As I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder

Residential School

Well, I guess for myself, going to Sechelt residential school was, it was very difficult, because I’d never been away from my grandparents and my community. So it was really new for me to be finally caught and made to go away to residential school. And I was there two years. I don’t know what happened in my mind at first. I always thought when I was younger that I was there one year – or whenever I thought about the length of time that I was there – but it was actually two years. According to the records I was there two years. So that was, I guess, from ten to twelve years of age, in that area, or nine or ten years of age. It was not a fun place to be. You’re homesick. You’re lonely. You don’t know many of the people. And you’re not allowed to speak your language. The lifestyle is so totally different than what you’re used to. It’s almost, I guess, like being in jail. You’re in the institution basically that’s what it is. You’re put in an institution. And I knew very few kids when I first went there. I got to know some of the girls later on, as time went on. But having arrived there first of all, my first day or first night that I was there, and sitting down having supper, to eat something totally foreign to me I was a fussy eater when I was a child. I was a real plain eater. And to have this stuff which I thought was just real disgusting-looking dish in front of me, I was looking at it and wondering, “What is this?”

And the young girl next to me whispered to me and said, “You’d better eat it all. You’d better eat it. You’ll be punished if you don’t.”

And I was thinking, “How am I going to eat this?” I just really didn’t like what I saw in front of me. It was some kind of a stew or soup, but it must’ve been pork soup, because I recognized the rind in there, like, the fat. And the skin is still on there and it had some fur attached to it still. And I guess what they used to do when they slaughtered the pigs there, they would just scrape the fur off it. And so the skin is still on there. And a lot of fat on that part of the meat. And I just didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want to eat it, and I just sat there and looked at it and I don’t know what I did with it! I don’t know if I ate it or not. But I always remember that, that horrible-looking pig skin with fur on it. On my dish. And a real thin soup – it wasn’t soup, but it wasn’t a lot of vegetables or anything in there. It was just that and, I guess, some potatoes and thickened with whatever, flour, I guess. And still today, I don’t know what I did with that. It was going through my mind to throw it on the floor, but the girl next to me was warning me, “Don’t – you have to eat it. You have to eat it!” So that was really hard. And then there was a custard. I never saw custard before in my life. I don’t know what kind of custard it was. But when you force someone to eat something they’ve never tasted … and to me that wasn’t in my diet. It was foreign to me. And I had to eat that. I had to eat this custard. So that was just one part of it that it was really distasteful about the whole thing.

I Was a Number

A lot of the kids that were there were lonely, and so very lonely and homesick. And a lot of them were younger than I. Some of them were coming there at five years, six years of age – first time away from their parents. And it was really sad to hear them crying at night and wetting their bed ’cause they were so scared. And having to walk around with a sheet on their heads the next day and parade around in front of the kids ’cause they’re wetting their bed. It’s most humiliating for them.

“Your parents are sinners: ‘You’ve gotta pray for them. Remember them in your prayers. They’re sinners!’ was the message. How does that make you feel as a child, about your parents, your beloved parents?”

So just having witnessed all that, and I think back, why did they do that? Why did they do that to children? It was all about scaring the devil out of you at a very young age: seven, eight, nine years of age. You’re a sinner right from the get-go. Your parents are sinners: “You’ve gotta pray for them. Remember them in your prayers. They’re sinners!” was the message. How does that make you feel as a child, about your parents, your beloved parents? Your grandparents, they’re sinners? They’re going to go to hell if you don’t pray for them. So that was really difficult – difficult thing to wrap your little mind around that.

And just the strict, strict rules and regulations of, you know, your clothes are taken away that you’re familiar – you’re given a uniform to wear, two sets of uniform that you wore. Which was, like, a tunic and a white blouse, and black or navy stockings, like hose. And everything was numbered. Your number was put on. The bigger girls did that. So when a new person came in, their clothes was sized and numbered.

And my number was eighteen. And I hadn’t thought of that for a long, long time. But I guess it was always in the back of my mind.

Then one day we were just talking about that not long ago and someone said, “What was your number in school?” I said, “Eighteen.”

So after, seventy years later, I remember that was my number. So therefore you were called by that number. They didn’t use your name: “Eighteen, come here! Eighteen, go do this! Eighteen, it’s your turn to go do this.” So I wasn’t a person anymore, I was a number. I was like a prisoner. All of us were like prisoners with numbers. It’s a wonder they didn’t tattoo that on your forehead or on your lip. That’s how cruel it was! You’re not even human. It’s bad enough that you have a number from the Department of Indian Affairs. You go to that institution, you got a number. I don’t know where else they do that. So all your clothes were marked and numbered with that so there’s no mix-up of – so that’s all you had was these very few things. Your clothes were put away until you left the school. And quite often some of your clothes were getting a little small by the time you came home, by Christmastime.

Little Soldiers

I was lucky to come home at Christmas, but some kids didn’t. So some kids were there from September till June. So I always remember one of the girls that came in, that was my friend Marion. She was from Homalco. She was only five years old. And to hear her crying and being really lonely and missing home. So I became the big sister that looked after her. They always paired up the kids – the senior girl would look after a junior girl. So she became my little sister, kind of thing. And looked after her. So I’m in the big dorm, and she’s in the small dorm. So we had two big dorms that separated the age groups.

So I’d get up – first thing you do when you get up in the morning is make sure you go and get the child that’s in your care. And I was only ten. And get her up and help her to the washroom, make her bed for her, plus make my own bed. Those were the duties that was designated to you as a ten-year-old: “These are your duties. You’re gonna look after this child, this newcomer. You’ll get her up in the morning and you’ll take her and bathe her or comb her hair, dress her.”

It was so regimented and so strict, and you had to be on time. You had to be punctual. In the morning when the sister came and woke you up from a dead sleep, it was like, “clap clap” – clap your hands. It was like [claps loudly] – that loud! Really loud. Right away, you jumped out – rolled out of bed onto your knees on the floor. Right now! And you prayed. Then you made your bed. Then you went about looking after your care, then yourself. And you’re lined up – it was so regimented that you didn’t dare step out of line.

You’re like little soldiers. So it was every time you turned around, no matter what you did, you – you didn’t play. You didn’t talk to the other kids, ’cause you’re busy. You’re not allowed to just have a conversation with other kids.

So you get up and you do what you have to do. You line up, you pray again, and you go down to mass. Then you come out of mass, you go to the dining room for breakfast, then you pray again. You finish your breakfast, which was a porridge – it was always porridge. I didn’t mind the porridge. That was okay for me. And we leave that dining room and it’s prayer again before you walk out of that room.

Then you go outside for a little while, a short recess – not recess, but break outside in the yard. Fenced-in yard. And you only have a short time there, and then you go to class. And you enter the classroom, you pray again. You leave the classroom, you pray again. You do something else, you pray. We must have prayed, I don’t know how many times – every time you turned around. That was the rule, that was the law in that place.

“So it really wasn’t a learning institution. It was more like a labour camp.”

And then you were given duties, chores. The boys had chores to do, working outside. So it really wasn’t a learning institution. It was more like a labour camp. There was very little time for classroom. Might be two hours in the morning, and the afternoon, maybe an hour, hour and a half. The rest of the time was work. We all had our designated chores. And then they would switch around. They’d switch you with another girl, ’cause we’re divided – the whole building is divided in half. And I’m in the girls’ section, and the boys are on the other side, and the chapel sits in between the two sides to this institution.

So we’re quite separated from the boys. So even if you looked over to the boys’ side of the chapel, you got a whack in the head, ’cause you don’t dare look at the boys. Still today, I find that our people, when they go to church, the women go to one side and the men go to one side in the building, ’cause that’s how it was when they were growing up. It’s very recent that I see people, like, a couple will sit together with their children. So those things kind of get really ingrained in your mind: that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s the law. That’s the rule.

And I had kitchen duties sometimes. I was tall, tall for my age.

And I remember one time, washing dishes. You’re supposed to stand straight like a good soldier when you wash dishes. And I guess I relaxed a bit and I had my one knee just kind of, you know, bent, and just standing on one knee straight and the other one is kind of bent or bit slouched, I guess. Next thing you know, I got a stick whacked across the back of my legs: “You stand straight when you’re doing the dishes! You’re slouching. You’re lazy! A sign of laziness!”

“It’s almost like you were a little tin soldier. You didn’t show emotion. No one showed you love. No one embraced you. It was just always that fear of getting hit for something they deemed to be wrong.”

It’s almost like you were a little tin soldier. You didn’t show emotion. No one showed you love. No one embraced you. It was just always that fear of getting hit for something they deemed to be wrong. And the boys got the same kind of treatment. I don’t know if the boys got it worse than the girls, but they did outside work, cleaning the building on the outside and yard work and working in the garden or working in the barn.

But I remember hearing my late husband tellin’ me about how they would stash apples within their clothes ’cause they were always hungry. We were always hungry! And they would get punished if they were ever caught with an apple in their pocket. You’re not allowed to do that.

And it was totally different diet for the kids than it was for our caregivers. If you happened to work in the dining room of our caregivers, everything is set in white linen and napkins and placemats and silverware and good food. Butter, real butter. The butter that I churned for hours by hand. Never tasted butter. It was for someone else. So there was a rule for, you know – there was restrictions for all of us as children. We were treated like little servants. That’s how I saw it.

Maybe my time was a lot easier than my mom’s time there. ’Cause it was starting to get easier as time went by from what I gather.

I heard old, old people talking about their time in the residential school. It was tough, so tough. And I think that’s when there was a lot of abuse – sexual abuse, physical abuse, not to mention mental and emotional abuse. So I was just lucky that I didn’t get those kinds of abuses.

But I always had to be on guard that I’m going to get hit with that ruler or a book in the back of my head, ’cause I couldn’t do my math. It was called arithmetic then. I was stuck for an answer in my arithmetic and I got whacked in the back of the head with a thick arithmetic book. Boy, that sure hurts. You know? And not to mention embarrassment. You get whacked in the head in front of your peers in the classroom – that you’re stupid. So those were just some of the things that I encountered in the residential school.

And just watching the other kids being … it was almost like a bunch of jailbirds fighting over crumbs. Sometimes some kids were lucky that their parents didn’t live that far away, and a parent would come and drop off a bag of whatever, oranges or apples, some goodies in a bag. And the rest of us would be drooling over someone that got something from home. Some kids were in a worse position that they didn’t ever get anything ’cause they came from so far away.

And there was a lady that lived down the reserve there in Sechelt who had family – it was from our family too, from this community. It was my grandfather’s sister that lived down there, married to a Sechelt guy. And she used to take pity on us, and she used to bring us bread. She used to bring us bannock. Oh! That was a highlight. It was so good. But you can’t hang around at the fence. Like if she were to come outside the fence, you don’t go there. If you’re ever caught near the fence or talking to anyone outside the fence, you’re punished.

So the whole thing about being cut off from family, from the rest of the human race. Like you’re captive there. And some people will say, you know, it really disturbs me when I hear people in denial of how kids were treated and, “Why don’t people just leave it alone? Why don’t people just let it go,” and “That was a long time ago.” Well, you don’t know if you haven’t ever been there. You’ve got no understanding, no compassion. Just because you weren’t there and you didn’t experience it, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. So that really disturbs me – and I’ve heard it a number of times from different people, including non-Native people.

And when I say “people,” I mean our own people. I’ve heard from different people say that: “Why don’t they just get over it? They’re always using the residential school as an excuse for bad behaviour.” Well! It’s not a choice to make. It’s something real that happened to you! Lucky for you if that didn’t happen to you. So you know? I guess I could be real bitter if I want to be, if I allow it to be. ’Cause that’s how some people are today. They’re very bitter about it. And I can’t say I blame them.

Running Away

It was tough. It was really hard on the boys, like my late husband. They used to have him … had some kind of little work for him, his designated chore. And he used to clean this one room, where there’s a cupboard there with goodies. And he’s telling me about it some years after we were married. And he laughed about it. He laughed about it then. But it must’ve been terrible for him then.

He’s cleaning this room – there’s this cupboard full of goodies, like, when sometimes you have money sent to you from home, then you can go there and buy a chocolate bar or whatever, little goodies. So in his duties as a cleaning person in there, he was telling me that he got into the gumballs or something really hard, like jawbreakers. And he didn’t know how he was going to get out of this room, but he really wanted to take more than just one. So he put in his mouth, the two jawbreakers. And then the supervisor came and said to him, “Are you done? Are you done your job?” And he’s going, “Yep,” noddin’ his head. He wouldn’t open his mouth. “What’s wrong with you? You lost your tongue?” Shake his head. And the supervisor actually came to him, poked him on both sides of his cheeks, and these jawbreakers flew out of his mouth. So he was punished severely for that. He lost his job. He lost his designated chore – that was a privilege to work there. Yeah.

And some of the old-timers must have had it so much worse, too. ’Cause my late husband was about the same age as one of our old-timers that’s still here today. And he too talked about them running away from the residential school. In the middle of winter they wanted to come home so badly for Christmas that they decided to run away. And they launched a little canoe. They snuck out of the school, and they went to Forbes Bay, across the inlet, over to the other side. And they launched a canoe there, a little boat. And there were three boys. Went down, they travelled – I don’t know how far they travelled, but it was dark. It was nighttime. And it got really, really cold, and in that area, if you keep going as to where they were planning to go, there was rapids there. There’s big rapids – what is the rapids called there, in, not Gibsons, but Egmont – Skookumchuck. That’s where they would’ve had to go.

And as young boys, I don’t know how old they were, if they were around thirteen or fourteen, thereabouts. And they got scared. So they pulled ashore, and they thought they’ll wait till daylight and carry on. But it was so cold. It was December. So they pull the canoe up and they flipped it over and they got underneath the canoe and they stayed huddled there for quite a while, and just shivering cold. And they decided, “Better go back. We’ll never make it. We’ll never make it – and if we go through the rapids then we’re going to be finished!” So they went back. They tried to get back before it got daylight. So they got the canoe back, and they were just sneaking into the building when they were discovered.

Boy, they were strapped! Over and over again for two weeks. Strapped on their butt and on their hands. They had to stand there and get the strap on each hand ten times with a thick strap, and ten times on the other hand. Every day for two weeks. And I didn’t only hear that from this man that tells me that story. I’ve heard it from other Elders, other elderly men that had gone through that. And even the girls got that kind of strapping, that punishment. So it was really, really harsh punishment. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you’re homesick, okay. We’ll let you find a way to get you home.” “How dare you run away? We’re trying to civilize you and smarten you up, and – be appreciative.” You know, “You run away! You’re a big sinner. You’re gonna go to hell for sure!” So that’s an awful lot to put on a child – any child! So my husband carried that burden for years. All the strapping that was done to him in punishment in the school. As did so many other hundreds of kids, hundreds of boys.

Yeah, it wasn’t a fun place to be. And it’s so unfair! Especially to very young kids. Five and six years of age, to be taken from a parent, taken from a community, taken from a place that’s home and familiar with everything. And to be taken to a foreign place, for what reason?

And I’m not just blaming the Catholic Church. They were all like that! The other churches that were put into place in the communities were all like that. Why? Why were they mean? But, to me, I’m thankful that I was only there for two years, where I was still able to maintain my language and my culture. And when I came home – I was probably twelve then, the last year that I was there, that they didn’t get me to go back.

’Cause we kind of went back into hiding again, that time of the year. And they actually put people in jail for holding their children back, for hiding. So it’s a lucky thing my grandparents didn’t end up in jail. I guess once they had the capacity that was all fine: “That’s enough, we’re not gonna go chase after this particular kid.”

Yeah, so it was not a good place to be. And I think it’s really unfair – for my own experience, to be expected to go to confession and confess – confess what? ’Cause we weren’t doing anything wrong. “What did you think about?” It’s like you were quizzed and questioned: “Did you think about the boys? Did you have bad thoughts about boys?” And all the leading questions, and what do you say? You’re afraid of punishment. So you’d say, “Yes. Yes.” “Okay, I absolve you from your sins.” Give you a blessing, go away, next Saturday you’re there again, confessing to the same thing again. “How many times did you think of the boys? How many times did you think badly of someone?” I never thought badly of anyone or – let alone think of the boys. At that age, I didn’t have an interest in the boys, that we never saw except in church! Yeah. It was terrible. So they’re creating things so they can absolve you: “There. Your sins are forgiven.”

That may sound harsh of me when it comes to our church and the teachings of the church. I have respect for my own church here. I try to combine my teachings, my own spirituality, and my own values in life to the teachings of the church. And I’m not going to go through life carrying bitter feelings and unforgiving feelings. These people are long dead now, pretty much, that … the supervisors when I was in school. So I have to let that go and go on with my life.

I have to be more forgiving, and maybe not so much forgiving, but I need to let it go, ’cause it’s not going to do me any good to carry it all my life. So. But every now and then I think about it. And especially since I’ve been working in the healing program areas. And I hear other Elders talk about their experiences in the residential school. And a lot of it is so much worse than my own experience, and I feel thankful that I didn’t go through as much as what these Elders have gone through. I have no doubt in my mind they are telling the truth.

So I’m just glad that it no longer has to be that way. But there’s a lot of healing to be done with a lot of our people – not just talking about our community but other First Nations communities that have – we’ve all experienced this, right across Canada and probably elsewhere. It’s a history I don’t ever want to see repeated. They wouldn’t dare do that today. Nobody would dare do that today. You don’t do that to children and to families, break families apart. And that’s what happened. It was a deliberate act of the government. So I don’t just blame these churches, but it’s the government that put these institutions in place.

Robbed of Their Children

“Our people became pulled into that kind of teaching – instead of loving and supporting and nurturing children, after the teachings that came down, the new teachings, it was more punishing: ‘You’ll be punished if you don’t behave yourself.’ Whereas in history, our people didn’t punish children like that.”

“Our people became pulled into that kind of teaching – instead of loving and supporting and nurturing children, after the teachings that came down, the new teachings, it was more punishing: ‘You’ll be punished if you don’t behave yourself.’ Whereas in history, our people didn’t punish children like that.”

But as time went on, the people that went to residential school before my time picked up those kinds of punishing kinds of techniques and strapping and never telling their children they loved them. And I’ve listened to some stories of some Elders saying, “I never told my children that I loved them, ’cause nobody loved me when I was growing up. I blamed my parents for sending me away when I was just a child, no more than five or six. And I blamed and hated my parents for sending me away to residential school.”

That’s the child’s mind, right? You’re rejected from your parents. “Why did my parents send me here? Don’t they love me?” You hear so much of that in the healing circles that I attend.

And coming out of that system feeling unloved and full of anger and hate towards their parents. So what happens to them? They become that hateful parent. They have children, and they never show love to their children: “If you don’t behave, here’s the strap. You’re gonna get the strap.”

So there’s our history. That’s the learned behaviour. So things are changin’ and not fast enough for my liking. But you can’t rush change because people will change at their pace. Some people will never change. I feel it’s so sad, what has happened to our people. That their lives were shattered. The culture was taken, the language was taken from them.

Grandparents robbed of their children, their grandchildren. What it must have been like! When I think of my grandchildren that I love dearly, and my great-grandchildren, what would I do if they … what would their parents do? What would you do if your little girl is five years old, and somebody snatches that child away and you don’t see that child for ten months? For no good reason.

“I was fortunate that I was able to maintain my language, and I’m thankful for that, that I remember stories, I remember legends, I remember the teachings. Thank goodness for that. Because if I’d been there any longer, then things might have been different.”

So that’s my take on the residential school system. That they just did a good job of robbing us of our culture. I was fortunate that I was able to maintain my language, and I’m thankful for that, that I remember stories, I remember legends, I remember the teachings. Thank goodness for that. Because if I’d been there any longer, then things might have been different. And it was for a lot of other people my age that just totally lost the language ’cause they were not allowed to use the language. We have people in this community that have never spoke the language. So there’s no justification as far as I’m concerned. No amount of money.

Now the government has turned around and said, “We’re going to compensate people.” They say, “Oh, we apologize, and we’ll give you ten thousand dollars.” Well, for people that are so injured and so broken and that are living on the streets or they’ve become alcoholics or they’ve become so destitute. They’ve lost the teachings, they’ve lost the language, they’ve lost the culture. And to be handed this kind of money. It’s like giving them poison. It’s like giving someone poison. I know a lot of people have drank themselves to death, simply by getting that money.

I said right at the beginning – and that’s when I was still working in social work, when it was first introduced to our community – this is possibly what’s going to happen. Sure, it’s fine to open up wounds, but who’s gonna be there to heal those wounds, you know? Once you open the wounds, these people: “Talk about residential school. Talk about your treatment there.”

And there’s nobody – you have no support. We don’t have enough support in our communities! To look after people that are being reminded of what it was like in the residential schools. To reopen those wounds, to open those memories: “That’s what happened to me.” You’re more or less forced to talk about what happened to you.

So to give them money, what happens? A lot of them drank themselves to death. Not so much in this community, but I’ve heard in other communities, especially people that have been living on the streets. All those people are victims already of the residential school system. The government system. And then to be given money – they either got killed, mugged, or just died of alcohol poisoning. So they became victims again. Victims of abuse of the system, of their fellow man or other people that were needy, or other people that wanna use other people for their own gain. So they became victims all over again.

That part just irritates me, ’cause I said right at the beginning, where the money should go is into healing, into training of psychologists or psychiatrists or counsellors to counsel people. At least some of that money should go there. And to be just given the money – it’s gone in two weeks. You know? They’re no better off. Some, I’m not saying for everyone. There are some that have put whatever money they got to good use. And that’s good. They’re able to furnish their homes or do whatever. Get themselves out of big debt. But that still does not take care of the old injuries and the old hurts. No one is sitting there to talk to them about counselling, therapy. There’s no support. ’Cause to me money is just another injustice. To me no amount of money is going to right the wrong.

“People disciplined their children in a kind way, like the way you are with your child. You discipline your child with loving care. You explain things to your child. And to be taken from that environment and put in an institution where there’s nothing but punishment and threats and punishment and more threats. So to me, that’s very damaging.”

[My husband] was very injured. And then he became an alcoholic, a very serious alcoholic. But he refused to open up to go and talk to someone: “I’m not gonna go talk to a stranger. You say I got an alcohol problem. You drive me to drinkin’!” [laughs] Yeah, it’s a no-win situation. I cared for him dearly. I married him because I loved him, and we were young and in love. And had all these kids together – but he was very insecure. Very, very insecure. And there’s no trust in him to trust anyone. And he picked up that punishment thing: “If you don’t behave yourself you’re gonna get the strap.” He used to have a strap hanging in our house. And it was a strap, like, a whip kind of a strap. And he always had it hanging there. And when the kids were fussing or misbehaving, “You see that strap!” he would say. Although he never used it. Never took it off that nail that’s hanging on the wall. But he used to threaten the kids: “If you don’t behave, that’s what you’re going to get.” He learned that from the residential school. So even that in itself, to threaten your child, “You’re gonna get that strap!” – that’s really harsh on a child. Yeah. I see in some of our pictures that we have, that strap is hanging on the wall. It just always was there, and nobody would touch it. A reminder. And actually people did strap their kids, which in the past they’d never done. People disciplined their children in a kind way, like the way you are with your child. You discipline your child with loving care. You explain things to your child. And to be taken from that environment and put in an institution where there’s nothing but punishment and threats and punishment and more threats. So to me, that’s very damaging. So. That’s it.

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