Some people know Paul Dixon as a Cree hunter and trapper. Others know him as a family man and protector of Cree rights. In this article we will talk about another aspect of the man – as a residential school survivor.
“I remember getting on the bus the first time we were taken to the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario,” Dixon, 48, told the Nation. “I was six years old and had no idea where we were headed. Some of the kids only had an apple or a sandwich for the 24-hour journey. We were hungry, and some kids were crying; it was very sad right from the beginning.” Paul and each of his six siblings eventually ended up at a residential school far away from their home. Some went to Brantford, others to La Tuque Indian Residential School. Paul was the only one in his family who went to both.
“My father was told by the Indian Agent that their welfare and family allowance would be cut off if he didn’t allow his children to go. He was also coerced into sending us to learn the white man’s way when he was told by the Indian Agent that if he didn’t, we would have no future as there are many things the white man knows that could not be taught at home,” he said.
“As the bus was rolling along the highway on the road to nowhere, I saw these two moose on the side of the road. They stared at us as if to say goodbye. They knew that part of us; a part of who we were as Crees was never going to return.”
The year was 1963 and Indian residential schools were a central assimilation tool of church and state. The Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford was run by the Anglicans.
“It was very frightening when we finally arrived. None of us had ever been that far and we were all scared. We were just little kids and we were taken away from our traditional lands.” It wasn’t long before he realized how awful the school was.
“I saw a lot of things at the school. I won’t mention any names, but one time I saw this guy dragged out of bed totally naked and thrown in the shower,” he said. “There were times when some of the older boys forced the younger ones to do things to them sexually. I saw that happen many times. I didn’t understand any of it and I’m still very angry when I remember those times. Nothing could have prepared us or any Indian child for what was going to happen to us in those years,” he said.
“We were torn away from our parents and brought to these stone cold buildings at such a young age.”
Family life was non-existent at the school. Older siblings were separated from younger ones and put in different dormitories. The only time Paul saw his brothers or sisters was when they came home after the school year was over. Because of that separation, they grew further and further apart as the years went by. “I didn’t grow up with my parents and it was the same for most people from my generation. We have social problems and other negative aspects in the community and it makes me very angry knowing that it might have been different if we weren’t taken away from our parents and forced into residential schools.” Learning to survive in the school was hard. There was nowhere to turn to when things went bad. No one to talk to, no shoulder to lean on.
“I learned in residential school to love and trust nobody. That’s what they taught me by how we were treated. The only time I told my mother I loved her was on her deathbed, which is something I regret to this day,” said Paul, who moved on to La Tuque Indian Residential School when he was 12.
“When you go through something like that you become very scared of intimacy and sharing your feelings.”
Dixon has never received an apology for the trauma he suffered. “Neither has anyone else in Waswanipi and I fear that we never will,” he said as he mentioned that two residential school survivors, Annie Blacksmith and Sam Kitchen, have passed away in the last few weeks.
In a unanimous decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal last December, the class action lawsuit on behalf of all survivors of the Mohawk Institute Residential School was certified. This means that it can proceed through the courts, but may take many years before any financial compensation is awarded. In the meantime, more survivors pass away every year. Some are in their early 80s now.
Physical, sexual and mental abuse was rampant throughout the school.
“I didn’t know right from wrong as far as sexual abuse. How was I supposed to know what an adult can and cannot do to me as a child? Keys were thrown at us, we were beaten with thick black straps along with fists,” he said.
Dixon admits that he has never sought out professional help, preferring instead to deal with the pain himself.
“There are many things I don’t want to mention. A lot of people from Waswanipi went there [to Brantford] and some people just want to forget.
“I broke my glasses one time and I got a beating for it. From then on I had to make sure I didn’t break them again because I didn’t want to be punished like that, even though I knew I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Abuse didn’t only come from the teachers. Paul was given a nickname by the students that to this day he cannot stand to say what it was because it hurts so much. He only wishes that he could forget it.
There were instances that Paul witnessed where one kid would vomit and force another kid to eat it because they didn’t want to get in trouble.
The federal government issued an apology in the Montreal Gazette a few years back, but he didn’t think it meant very much since it was a mass apology, not something directed at him or the other survivors.
“Even if I had my moccasins kissed by the Pope and the Queen, I would never forgive and definitely not forget.”
Many Native people across Canada had their language beaten out of them in these schools. Paul was lucky that his family spoke to him in Cree and whatever he forgot while at the school he quickly relearned over the summer. Otherwise, he might have ended up like many Native people who lost a part of themselves forever.
When he turned 14, he hid in the bush when the school bus came around. He didn’t want to go back to the place where his innocence and his feeling of self worth were stripped from him. Luckily he succeeded in eluding the Indian Agent and his father began to teach him how to be a Cree again. He had to learn how to use snowshoes and to hunt. That was when he started to realize what those years away from home had done to him and his traditional knowledge.
“It’s hard for me to talk about what happened to myself in there. It’s a comfort to me to know that the guy who did some things to me is no longer on this earth. It’s a small thing but knowing that he can no longer mention what he did to me and others, or do it to anyone; somehow that makes me feel a little better.”
The effects of the residential schools are still being felt today.
“I can’t fully understand my younger siblings because they were sent to the French side of La Tuque and I don’t speak French. They don’t speak English as well as I do but we have one thing in common and that’s our mother tongue.
“My mother and father were victims of the residential school era as well, not because they went there but because their children were stolen from them. One day my father surprised me and said, ‘What did you expect me to do?’ He was threatened with going to jail if he stopped us from going.”
Paul has been with the Cree Trapper’s Association for 11 years and has three children of his own. His parents were very overprotective of their grandchildren because they never had their own kids to raise.
“I always tell my children I love them,” Dixon said. “I get pushed away because I want to kiss them, even if they’re no longer kids. I want to make sure they feel loved like every child should.”