Before the Schools
Canada’s Indigenous populations existed for thousands of years off the land and were still in a period of adjustment to the onset of Europeans and the creation of Reserves
In the mid 1880’s the Residential School system would come into being and by 1920 amendments to the Indian Act would make attendance mandatory and made attendance at any other institution illegal.
The system was brought in by Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, after sending Nicholas Flood Davin to study industrial schools for Indigenous children in the United States. Davin’s recommendation to follow the U.S. example of “aggressive civilization” led to public funding for the Canadian residential school system. “If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions,” Davin wrote in his 1879 Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds
While these students would have already been living under the reserve system for several years, mandatory attendance was to catch them off guard. Taking children once raised by the extended family and greater community into institutions to be raised by Government and Church officials who had little to no regard for their culture and it extreme cases, even their safety. In this first Chapter we will hear some accounts from life before being taken to the schools to live for months and even years at a time.
“When I think back to my childhood, it brings back memories, really nice memories of how life was as Anishinaabe, as you know, how we, how we lived before, before we were sent to school. And the things that I remember, the legends at night that my dad used to tell us, stories, and how he used to show us how to trap and funny things that happened. You know there’s a lot of things that are really, that are still in my thoughts of how we were loved by our parents. They really cared for us. And it was such a good life, you know. It, it’s doing the things, like, it was free, we were free I guess is the word I’m looking for, is a real free environment of us. I’m not saying that we didn’t get disciplined if we got, if we did something wrong, we, you know. There was that, but not, but it was a friendly, friendly, like a loving discipline, if you will.” — Bob Baxter
“I’m come from a long way, I came a long way. I’m from Great Lake Mistissini. That’s where I was born in the bush. It was a pride for me to say that because I was born in the bush in a tent. It’s something that remains in my heart going to the woods, living in the woods. It’s in my heart. Before going to the boarding school, my parents often told me what they were doing in the woods when I was born. What they were doing, we were in camp with other families. The stories my father told us, my mother, too.” — Louise Bossum.
Before she was enrolled in residential school in Québec in the 1960s, Thérese Niquay lived on what she described as “the family territory.” She had very positive memories of that part of her life.
“I remember especially the winter landscapes, fall landscapes too. I remember very well I often looked at my father, hunting beaver especially. I admired my father a lot. And I remember at one point I was looking at him, I think I was on the small hill, and he was below, he had made a hole in the ice, and he was hunting beaver with a, with a harpoon, and I was there, I was looking at him and I was singing. And I remember when I was kid I sang a lot, very often. And I also remember that we lived or my, my paternal grandmother was most often with us, my, my father’s mother, and we lived in a large family also, an extended family in the bush. Those are great memories.”
Jeannette Coo Coo, who attended the La Tuque, Québec, school in the 1960s, said she was a member of what might be the last generation of Aboriginal people who were raised in the forest. “In the forest, what I remember of my childhood was bearskin, which I liked. I was there, and it was the bearskin that my father put for us to sit on, that was it. That is why I’m pleased to see that here. And what I remember in my childhood also was the, my mother’s songs, because we lived in tents, and there was young children, and my mother sang for the youngest, and at the same time this helped us to fall asleep. It was beneficial to everyone, my mother’s songs, and that is what I remember, that is what I am happy to say that it was what was, I was raised with what was instilled in me, so to speak.”
Albert Elias grew up in the Northwest Territories near the community of Tuktoyaktuk. “Yeah, when I first opened, like, when I first saw the world, I guess, we were outdoors and when I opened my eyes and started to, you know, and I was just a baby, I guess, and I, we were out in the land. The land was all around me, the snow, the sky, the sun, and I had my parents. And we had a dog team. We were travelling, I think it was on Banks Island, and I was amazed at what I saw, just the environment, the peace, the strength, the love, the smile on my dad’s face. And when I wake up he’s singing a short song to me of love.”
Bob Baxter was born on the Albany River in northern Ontario. “So, that’s how I, that’s how I grew up, you know, and knowing all that stuff where listening to the familiar sounds of my dad’s snowshoes in the winter when he came to, when he came back from trapping late in the afternoon, towards, when it’s already dark, and waiting for him to come home and tell us the legends, because no tv back then. So, it was great. My mom was great, too. She really looked after us, made sure that we were clothed and fed. That was good times. I remember eating wild game all the time. And ’cause we had our grandparents that really looked after us, too, that I have good memories of, until, ’til that day that we were taken from there, taken away to school.”
Prior to attending the Roman Catholic school in Kenora, Ontario, Lynda Pahpasay McDonald lived with her family near Sydney Lake in northwestern Ontario in the 1950s. “We spent most of our time in the trapline, in the cabin, and we’d play outside and it was really good. There was no drinking. There was, it was, like, it was a small sized cabin, and my parents took good care of us. And they were really, I remember those happy days, like there was no violence. We had a little bit of food, but we always had a meal, like we ate, the beaver meat or moose meat if my dad got a moose, and deer meat, and, and fish.” She could not recall being physically disciplined during this time. “They more or less just told me, you know, don’t do this, you know you’ll hurt yourself and what not, but it was all in Ojibway, all spoken in Ojibway. And I spoke Ojibway when I was a child, and there was a lot of fun.” Her mother would harvest plants to be used as medicine. “And we would, my parents would take us out blueberry picking, and my grandparents would always take us blueberry picking, or we’d go in the canoe, and we’d go, you know, or my grandmother would always be gathering traditional medicines. She had picked the wild ginger, and I would go with her, and we’d go pick all the medicines that we needed. And I also remember my mom picking up this medicine. It would, like, if we had any cut, or open wound, she would use this, like a ball, like, sort of a fungus ball, and she would open it, and she would put it on our wounds and whatever, and would heal, you know, real fast. And, and she knew all her traditional medicines. And at the time, I remember my, my grandpa and my dad, they used to have a drum, and they would, you know, drum and they would sing, during certain times of the year.”
Mabel Brown had similar memories of her life growing up in the Northwest Territories. “You know life in the bush is really good. And when, when we were growing up we went, when my dad was alive, him and my mom brought us out into the bush. And we, we went as a family together. They taught us, when they’d teach us they taught us how to do things. They’d tell us first, they’d show us, and then we’d do it and then that’s how we learned that. And that’s how so many people now know when, when we see a snare or how to set it or set traps because my grandmother showed me how to set traps. And how to tell what kind of trees are what and what the different kind of things you take off the gum, and things like that; what it’s used for and you know, chew and my mom and dad used to dig up roots from the ground and I used to just love that roots. Chew on it and all those things are medicine for our bodies too. And I still, I still, can’t eat just store- bought foods. I have to have caribou or fish or moose meat or something like that and to, to feel full; to feel satisfied.”
Emily Kematch was born in 1953 in York Factory, Manitoba, and grew up in York Landing. “My family is Cree in origin. My mom and dad spoke Cree and that’s my Native language is Cree and that’s the only language I spoke at home. And when I was six years old, I only understood basic, really like from my brothers and sisters when they came back from residential school. Like, ‘What is your name?’ And I knew to say, ‘Emily’ and not very much English. And I was very close to my mother. Her and I were, I was just attached to her like, I loved my mother and I knew she loved me. Same with my father, he showed it in different ways. He was a very quiet man, but his actions spoke volumes. He hunted, he was a hunter, a trapper, a fisherman and that’s how we survived, my family because he didn’t work, he didn’t have a job and my father was a, what they call a lay reader in the Anglican faith. He led church services in my community and my family was Anglican in faith. My father ran the services in my hometown of York Landing. He did the services in Cree and that’s what I miss about our community right now, is that aspect is the Cree singing, ’cause it’s not around anymore.”
Piita Irniq was born near Repulse Bay, in what is now Nunavut. “I lived in an igloo in the wintertime. A very happy upbringing with my family, and both my mother and father were very good storytellers, and they would tell legends, and they would sing songs, traditional, sing traditional Inuit songs. They would, my father in particular, would talk about hunting stories. My mother would sew all of the clothes that we had, you know, caribou clothing and things like that, sealskin clothing. I still wear sealskin clothing today, particularly my boots, you know, when I’m, I’m dancing, for example. So, my mother would sew, teaching my sister how to sew, so that she could become a very good seamstress when she grows up, or older. And in the meantime, I was apparently being trained to be a good Inuk, and be able to hunt animals for survival, caribou, seals, a square flipper, bearded seal, Arctic char, you know, these kinds of things, including birds. And I was also being told, or being taught how to build an igloo, a snow house. When I was a little boy, growing up to be a young boy at that time, my other memories included walking on the land with my father. My father was my mentor. He, he was a great hunter. So, I would go out with him on the land, walking in search of caribou, and I would watch him each time he caught a caribou, and I would learn by observing. As Inuit, I learned a long, long time ago that you learn by observation, and that’s what I was doing as a little boy becoming a young man at that particular period of time. So, in the wintertime, we would travel by dog team. I remember travelling by dog team as early as three or four years old. Hunting, again, you know, hunting is a way of life that I remember when I was growing up for survival, and caribou hunting, and seal hunting, and fishing. And, and my, my father also did some trapping, foxes.”
Anthony Henry was born in Swan Lake, Ontario. “I was born in a tent in the woods so I was brought to the world in a very harsh environment, which I guess is a good thing because it made me the tough guy I am.” He said he was raised in a traditional lifestyle based on trapping, hunting, fishing and harvesting of edible plants, such as wild rice and other edible materials. “Total, total traditional style is what I call it. My parents were extraordinary people. They prepared me to be an independent individual. They taught me a lot of things that I’ve used throughout my life as a traditional person. They taught me how to survive.”
As Albert Fiddler was growing up in Saskatchewan, his father taught him how to live off the land. “I remember my dad teaching me how to hunt, and learn how to snare rabbits, learn how to take care of horses. I was riding horses already on, four years old, and I’m riding with a bareback, and I enjoy that thing. I still remember that because I was a fairly decent cowboy, you know, like Little Beaver, as they used to call him in the comic books. I used to hang on onto just the mane. I didn’t, I didn’t even have a bridle.” His father also taught him to hunt. “And it’s funny sometimes, you know, and some of it was fun. Some of it was kind of patience, and pretty chilly sometimes when he was telling me when, how to snare chickens out of the, out of the willows. We’re using this, a little wire, and a long stick, and standing on the dark side of, and waiting for the chickens to come and feed on the willows, and now we’d snare them down, yeah.”
Doris Young attended residential schools in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Her early childhood was spent in northern Manitoba. “The family that I had, my mother and father, and my brothers and sisters, and my grandparents, and my aunties and uncles. The community that I lived in was a safe one. It was a place where we were cared for, and loved by our parents, and our grandparents, and that community that I lived at we were safe. We were, we were well taken care of. We lived on the land, and on the water, meaning by fishing. My dad was a chief, but he was also what we would call a labourer in those days, but he was also a hunter, trapper, and fisherman, and that’s how he supported us. And my mother spoke only Cree, and that’s the language that we spoke in our household, and she thought it was very important for us to, to have that language because, it was the basis of our culture, as I came to understand it later in life. And she was the one that enforced that, that language that we spoke in our house.”
Delores Adolph was born in 1951 and grew up in a self-sufficient Aboriginal family in British Columbia. “Before I came to residential school, our, our families fished and hunted for our food. Our mother, she grew our own vegetables, because we were quite a ways from the stores, and because we lived in the remote area where, where there is no stores. And you know there was, our means of travel was canoes, so that’s how we travelled. And our, our home life, it was not the greatest, but what our parents were trying to teach us how to, how to be, to keep busy, and then, and for us not to say there’s nothing to do. So, we, we packed water, and we packed, we packed our wood. Sometimes we had to roll our wood up, up the dike, and then roll it down the other side, and, and we had to learn how to cut our, our wood, and make kindling for the fire, and that was our way of life. And, and my grandfather was busy trying to teach us how to build canoes. Build, make paddles. Build a bailer, to bail water out of our canoe. And, and then they were trying to teach us how to, how to race on those old fishing canoes, and we always beat the boys. And they didn’t like that, because we, we beat them all the time. So, that meant that we were, that we were strong at that point, before we came to residential school. And my life has been upside down since I came to residential school.”
Rosalie Webber, who later attended a boarding school in Newfoundland, spent her early childhood with her parents in Labrador in the 1940s. “My father was a fisherman and my mother also worked with him and they worked together. He was a trapper and my mom trapped with him. Also my mom made all of our clothes and all of his clothing. And they knitted and they cooked and my mom was a midwife. It was very happy. We were always busy with the family. Everything was a family thing, you know. I remember gathering water from the one little brook that ran through Spotted Islands, where I was born. I remember, you know, the dogs. I remember my brothers and I had one sister and, I had another sister, a step-sister, but she lived in Newfoundland and I didn’t know her. We were quite happy, you know, and my mother was a hunter like my dad. They’d go out in partridge season and, and always in competition and with a single .22 she’d come in with about 150 and he’d be lucky to make the 100. [laughter] And then the community would take it and it would be bottled and canned for winter provisions, ’cause being, being a trapper in the winter time, they all had their own trapping areas. So they, many of them went in their own traplines and as we did and my father trapped in Porcupine Bay. And so we would journey there when fishing season was over. I was just a small child so I remember happy days.”
Martha Loon was born in 1972 in northwestern Ontario and attended the Poplar Hill, Ontario, school in the 1980s. Stories were a large part of the education she received from her parents. “They were stories that, you know, they, they taught us how, how to behave. You know they taught us our values. We even just, you know how, you know you hear stories about the beaver, and I always used to wonder why my mom would every time she was skinning beaver, she’d always set aside the, the kneecaps separately. She’d put those aside. And then afterwards she’d go, she’d go, either paddle out to the water somewhere, like a deep part, and that’s where she threw them in. And, and I always know, wondered why she would do that. I’ve never questioned. It wasn’t until I was older I asked her, like, ‘Why do you do that?’ She says, you know, ‘This is what we’re supposed to do, to respect and honour the beaver, to thank the beaver for giving its life so that we could eat it, use its pelt. This is what the beaver wants us to do.’ The same thing as you treat a duck, a duck, the duck bones a certain way. You know all that’s got, got purpose and a reason for it.”
Grandparents played an important role in raising children in many communities. Richard Hall, who went to the Alberni, British Columbia school, recalled with deep affection his pre-residential school upbringing and the role that his grandparents played.
“And my grandmother she taught us to be orderly. She taught us to go to church. She dressed us to go to church. She loved the church. My playground was my friends, with my friends was the mountains, streams, the ocean, and we’re raised in the ocean because we went fishing all summer long and we travelled to the communities, the fishing grounds because at the mountains where ... the places where we spend our days, times, the rivers, from in playing in the river, no fear and that was normal. With my grandfather, he took me with him at the young age, he took me, he taught me to work in the boats with him. He taught me how to repair boats. He will take me to talk to his friends and all I did was to speak their language and speak their Native tongue while they prepared fish around the fire. He took me wherever he went and I later learned that he was my lifeline. He helped me and guided me the best he could.”
Patrick James Hall was born in 1960 and grew up in what is now called the Dakota Tipi First Nation. “And, I remember, I remember a lot of times, I guess, with my grandfather, my grandmother. One of them in my mind, I remember. My grandfather used to haul wood on a sleigh. He had horses. And, so, my older brothers would go with him, too, and we just, he’d take us for horse rides. And, he used to talk with us all the time in Dakota. I mean, we used to, we used to remember what he said because we’d always be laughing, having fun, and.... My grandpa was very, very active guy. He, he always made sure, you know, he made sure that we had everything for the family. We used to go hunting, deer hunting and fishing, trapping. And, my mother, too, she was a very hard worker ’cause she used to be hauling water, cutting wood. And that was just during the winters. It was very hard ’cause we have to cut wood, and break the ice for water, and heat it up for the stove.”
One former student, who attended residential school in the Northwest Territories, recalled that her home life was violent and frightening. “There was a lot of violence. There was a lot of, we were very afraid of my father. He was a very angry man. And, and my mother used to run away on him and he used to come home to us kids and then, just really verbally abuse us and make us really scared of him. We used to be, I, I used to run to the neighbours and hide behind their door because I was so scared of him.”
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