Residential school survivors tell their stories at Reconciliation Nipawin event

·10 min read

With the Treaty Commissioner Mary Culbertson and Lieutenant Governor Russ Mirasty in attendance, four residential school survivors told their heartfelt testimonials about the horrors they experienced in the residential school system.

Hosted by Reconciliation Nipawin and the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, the two day gathering of First Nation, Métis, and non-Indigenous community leaders, survivors and their families served as a safe space to listen and learn about the legacy of residential schools as well as honour the testimonials of survivors.

Others in attendance included Rene Chaboyer, Chief of Cumberland House, and Rennie Harper, Nipawin’s mayor.

Angie Merasty, Reconciliation Nipawin member and executive director at the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, said the message they wanted to get out was residential school survivors supporting survivors.

The residential school system was designed with the objectives of assimilating Indigenous youth into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living.

The schools would forcibly separate children from their families and forbade them to use their own languages or acknowledge their Indigenous heritage. If the students disobeyed, they would be beaten.

“People automatically assume a lot of our survivors are elderly, older people,” Merasty said

“It’s a hard, hard past we have in this country with residential schools. Our office is always seeking to make people aware of it, educate them and inform them. Not to make anyone feel bad or feel guilty, it happened and it can’t unhappen. Why don’t we move forward in a good way?”

Merasty said with reconciliation it needs to be meaningful and genuine. An example of non-meaningful efforts at reconciliation would be someone giving a land acknowledgment without the understanding of why and what it means.

“That’s not doing it right and proper,” she said. “That’s a very small example but it’s a good one.”

The meaningfulness behind reconciliation was discussed more heavily in a discussion by educator Russell McAuley.

“A lot of our worldviews are completely different from the western Euro-centric hierarchies and worldviews,” McAuley said.

“You can see from an Indigenous perspective, we really do believe in collectiveness, that wealth is shared, that the land is sacred and very much a part of who we are as Indigenous people.”

In contrast, they explained the western worldview is individualistic, encouraging the personal collection of wealth.

“For some reason in our society it’s often affluent heterosexual white men that make up our policy makers, our positions of leadership and guide a lot of our principles moving forward. Then as you go down the hierarchy, elderly and children have a lot more rights in our society – but for some reason women are on the bottom.”

McAuley said that in local Indigenous hierarchies, unlike how it’s often presented in media with male chiefs making the decisions, in reality women take up positions of power as knowledge keepers and policy makers, and two-spirit individuals, outside of male and female, are represented.

“Even our sense of time is different between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. From an Indigenous perspective, we’re more holistic whereas western academics would lead you to believe it’s more of a linear sense of time, and it’s very different.”

McAuley called it “amazing” to have a Cree Lieutenant Governor who can speak their language, despite barriers present for the Indigenous community.

“We like to think we live in a post-racial society, but that’s a lie, that is a narrative that’s being fed to us,” they said.

“This has taken up in various spaces, our teachers, our principals, our police officers, our doctors – all these different people make up important roles in our community and it has become culturally acceptable to think of Indigenous people as less than, as drug addicts riddled with poor mental health and addiction.”

In the education system, McAuley said that this cultural racism has resulted in situations such as the residential school system as well as the Ministry of Education currently not having an Indigenous curriculum.

“Whereas I could do a full course in Grade 12 teaching the residential school system experience, the teacher down the hall from me could say, ‘Let’s colour a teepee today and that’ll count as your Indigenous curriculum.’”

Originally from Lac La Ronge, Lieutenant Governor Mirasty endured four years at All Saints residential school near Prince Albert. In an interview, he described his experience as “lonely.”

“It was the first time I had been away from home where I knew there was a big change in terms of my living environment and not having family or people I knew close by,” Mirasty said. “It was a lonely experience, I think that’s the best way to frame my experience.”

The lieutenant governor represents the Queen at the provincial level in Canada and is the legal head of state for their province, which means they act as chief public representative and has the highest ranking position in the provincial government.

Mirasty, who took the position in 2019, said he initially had mixed feelings when stepping into the role.

“When I first got the call to let my name stand that was one of the questions I had to answer on a personal level, ‘Am I comfortable going into a position that really represents colonization, historically and even today some would challenge [it] given it is part of the colonial government?’”

Mirasty said he ultimately decided to take it due to wanting to help change what people think and be an example for young Indigenous people to achieve positions they may not see themselves in.

Stewart is a survivor from St. Paul’s in Lebret who shared her testimonial.

The site of St. Paul’s had a high death rate for students. In 1891, the Qu’Appelle school reported that since opening in 1884, it had discharged 174 students, 40.8 per cent had died. A year later, it would quarantine the students in the school to stop the spread of chickenpox.

Throughout the facility’s operation, it would continue to be a site of numerous deaths.

“Thirty per cent were dying in that place. In my memory, when we first arrived in Lebret it was late at night,” Stewart said. “My childhood friends and I were taken to the seniors’ dormitory and each of us were given cots. Each of us were given a number, I learned my number was 15. All of my clothes, shoes, underwear, all of us had a number.”

Her long hair, a sense of her pride, was cut. While she and the other students were forced to speak only English at all times, the nuns spoke French to one another carrying on conversations in secret.

“They were really cruel to us for every little thing,” she said. “They hit me, I had to defend myself, numerous times. They say big girls don’t cry. I did. I cried myself to sleep.”

Stewart remembers swimming in the lake nearby, where they could go without supervision. Occasionally someone would make the mistake of not putting their towel in the laundry while changing – a mistake that would result in more beatings for all of them.

“We would find out a bed was empty, one girl ‘went home.’ We were told her parents picked her up. We wondered why we were not to ask, we were not to question authority.”

Goulet spent two years, first at St. Michael’s in Duck Lake in 1991 to 1992, then at the Prince Albert student residence from 1972 to 1973 for her Grade 8.

“The first year I have to say wasn’t bad, that was Duck Lake, I don’t remember too much of it, just some. The one that really triggers me is Prince Albert,” she said.

“The people who kept us, our supervisors handpicked us to babysit and spend time with them, I knew that wasn’t right, we weren’t supposed to be there to babysit children.”

Goulet, feeling unsafe, got her 11-year-old brother and ran away. The two hitchhiked, making it to a gas station in Smeaton.

“A kind man, I believe he was from Gronlid, I don’t even remember his name. He took us home, and he fed us. This was 1973, then he drove us here to Nipawin.”

The man dropped them off at a Nipawin gas station, where the two waited for the next vehicle they could get a ride with to get home. Unfortunately that’s as far as the two got.

While waiting, the RCMP pulled up and apprehended the two, taking them back to the site, Goulet believes someone must have reported them sitting there.

“We were punished. I always carry a lot of guilt because I dragged my brother with me because I didn’t want to leave him there, but then he got punished when we got taken back.”

Thankfully, Goulet’s mother travelled to the school after being informed about her and her brother’s escape attempt.

“She came and picked us up. I told her, ‘We can’t stay here anymore. We’re not safe– I’m not safe,’ and of course I couldn’t leave my brother there.”

Raised by his grandparents in Shoal Lake, Whitecap was taken and put in the All Saints student residence at Prince Albert for Grade 3.

Whitecap described himself as one of the students who “barely made it home.”

“My grandparents couldn’t speak English or anything like that to try to save me,” he said.

“The school was up to Grade 7 and we all went to school there. The school was getting crowded at the time.”

Whitecap attributed the cold, overcrowded living conditions to what led him to almost die of pneumonia.

“I told my supervisor I was sick, he didn’t believe me. I went to school like that for two days,” he said. “I started sweating, chills for three or four days and then one morning... I was found lying on my bed. I didn’t know they rushed me to my clinic dorm at the time when they found me.”

He didn’t know how long he was unconscious, but he remembers the nurse told him, “We almost lost you, Rayme.”

“I don’t know where they would have buried me. One of the Prince Albert graveyards, maybe.”

Whitecap would remain at All Saints until Grade 8.

In secret, he recalled his grandparents would mail him salted ducks.

“You couldn’t believe it, but they managed to send it by mail,” he said. “A salted duck, one of my traditional foods. I had to hide it and eat it alone.”

Sherwin Whitecap was the youngest survivor who spoke, now at 45 years of age. He went to All Saints in Prince Albert.

Not being able to speak or understand English, another student tried to help tell him what the staff wanted in Cree.

“He was talking Cree to me, but the guy who kept us didn’t understand Cree and didn’t know how to speak Cree. They got mad.”

Whitecap said the supervisor grabbed him, lifting him from the back of his shirt collar and threw him in the shower.

“I kept asking myself, ‘Is this guy supposed to do this?’ Anytime I would try to talk to someone [I couldn’t], I couldn’t talk Cree.”

Over the first three years he would get in trouble regularly for not speaking English. While some of the supervisors let him speak Cree when needed, he said that one wouldn’t tolerate it. That supervisor would hit them on the head when they were late to class, which was an issue for Whitecap who didn’t know how to tell time.

“When I was young it was bad sometimes. Even when I was 30 minutes late the supervisor took me to the garage and started hitting me. Took off my pants and started hitting me. I don’t know if he was supposed to do that or not.”

Jessica R. Durling, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Humboldt Journal

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