrived but John did not come to play with me that day as I hoped he would. I just sat there outside by myself unaware of, or understanding, what was going on. I remember a man coming to see me. He knelt beside me. It was the first time I saw this man. He took my hand and told me “Ashtum”. (Come here in Cree).
I took his hand and he took me inside.
I went to see my mom who was crying. My dad was also crying. It is at this time that I began to understand that something terrible had happened to my brother and perhaps I would not see him again.
Later on I remember grandma picking me up and telling me that we were going to check the fishnet today. Checking the fishnet with grandma and dad was a favorite pastime for me. John and I would always go with grandma or with our dad. We would always sit side by side in the middle of the canoe dipping our hands now and then in the water and splashing each other. I guess I’ll be alone now in the canoe. John will not be beside me.
Summer passed quickly that year and as September approached the emotions picked up again. On the day the plane would arrive to take me away to school I remember my parents crying that morning. Later that day I was dressed with the finest clothes I had ever worn. I even had a brand-new pair of black shoes and a brand-new brown suitcase.
I had Indian doughnuts that afternoon with a cup of light tea. This was my favourite snack which I would not have again until I came back the next summer.
I can never forget what I said that day just before we left for the dock where the plane was waiting to take us away. I asked my mom and dad, who was holding my hand, where I was going will I see John over there? Is John waiting for me there?
My parents were so devastated when I said that they just completely broke down. I just can imagine their emotions and I am pretty sure they had second thoughts about letting me go.
Grandma convinced them to let me go. In those days if you refuse to let your child go to school the Indian agent would put you on their “Black List”. You would lose your right to all types of federal assistance that were available in those days. They would strip you of the family allowance, food ration you were entitled to and all other means of financial support from the federal government. It was like you did not exist.
I left that day for school despite the hardship of separation from my parents. It would be awhile before I see them again. I still think now and then about the emotions that my parents felt when the plane left to take me away just like my brother John.
I thank God for giving them the strength to endure the pain and suffering they must have went through that year. This would be their first time they would spend in the bush without me or John. I can still imagine the loneliness and heartaches they must have gone through to live in those areas again where memories lingered of my brother John and I playing together.
The first few months at school was the hardest part of my life to endure. I was very, very lonesome and many nights I cried myself to sleep. There was no one to comfort me if I cried.
No one to put his arm around me and no one to wipe away my tears. I was not alone in the sadness I felt because I had heard other kids crying quietly when the lights were turned off and darkness engulfed our dormitory.
Many of us suffered from cultural shock. There were so many things that I saw for the very first time. Things that I never imagined existed. Cars, tall buildings, huge boats and so many white people. It was like entering in another world where you were taught to live the way they lived.
I soon would understand why as the months passed slowly.
The first thing I learned was to stop crying and not speak my language because I got into trouble for it. I was careful not to talk too much for most of the year because I was unable to speak the English language. Whenever I wanted to speak Cree to the other children I would first look around to make sure no one was around to hear me.
Sometimes I felt so lonely that I would go and hide to cry. I longed for my mom and dad, my grandma I wanted to go home and be with them. I did not like this strange place where I was. John was not here.
They shaved off my hair every time it grew. I took a bath almost every night with two other kids in the same bathtub.
Remember the jack-pine seedlings I collected in a can for my brother John? Well I took some of them with me without my parents knowing about it. I put them in my brown suitcase when I left for school. Just in case I see John I thought. When I arrived at the residential school they went through our suitcases. That was the first thing they threw away with my slingshot. They made sure I saw them do that.
I hated them for doing that. But in a very short period of time although I did not understand their language I found out the hard way that they were the masters.
From the first time I was hit, something my parents never did to me, I was afraid of them. They made sure that I was afraid of them; from that day on I learned a lesson never to cross them, never to trust them because you never knew what they can do to you.
You were tamed not taught to listen, to behave, to do as you are told and to do the right things they wanted and if one kid got in trouble we were all to blame and punished for it. To them we were a bunch of uneducated (the proper term for stupid) Indian kids that had to learn the White Man’s way. It was essential to live by their rules, to eat what they ate, to pray the way they prayed and to do so many things differently that you never did back home.
These are the people that took my brother away from me. It’s difficult to forget and forgive them until they bring back my brother John. They said he died but it’s hard to believe this because I did not see the body, my parents did not see it either. We were not at the funeral service if there was one.
My sister Maggie and my brother Albert who attended the same school that year, they never saw the body either. There are no hospital records that tell us how John died. We have been told many stories from different people on how my brother really died.
All the proof we saw was an unmarked grave approximately 50 years later that was pointed out to us. The person that showed us told my mom “there between those two graves, that’s where your son John was buried”. Is my brother really there and if he is, was there ever a cross put there to mark his grave?
Will I forgive the federal government for the residential-school era? Yes I will forgive them for the wrong they did to me.
After viewing the apology from the government on national TV I was talking with my wife about the unusual things that happened to me while I was at residential school. I have spoken to her about this on many occasions sometimes to a point where I got emotionally upset especially when I talked about my brother John. I also told her on many occasions that she was lucky that she did not go to residential school in those days. Maybe I told her your mom and dad made the right choice.
I said to her that it’s very difficult for me to accept the apology and forgive and I’ll probably live with it for the rest of my life.
She got up and came back with a small bible in her hand and told me to read Matthew, chapter 6: verses 14 and 15.
Yes, I will forgive but I find it very difficult to forget the pain and suffering they inflicted upon my parents.
This is a wrong that needs to be corrected. You cannot say to someone that your son died while he was at school and we buried him already and expect them to
forget about it. It’s just not right to have a funeral service for a child who passed away at eight years old without the parents knowing about it. This is wrong very wrong.
Please Jack Layton you were so emotional when you talked about my brother John on national TV. Can you imagine how we felt?
Please find a way to bring him back to us; to have a decent burial and be laid to rest where he rightfully belongs, he belongs here with us, among his family. They were not supposed to take him away from us forever. Please bring him back.
Dad’s gone now, he passed away in 1971 and if John really died then I know he’s up there with him.
Mom, she’s still here, living alone. We talk about John now and then and she still gets a little emotional when she tells me the stories about John and I. Most of the events I write about here in this story come from mom.
She’s still looking for answers to what really happened to her son. She still finds it hard to believe that her son is really gone. All they said to her was “your son was ill and he was hospitalized”. John died at the hospital but we are uncertain from what illness. We were unable to obtain any hospital records to have proof that John really died. No wonder it has crossed my mind many times that maybe, just maybe John is out there somewhere. Maybe he was taken by someone, adopted and that he is alive and well. I wish I knew the truth. You know people tell me that sometimes. They say your brother never died. He was stolen and adopted. Then I have hope when they say that. I believe John is still alive and will come home one day.
John, if you are out there, please come home.
Come home to your family and tell us that you are alive and well.