What Was the First Day of Residential School Like? Part 3
And even right from day one, I remember they took everything I had
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Frances Tait was sent to the Alberni, British Columbia school in 1951 when she was five years old. For her, as for so many students, the moment of arrival was a moment of tremendous loss. “And even right from day one, I remember they took everything I had. I went to that school with a silver teapot that my mother had left for me, and my family made sure that I had it. As soon as I walked into that school, they took all my clothes, and they took the teapot. And I never saw it again. And I got a haircut; I was issued school clothing.”
When Dorothy Ross went to school at Sioux Lookout, her clothes were taken from her and thrown away. “I was hanging on to my jacket really tight. I didn’t want to let go. So once I set my jacket somewhere, I lost it. ’Cause what if my mom comes, I was looking for my mom, I need my jacket. They took that away from me.”
On her arrival at the Presbyterian school in Kenora, Lorna Morgan was wearing “these nice little beaded moccasins that my grandma had made me to wear for school, and I was very proud of them.” She said they were taken from her and thrown in the garbage.
The schools could not always provide students with a full range of shoe sizes. Geraldine Bob said that at the Kamloops school, “you got the closest fit whether it was too big or too small; so your feet hurt constantly.” In the same way, she felt the clothing was never warm enough in winter. “I just remember the numbing cold. And being outside in the playground and a lot of us would dig holes in the bank and get in and pull tumbleweeds in after us, to try to stay warm.”
Stella August said that at the Christie, British Columbia, school, “we all had to wear the same shoes, whether they fit or not, and, and if they didn’t fit, if we were caught without our shoes, we’d get whacked in the ear with our shoe.”
Other students recalled the school-issued clothing as being uncomfortable, ill- fitting, and insufficient in the winters. William Herney said that at the Shubenacadie school, the students would often huddle together in an effort to keep warm. “It was, it was just like a circle. The inner circle was the three-, the four-, five- year-olds and seven-year-olds in that circle, small ones, and the older you are, the outer circle you were, and the oldest ones wanted the outest, and the, the outer circle, the farthest out. We would huddle up in there, just huddle in close together to give that body heat. And the young ones were protected from the elements. And, well, we huddled up around there for maybe an hour, an hour and a half, and until suppertime, when, when the bell rang, you were all piled in there.”
Margaret Plamondon said the children at the Fort Chipewyan, Alberta school were not dressed warmly enough for the winter recess periods. “And then it doesn’t matter how cold it is, at recess, and you can’t wear pants, you have to wear a little skinny dress, and it doesn’t matter how cold it is, you were out there, and they wouldn’t let you come in, even if you’re crying and you’re cold. You had to go play outside during recess, fifteen minutes, you can’t get in, they lock the door on you, even if you try to go in, and same thing on weekends. There’s no, it doesn’t matter how cold it is in the wintertime, we have to … sometimes we’d stand there by the door, freezing, freezing to death, a whole bunch of us, you know, just little kids, don’t understand why we can’t go in to warm up.”
The students’ wardrobe at the schools was also limited in terms of quantity. Joanne Morrison Methot said that the students at the Shubenacadie school had a minimal supply of clothing. “And we didn’t have a lot of clothes. We only had maybe two pair of pants, two socks, like two bras, two panties, and maybe two nightgowns, that’s all we had. Sundays, it was a dress-up dress, like, for Sundays. We only wore that to go to church, and patent leather shoes, and little white socks. After church, we had to go back upstairs and change our clothes.”
Students spoke of the time they spent caring for their clothing. Shirley Ida Moore recalled that as a child at the Norway House, Manitoba, school, she used to get into trouble because she could not keep her clothes as neat and clean as was expected. “We had these uniforms, they were, they were, we had a white blouse and then these tunics and I think they had like, three, three of those big pleat, pleaty things all around it. And every Sunday we had to iron those things razor sharp; like the pleats had to be sharp. And, and your shoes had to be polished and they had to be like glass. And, that’s what I, that’s what I got into trouble; that’s why, because like, I was only little and she expected me to be able to iron those things like that well, and I couldn’t and nobody could help me; so I would get punished. Just punished, and punished, and punished.”
Arthur Ron McKay arrived at the Sandy Bay, Manitoba school in the early 1940s with no knowledge of English. “I didn’t know where to go, not even to the washroom sometimes. I just wet myself because I didn’t know where to go and I couldn’t speak to the teacher, and I know that the nuns was the teacher and I couldn’t speak English. They told me not to speak my language and everything, so I always pretended to be asleep at my desk so they wouldn’t ask me anything. The nun, first time she was nice but later on, as she began to know me, when I done that to lay my head on the desk pretending that I was sleeping not to be asked anything, she come and grab my hair, my ears and told me to listen and to sit up straight.”
When she first went to the Amos, Québec school, Margo Wylde could not speak any French. “I said to myself, ‘How am I going to express myself? How will I make people understand what I’m saying?’ And I wanted to find my sisters to ask them to come and get me. You know it’s sad to say, but I felt I was a captive.”
William Antoine grew up speaking Ojibway on the Sheshewaning Reserve in Ontario. When he was seven, he was taken to the Spanish, Ontario boys’ school. “I was in Grade One, the work that was given to me I didn’t know anything about and, and the teacher was speaking English to me and I didn’t understand what he was saying. That’s why it was so hard; I didn’t understand English very much. I understand a little bit, at that time, but I did not understand what he told me. And he would get mad at me and angry at me because I couldn’t do my work. I could not, I couldn’t do it because I didn’t understand what he was telling me what to do. So it was hard.”
When he first went to the Fort Albany, Ontario school, Peter Nakogee could speak no English. “That’s where I had the most difficulty in school because I didn’t understand English. My hand was hit because I wrote on my scribblers, the scribblers that were given on starting school, pencils, erasers, rulers and that, scribblers, and textbooks that were given. ‘Write your names,’ she said, so they don’t get lost. But I wrote on my scribblers in Cree syllabics. And so I got the nun really mad that I was writing in Cree. And then I only knew my name was Ministik from the first time I heard my name, my name was Ministik. So I was whipped again because I didn’t know my name was Peter Nakogee.”
For Marcel Guiboche at the Pine Creek school, the experience was frightening. “A sister, a nun started talking to me in English and French, and yelling at me. I did not speak English, and didn’t understand what she, what she was asking. She got very upset, and started hitting me all over my body, hands, legs, and back. I began to cry, yell, and became very scared, and this infuriated her more. She got a black strap and hit me some more. My brother, Eddie, Edward, heard me screaming, and came to get me.”
Calvin Myerion recalled not being allowed to speak his language at the Brandon school. “And the time went on, and I was told not to speak my Native language, and I didn’t know any other language other than my Native language. I didn’t know a word of English, and my brother, who had been there before me, taught me in, said in my language not to talk the language. But the only way that I could communicate was through my language.”
The shock of her first night at the Alberni school left Lily Bruce in tears. Eventually, her auntie, who was a student at the school, was brought in to speak to her. “I was just getting dressed into pajamas, and I never, I never spoke English. [crying] My auntie was told to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to speak Kwak’wala anymore. I told her, ‘But Auntie, I don’t know how to speak English.’ And she says, ‘Well you’re gonna have to learn pretty quick.’ [crying] She said, ‘From now on, you have to speak English.’ I don’t know how long it took me. I kept my mouth shut most of the time. I’d rather keep quiet than get in trouble.”
Andrew Bull Calf recalled that at the residential school in Cardston, Alberta, “I got strapped a lot of time because I didn’t know English, you know, and the only language we spoke was Blackfoot in our community and so I got strapped a lot for that.”
Percy Thompson recalled being slapped in the face for speaking Cree shortly after his arrival at the Hobbema school in Alberta. “How was I to learn English within three or four days the first week I was there? Was I supposed to learn the English words, so the nun would be happy about it? It’s impossible.”
When two sisters attended the Anglican school at Aklavik, they could not speak English. But, according to one sister, the staff would “spank us when we tried to talk our language. So, we just keep away from one another.”
Alfred Nolie attended the Alert Bay school, where, he said, “they strapped me right away, as soon as they heard me talking our language. I didn’t know what they were saying to me.”
Martin Nicholas said that at the school he attended in Manitoba, the prohibition on speaking one’s own language left him isolated. “I would be punished if I spoke my language, yet, that’s the only language I knew. So, what am I supposed to do? So, I kept quiet.” Because he did not speak English, he became alarmed if anyone spoke to him.
Meeka Alivaktuk came to the Pangnirtung school in what is now Nunavut with no knowledge of English. “For example, I knew how to knit. I learned before we came to school how to knit mittens but when we got to school and the teacher was speaking to us in English and he was saying ‘knit, purl, knit, purl,’ I had no idea what that meant so I put down my knitting and just sat there. The teacher came up to me and slapped my hands because they didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t understand what he was telling me. That’s how my education began.”
After growing up speaking only Cree in northern Manitoba, Emily Kematch found that “learning how to speak English was a struggle.” She said that “the only way I got by was my friend Sally taught me words, ‘this is how you say, say words.’ She taught me what to do so I wouldn’t get into trouble and we weren’t allowed to cry. If we cried, we got spanked.”
At the Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, school in the mid-1960s, Greg Rainville said, he was punished for speaking his own language and for failing to carry out instructions given him in a language he did not understand. “The nuns would get frustrated with you when they talked to you in French or English, and you’re not knowing what they’re talking about, and you’re pulled around by the ear.”
When Robert Malcolm came to the Sandy Bay school, he did not speak a word of English. “I had to learn the hard way to communicate in school what the, the nuns or the teachers wanted. And if you didn’t, if you didn’t understand that, it was, you were being punished, sometimes physically, and then sometimes emotionally. Like you were made fun of sometimes by other people in your class, like if I said, or did something wrong everybody would laugh at you.”
The use of traditional Aboriginal languages were often banned, with the intention of forcing the students to learn English (or French). The anxiety caused by these rules remain one of the most commonly cited complaints of the residential school experience.
Jacqueline Barney said that one of her report cards from the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario school complained that “Jackie still insists on speaking Cree.”
Dianne Bossum recalled being told not to speak her own language at the La Tuque, Québec, school she attended in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Geraldine Shingoose recalled being punished for not speaking English at the Lestock, Saskatchewan school. “I just remember, recalling the very first memories was just the beatings we’d get and the lickings, and just for speaking our language, and just for doing things that were against the rules.”
Dorothy Nolie recalled that at the Alert Bay school, she was caught speaking in her own language at the dinner table. “They put me in the middle of the floor, in front of everybody, and that was my punishment for speaking our language. I was hungry. I never ate nothing. Looked around, looked around, everybody eating. That’s how mean they were to me, to all of us kids in there.”
At the Roman Catholic residence in Fort Smith in the 1960s, Leon Wyallon recalled, he was punished for speaking his own language. “We can’t even talk in our own language. The minute you talked your own language then you would get sent to the corner. The minute those Grey Nuns found out that you’re talking in your own language, whispering, you’d, if you don’t tell us now then you get strapped on the hand until you say, what did you say. They let you stand in the corner ’til suppertime.”
David Nevin recalled seeing a young girl “savagely” beaten by staff at the Shubenacadie school for refusing to stop speaking Mi’kmaq. “This went on for—seemed like an eternity, and no matter what they did to her she spoke Mi’kmaq. You know, and to this day I, you know, that has been indelible in my mind and I think that’s one of the reasons why when I went to school there I always spoke English, that fear of being hit with that strap, that leather strap.”
Alan Knockwood recalled being strapped for speaking his own language at Shubenacadie. “Just for saying thank you to someone who gave me something in the school. I was caught by a Brother or one of the workers, and I was strapped so severely that when we went to supper my cousin Ivan had to feed me because my hands were so swollen from the straps. And I remember sitting at the corner of the table and the guys got up and hid me, stood up and hid, so Ivan could feed me a few mouthfuls of food.”
Allen Kagak recalled being disciplined for speaking Inuktitut at the Coppermine tent hostel in the Northwest Territories (now Nunavut). “I couldn’t speak English, they tell me to speak English, but I couldn’t help it, I had to speak my Inuktitut language. When I speak my Inuktitut language, they, teachers, strapped, strapped, strapped me, pulled my ears, let me stand in a corner all morning.”
Richard Kaiyogan also attended the Coppermine tent hostel. “But over the years, if you talk in your own language you get strapped, and later on, I had to learn the hard way, but myself, I think over the years I earned that, we earn it, take this education. One time I got strapped and I didn’t want to get strapped anymore so I said to myself, I said, ‘What am I here for?’ You know, education, I guess. Anyway, my culture is going to be—my language will be lost in the way. Okay, why not think like a white man? Talk like a white man? Eat like a white man, that’s what, so I don’t have to get strapped anymore. You know, I followed their own rules.”
On his first day of school in Pangnirtung, the teacher overheard Sam Kautainuk speaking to a friend in Inuktitut. “He took a ruler and grabbed my head like this and then smacked me in the mouth with the ruler four times. That was very painful, it hurts! It hurt so much. That happened just for speaking to my friend in my own language.”
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What Was the First Day of Residential School Like? Part 4
It sounded like as if they were gonna kill him, or is he breathing, I would say