A view from the other side of residential schools

To the Editor:

The horror stories arising out of the residential school era show there were bad residential schools; they simply cannot show that they were all bad. They also are unable to show evil in the original intentions that generated the system. Some of the plans were poorly laid. Others were carefully laid, and beneficial to the families they affected.
Few people can remember the circumstances that prevailed in the early days, certainly not on a first-hand basis. But we all learn best from experience, and if we look back into our family backgrounds, most of us can find some abandonment of language, culture and knowledge of our own heritage.
Few people understand the urge of new immigrants to hear their children speaking English, to know they would survive as adults in this wonderful country. My wife Joan’s grandparents are an example; because of this overriding desire, she never had a chance to learn more than two salutations in Czech. I don’t know any Norwegian expressions at all, although my mother’s folks emigrated from Norway after they were married.
Eighty years ago my brother-in-law, whose family was French-speaking and whose mother was raising nine children on her own while his father worked away from home, was sent to a residential school in Morinville. His family could not feed and clothe all the children, so he was chosen to live there for two years without being a part of his family. His teachers were strict – they were strict in those days – but he was well nourished and clothed and received a good education.
Many acts of kindness and brotherhood flourished among neighbours, close and distant. My grandfather and siblings customarily played with the kids from a nearby native village, near Parry Sound, Ontario and the respective mothers always urged their playmates to share in their meals. Once, when a blizzard had shut down the countryside (in the mid-1800s) my great-grandmother had nothing left to cook with but a small bag of cornmeal. She used it all to make johnny-cake, hoping they could soon drive the 25-mile bush trail to the nearest store for some staples. The blizzard raged on. The next evening a native they didn’t recognize opened the door of their little log cabin, stepped in quickly and leaned his rifle against the wall. He sat down on the floor, folded his arms and slept.
Great-grandma cut a good big slab of johnny-cake, setting it on a plate on the corner of the table nearest to him. The young parents turned in behind the blanket partitioning the cabin and when the sunlight wakened them the man was gone, with the johnny–cake. They knew their remaining cake would not last, so they would have to cut their way through the deep drifts to the store. Suddenly the same man stepped in the door, leaned his rifle against the wall and took two long strides to the table, slapping a hindquarter of venison down on the near corner. He left without a word, but great-grandpa was on his feet and had a couple of steaks in the fry pan in moments.
Joan’s grandmother, a third-generation native of Newfoundland, emigrated to Alberta in 1906. She upgraded her education and moved to Morley on the Stoney Reserve in 1908. Living with the John McDougall (son of the famous Methodist missionary George McDougall) family, she taught in the Morley Residential School and played the organ in the historical log church.
Grandma was the kindest, gentlest lady I ever met, and she spoke of her students often, with love. When Joan’s parents bought one of the first televisions in their district in 1954, she never missed viewing the Calgary Stampede, because she recognized most of the natives’ names as they rode by in their beautiful regalia. She would say, ‘Oh, that must be his son! He was the nicest boy…’
Grandma loved to watch the bucking competitions, knowing she would spot certain past students and their progeny, following their careers and rejoicing in their successes. She admired and respected their skill and commiserated with them when they failed. Truly she was an example to me when, as principal of a Calgary inner-city community school. I was in the throes of setting up a native studies program for my students. The project entailed ‘$400 per head’ per native student attending my school. With the expertise of three talented native ladies and first-time government funding for this program, we set up a course that all our students participated in – not only natives but Vietnamese and our minorities: whites and one little black boy.
We did a great deal of careful research while constructing our Marten Beach cottage during the summers. Having become acquainted with several native people, including Walter Twinn, we asked questions about native culture and craft ideas suitable for students K to 9 and all were willing to help.
We also visited the Nakoda Lodge on the Stoney Reserve, and were given suggestions for sleepovers, horseback trail rides, study of medicinal wild plants, poisonous weeds, tanning of hides and beadwork.
Next, in a round-table session – in front of two beautifully arrayed native ladies, two principals and other notables – a functionary from Alberta Education laid our provisos, limiting the funding to natives only, pooh-poohing my reminder that we also had Inuit children, saying ‘There are no Inuits this far south in Alberta.’ I responded to this by offering to have our Inuit nurse identify the Inuit kids in the school.
Pointing out the hard feelings sure to arise were non-indigenous kids left out of field trips and exciting activities did nothing but elicit another negative. I had no choice; I told about the little white boy in our school who had been adopted by a native family, who loved him, gave him a wonderful home and were intent on his receiving a good education. Should he not be allowed into the program?
He snapped, ‘Oh, you can include him I guess.’ That was all I needed. I informed him that he was guilty of blatant racial bias, since this boy was born a paleface, will die a paleface, yet gets the nod while all the other palefaces (plus the little black boy) are shut out. I had qualms about using such terms in the presence of those Stoney ladies, but when he had to back-pedal they turned quietly to me, nodding with approval. The authority lost his patience (which suited me) and stated with strong emphasis. ‘Present the program to all of them then!’
I politely requested that he repeat his statement so everyone around the table would understand all our students, regardless of race, would be offered this valuable opportunity to appreciate our native and Inuit children, plus their culture and traditions.
At last the first busload of excited kids arrived on the Stoney Reserve. The ladies had set up a display of everything from beaded lanyards to deerskin moccasins, and some students had the privilege of fleshing a moose hide and tanning another. As they were departing, one of the ladies picked up a beautiful beaded medallion and matching lanyard, hanging it around the neck of our little black boy. He touched it gently and his eyes filled with tears of joy.
One of the kindest acts I remember was that of a drayman in my home town, who gave up a half day’s salary to drive me the three miles home when I became sick at school and could barely stand up. In bitter winter weather, at age six, I had walked to school. How was I to get home? My teacher held me up to the window to see a wonderful sight – this Métis man, who had arrived driving his spirited team decked with red pom-poms, sleigh bells and pulling a red ‘Santa sleigh.’ He bundled me up in a buffalo robe and we were home in minutes. His daughter Lorraine, in my class, had told her parents at lunch time of my predicament.
I suppose that experience taught me how to show kindness to others, because the June I was 13 (in 1945) I had the privilege of helping a native family from Goodfish Lake, on their way to pick up their three kids from the Red Deer residential school. They were camping during their two-week trip, their tent in the willows around our big slough.
The man saw me walking home from school and asked if he could shoot a duck or two on our slough. I said he should go ahead, my parents wouldn’t mind. He explained that they were glad to make the long trip because, ‘My wife and I don’t have enough money to buy food and clothes for our children, but they get fed there, new clothes every September and medicine if they get sick.’
I fell to thinking about the unconditional help that had already been given to my great-grandparents, grandpa and me. I asked my folks if I could take them some vegetables and if I milked a cow early could I separate the milk and take some to them? (I knew we had to save the cream to sell or have no income during the summer.) They readily assented. When Mr. ____ saw what I brought, he was jubilant. He said, ‘Now we can have a duck each, some potatoes and some milk for supper and some food to take with us.’
Feeling as happy as he, I watched for them to return with the kids in July, then late August on their way back to Red Deer, then mid-September to Goodfish Lake, a tradition that continued until my parents retired from farming in 1952.
Chief of the Saddle Lake Reserve and former Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Ralph Steinhauer was my dad’s close friend; one of my former students, a descendant of Gabriel Dumont is still one of my best memories. I value their friendship, integrity and honesty beyond words.
I have known and respected so many indigenous people during my (practically) 86 years, yet have never met one who spoke of being abused in a residential school. We all know it happened, but not all the schools can be tarred with the same brush. As for harsh or mild discipline, we all experienced it. And we probably deserved it.

Don Calvert
Marten Beach

Share this post

Post Comment