The advent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has stirred memories in me of my own experiences starting into Catholic school in Winnipeg, about 1960. Although my own situation was of course, unique, I believe it holds some common threads with the residential school system. Because that system was upheld not only by the Catholic church but by the government itself. I find it very hard to believe that non-natives would have no inkling that there was something wrong with that system. Everyone was complicit in these acts of violence against children.
I was born to an Anglo mother and a Metis father. For all intents and purposes his family was French Canadian but as I researched and found records, not only in his mother’s family, whom we had formerly thought was the only aboriginal person in the family, but in his father’s family as well. His father, came to Manitoba from Quebec sometime around 1915 and I always assumed that he was just Quebecois. That family was part of the founding of Quebec and had many voyageurs in it who intermarried with native women.
My grandmother’s family is listed in the 1901 census as being red or native, a fact she would probably have denied. The situation was such that the family could not admit to having native blood because they lived under threat of violence from white people in the community. My aunt told me they were poor and people would walk by their small house and call them names or even throw rocks.
I often came under the care of my dad’s mother as my mother had to work. My father’s right arm was handicapped by polio which prevented him from finding paying work. The treatment I received at her hands portended the coming year. My long straight hair was tied in tight rags so it could be forced into ringlets, otherwise, a comb was scraped through it and it was pulled into the tightest french braids possible. I was duly sent off to a convent school run by the Sisters of Charity.
One of my clearest memories was the lunch hall which always reminds me of the poorhouse dining room in the movie “Oliver”. Before you could eat, one nun would come round to inspect your hands. Someone would always be singled out just as an example and whacked with a ruler on the hand. Another nun would come round to see if you were sitting up straight, if not, a knee was swiftly applied to your back. Somehow, I managed to not get snagged. However, if you were missing a lunch they would supply you with something.
In contrast to the public school system, they wanted to know who you were and what your background was. I believe I gained some sympathy because of my family situation and because I was well behaved, ie. scared silly. There was an initial screening done by the sisters to see what level you were at, colored pegs were hidden behind a back and pulled out to see if you knew the color and how many were there. Then there was an interview with two nuns where they decided what your personal gifts would be. How they decided that, I cannot tell but I was given wisdom and fortitude. I am not sure about the wisdom but I have certainly used that fortitude over my lifetime! Not too long after, it was discovered that I was left-handed, this at least, gained the sympathy of my father, who had to learn to write with his left hand after his battle with polio.
What happened to you in school largely depended on who you dealt with. My main teacher for Grade One was a caring sister who wore a tattered shawl with pride. I must have asked her about it because at that point she explained to me that the Sisters were only given two habits in a lifetime. I grew to admire that torn shawl in the short time I knew her. There was another nun though, who fully exhibited the signs of a psycho. You DID NOT want to see the black robes flying down the hallway or hear the clack of her heels on the floor! Her treatment for an incorrigible gum chewer was to make him crawl under her desk where she rested her feet on him for the morning.
My mother worked nights, she had left my father and was inevitably unconscious in the mornings. She forgot to sign my report card one day. At six years old, I got on the city bus to go to school. I was told to ask the bus driver where to get off. I managed to get across the road to the school. Once in, I discovered that we were to have “the monster” teach us that morning. She found out I didn’t have my report card and literally screamed me out of the school. I was to get back home and get the report card. Do not ask how I got home. My mother sent me back. By this time, the storm was picking up. Somehow, I got off the bus and lost in a sea of white and again, somehow, I was taken into a store and kept there until the storm let up. The school was just across from there. I do not know what happened after that but it is only one of a hundred times the angels must have been with me. No, we didn’t have a phone or a car. My father was out of touch. I like to think he would have helped me but he wasn’t there.
My mother moved around a lot and that pulled me out of some situations although often throwing me into another. I left home when I was 15, I came back when I was 17. I do not know why my mother sent me to another convent school. She was a very hopeful person. If she had only known that you actually had to have money to go to these places. It was a transition from the hippy life to tunics and oxford shoes, bobby-socks only! Everyday an inspection to see that your uniform was perfect. As I have stated elsewhere, I love art and writing and my mother saw that in me, so she bought a little Underwood typewriter for me and I happily passed many hours writing freestyle poetry. Soon an competition came up for editor of the school newspaper and my classmates encouraged me to enter. There was a student vote but there was also a teachers vote and the English teacher knew another girls parents very well. She won by a hair and actually came to me to say she thought I should have gotten it. Well, I wasn’t for the political life anyway.
What happened after that was more dramatic, I had made friends with a girl who was being abused by her adoptive parents. I told her she could leave because she was 16. Somehow this got to Mother Superior and I was duly dragged into her office where I was interrogated. Had I been away from home? Had I done drugs? Had I ever stolen anything? To which I duly answered “no”. It was decided that I would do better in another school. That girl became my best friend and we shared a room for a year while we finished school. Then she married a journalism student.
During my time at that school, I came to the attention of an intern teacher. She had asked to see some of my writing and thought it was worthy of a scholarship. When I left to go to a Catholic co-ed school, she contacted the teacher there who worked with me on getting a scholarship. Being a teen, some of my work was pretty graphic. Poems describing some of my experiences “away from home” caused consternation in one of the judges ( an iron-haired school marm) but she was outvoted.
I have had many experiences of this kind and I believe that one of the common threads is poverty. Children who grow up in poverty, whatever their culture, are open to abuse and violence. It is hard to believe that in Canada, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there are still communities that live in Third World conditions. I believe that education is the tool that will pull the native people out of their situations and there must be jobs for them to go to. I also believe that aboriginal people are members of our society and must obey Canadian law, the law that all people in this country must abide by so we can be a cohesive society. Then we can be strong as a country and protect our citizens.