Freddy Taylor still remembers the number assigned to him by staff at the Mohawk Institute Residential School.
Taken from his parents in Curve Lake First Nation at the age of five, Taylor spent a decade at the residential school in Brantford, where he was stripped not only of his name, but of his Ojibwe language and cultural identity.
“It was really bad — a horrible 10 years,” recalled Taylor in an interview with The Examiner.
Taylor, who was sent to the Mohawk Institute with his three older sisters, experienced and witnessed abuse at the hands of staff.
Often hungry, he’d seek out scraps from the city dump when his sisters couldn’t sneak him leftovers.
“It was a really, really bad situation that they put me in at that age. But I worked my way up, fought my way up. I survived,” Taylor said.
He left the residential school — it closed in 1970 before being turned into what is now the Woodland Cultural Centre — around the age of 15 and returned to Curve Lake.
Taylor didn’t even know what his parents looked like. He’d forgotten their names. After finding them in the throes of addiction — they drank to numb the pain of losing their children to the residential school system, he said — Taylor, filled with “pain, shame and anger,” was drawn to the “darker side” of life. He fell into addiction himself.
“I drank because I had to try and fit in with society because I was damaged so badly from the residential school,” Taylor said.
One day, almost two decades ago, Taylor found himself in a hospital bed — sick, injured and alone. He “called out to God.”
“I had a spiritual awakening and my Creator gave me the gift to lash out on canvas and to help others that can’t understand their path of life,” he continued.
Taylor began to paint — a skill he’s honed over the years to help himself heal.
Taylor, who lives in Selwyn Township, now goes to the family-run Whetung Ojibwa Centre in Curve Lake almost every day.
He can often be found painting at the back of the gallery, surrounded by his own colourful acrylic creations. From bright blue jays to multicoloured dragonflies, each painting carries its own cultural and personal meaning and message.
When Taylor heard about the thousands of unmarked graves being discovered at former residential school sites across Canada, he set out to help others heal through his art.
Taylor began designing and creating bright orange shirts. Displaying the words “Every Child Matters,” each shirt features the image of a weeping eagle opening its heart.
“It cries for the pain and suffering of all those little kids,” Taylor said.
Proceeds from shirt sales are going to the Woodland Cultural Centre’s Save the Evidence Fund, a campaign to develop the former Mohawk Institute into an interpretive centre and educational resource to ensure the dark legacy of Canada’s residential school system is not forgotten.
So far, Taylor said thousands of shirts have been sold. They can be purchased at the Whetung Ojibwa Centre.
“I donate everything I can to help others,” Taylor said.
Orange Shirt Day, also known as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, will be recognized on Sept. 30.
It’s a meaningful day for Taylor.
“I hope to go down to Brantford where I was for 10 years,” he said.
Some survivors, said Taylor, can’t go back — the “pain and shame” is too great.
He understands why.
“I’m 76 years old and it’s just like yesterday I was released from there. That’s how the damage is.”
Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner, based in Peterborough. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.
Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner