I know many people, who I consider to be good friends from childhood, who went through the residential school system. I, on the other hand, lived a privileged life alongside the system for many years. I grew up with those who had to live that life in the system and often knew no others I could call friends. I roamed the halls of Moose Fort and St. Phillips, free to do whatever I wished or could think of. But I was a student, just like the others from village or coast and attended St. Phillips (academically and spiritually) and eventually we all had to take French class from Grade 4 on, until the Cree School Board came along and had established a hostel service locally, ending an era of arbitrary education and administration.
Moose Factory and Fort George, being the closest residential schools to our communities, still was a long way off for those who were in the system for more than a few years, whereas for the four year olds, it was an experience of complete confusion and terror. We were (unfortunate enough to have two residential schools in our town, which created a strong sense of competition between French and English-speaking (in reality it was Cree versus Cree) hockey teams, for example.
We all knew who got the strap from the principal and all students had to bear with having their slingshot taken away and torn in half. Smuggling slingshots and keeping a double life, for those who came from Fort George, was common, but not for those who were in the residence. Punishment was doled out with a strap, but it really wasn’t that much different for the residential schools for white kids, where the strap was applied with enthusiasm, for the sake of instilling character. I nearly got the strap once after annihilating the class with a fire extinguisher just before recess in Grade 4, but I sweet talked my way out of it in the end.
I suppose that the mindset of these types of schools, where every one looked the same and everything was strictly enforced, and being very regimental and indifferent to whom receives the orders to wash the toilets, is a carry over from the all-boys schools or orphanage type of European education and upbringing. It was the perfect type of school system to mould a malleable nation. We, being strong and stout, persevered as a nation to overcome obstacles. To this day, however, I doubt that without the access to another culture and learning how it works and what it could do a nation, was part of the precursor to our success today as Eeyou in Eeyou Istchee.
After looking back at the system, I have to admit that there were some damn good teachers who taught in our classes. It isn’t every school that you have master mathematicians, great guys with a PhD in genetics, another PhD in biology, a masters in English, masters in history, free thinking art teacher, an MBA, multi-language linguists for French, master carpenters for shop, an expert in phonetics, winemaking and communications, an exwrestler, not one but two all round (and well revered) all star athletes (one who turned down a chance to be the first white guy on the Harlem Globetrotters), all teachers crammed into the school we attended. Of course at the same time, they crammed a lot into our noggins, vital information that we still subconsciously retain and leaving a sense of strong teamwork and leadership as the result. I cannot say that I did not learn from that educational experience.