'These stories need to be heard': Residential school survivor memoirs created through B.C. college course

Squamish Elder Sam George holds a copy of his memoir The Fire Still Burns: Life In and After Residential School at an event launching its publication in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday. (Chad Pawson/CBC News - image credit)
Squamish Elder Sam George holds a copy of his memoir The Fire Still Burns: Life In and After Residential School at an event launching its publication in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday. (Chad Pawson/CBC News - image credit)

Students, instructors and First Nations elders taking part in a unique program at Vancouver's Langara College are marking its success through the publication of a set of memoirs that chronicle one of the darkest chapters of Canadian history.

The memoir of Squamish First Nation Elder Sam George, 79, tells the story of his life growing up on a reserve in North Vancouver and how the abuse and neglect he suffered at St. Paul's Indian Residential School resulted in addiction, violence and incarceration.

"To get it out there emotionally and say, 'Yeah this happened, you know I don't have to live in that pain anymore,'" he said. "Getting it out helped me to look at it, I don't have to go there anymore."

The memoir, published by UBC Press and unveiled at a special ceremony in North Vancouver in Squamish territory, is called The Fire Still Burns: Life In and After Residential School.

Chad Pawson/CBC News
Chad Pawson/CBC News

"I hope people that are suffering will read it or hear about it and see it and even people my age that are still packing a lot of their stuff around," said George, who appeared at Saturday's North Vancouver event in regalia and had members of his family drum and sing him into the Chief Joe Mathias Centre.

"A lot of people out there are still suffering and I hope maybe they see something and get something out of it."

Chad Pawson/CBC News
Chad Pawson/CBC News

Residential schools in Canada, which existed until the late 1990s, were put in place as part of an assimilation effort imposed on Indigenous peoples to destroy their cultures and suppress their languages, says the government of Canada's website.

At the schools, children were often subjected to harsh discipline, malnutrition and starvation, poor health care, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Thousands died while attending residential schools, and the burial sites of many remain unknown.

'I learned how to hate'

George says in his memoir that he barely survived his experience at residential school, which darkened his life for decades beyond the eight years he spent at St. Paul's.

"Whenever people ask me what I learned at that school, my answer remains the same: I learned how to steal, I learned how to lie, I learned how to mistrust, and I learned how to hate," reads his memoir.

"As far as I was concerned, I hated everyone. And for all of it I owe thanks to my time at St. Paul's Indian Residential School."

His memoir was one of the first produced by students through Langara's year-long course called In Writing Lives: The Residential School Survivor Memoir Project. It began in 2019, but put on pause until this school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, the course has produced five memoirs.

Chad Pawson/CBC News
Chad Pawson/CBC News

The course is taught by Jill Goldberg, an English literature and creative writing instructor at Langara. She says she was inspired to take on the course, modelled on a similar one involving the stories of Holocaust survivors, after reading the National Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) calls to action.

"Certainly by far the most profound teaching moments I've had, have been in this class and students have shared the same — that this class has been really transformative for them," said the 49-year-old.

'Felt quite intimidated'

Tanis Wilson, an off-reservation member of the Constance Lake First Nation in northeastern Ontario, was one of the students who worked with George on his memoir. She decided to take the course because of how it aligns with the TRC's calls to action, and also as a way to honour residential school survivors.

The 27-year-old has family members who are survivors and wants their stories to be told despite the enormity of the undertaking.

"When I first started I actually felt quite intimidated with it because of how serious it is," she said. "It is a really big responsibility caring for someone else's story."

The first semester of the course is spent reviewing Indigenous literature, learning about trauma-informed approaches to interviewing survivors and hearing from an array of speakers, including counsellors and survivors.

"I certainly think there are moments when the students experience an emotional reaction that might be surprising in its amplitude," said Goldberg. "I try to make the classroom a space where they can debrief about that."

Angus Kwan Photography
Angus Kwan Photography

Goldberg partnered with the Indian Residential School Survivors Society to recruit elders willing to participate. The course involves developing a relationship with students and then sitting for several interviews to record the stories, which are then organized and edited under approval of the elder.

"It's an opportunity to hear those first-hand accounts of residential school experiences and that itself is vital to true reconciliation," said Langara student Melissa Halford, who worked on two memoirs.

"Survivors are aging and if we don't hear these stories now we'll lose a part of [Canada's] history and these stories need to be heard."

The 41-year-old Burnaby resident had previously worked as a researcher for the federal government on the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which was the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history.

"Hearing all the stories as a researcher, I felt privileged to be in that position but I think now I'm in a position where I'm accountable to those elders," she said. "I know their stories and I can hold their memoirs with sensitivity and appreciation that I didn't have before."

George's memoir, which is more than 100 pages in length, takes readers from his early childhood filled with wonder and family to the horrors of St. Paul's and its devastating aftermath. It ends with him finding a way forward in life by reconnecting with Squamish culture.

"I was a criminal, I was in jail, and I changed all of that. I'm proud to think about how far I have come," it reads. "I am proud of the way I think today … I learned how to survive."

George said he hopes others will take part in the course either as students or elders to forward reconciliation.

"Yes, I really think that," he said. "A lot of people didn't even know about residential schools or know about our history."