In their words: What residential school survivors told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
WATCH: Eric Sorensen has the history of residential schools in Canada and the painful memories that still haunt the survivors.
Warning: Some readers may find this content disturbing.
Alongside 94 recommendations, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a volume of harrowing tales some survivors shared about their time at residential schools. Through the voices of some of the 6,2000 former students the commission spoke with, the 260-page book details the abuse, the neglect and the stripping of their roots.
Here is a sampling of what some survivors shared.
Life before residential schools
We were loved by our parents.
“There’s a lot of things that are really, that are still in my thoughts of how we were loved by our parents. They really cared for us. And it was such a good life, you know.”
— Bob Baxter, Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Thunder Bay, Ont., 24 November 2010
“There was no drinking. There was, it was, like, it was a small sized cabin, and my parents took good care of us. And they were really, I remember those happy days, like there was no violence.”
— Lynda Pahpasay McDonald, who lived with her family near Sydney Lake, Ont., in the 1950s
“I was very close to my mother. Her and I were, I was just attached to her like, I loved my mother and I knew she loved me. Same with my father, he showed it in different ways. He was a very quiet man, but his actions spoke volumes.”
— Emily Kematch, born in 1953 in York Factory, Man.
Leaving their home and family
Her face, it was kind of sad but mad too.
“I looked outside, my mom was, you know, flailing her arms, and, and I, and she must have been crying, and I see my dad grabbing her, and, I was wondering why, why my mom was, you know, she was struggling.”
— Lynda Pahpasay McDonald, who was four or five when she was taken by plane from her parents’ home
“You know what the Mounties, the priest, the Indian agents told me? They told me, if I don’t, if I resist too much then they would take the other younger, younger brother and younger, younger children … It was not a choice.”
— Albert Marshall, telling the commission about his father’s reaction to sending him away
“My mother opened the letter and I could see her face; I could see her face, it was kind of sad but mad too. She said to me, ‘I have to let you go,’ she told us. So we had to, go to, go to school at Spanish Residential School.”
— Josephine Eshkibok, who was eight years old when a priest came to her home with a letter for her mother
“I look at the residential school issue, you know, I saw, you know, physically, I guess, better than what I experienced at the reserve. On the reserve I had a very abusive dad, my dad was abusive, physically abusive, and we lived in a little log cabin and we didn’t have regular meals.”
— A former student who sent his daughter to a residential school
Arriving at the schools
As soon we entered the residential school, the abuse started right away.
“After I was taken there they took off my clothes and then they deloused me … ‘the dirty, no-good-for-nothing savages, lousy.’ And then they cut off my beautiful hair. You know and my hair, my hair represents such a spiritual significance of my life and my spirit … You know and I cried and I see them throw my hair into a garbage can, my long, beautiful braids.”
— Campbell Papequash, who was taken to a residential school in 1946 after his grandfather, who was raising him, died
“You know, to get stripped like that by a female … it was embarrassing, humiliating. And, and then she’d have this, you know, look or whatever it was in her eyes, eh, you know. And then she would comment about your private parts and stuff like that, eh, like, say, ‘Oh, what a cute peanut,’ and you know, just you know kind of rub you down there, and, and then, you know, just her eyes, the way she looked.”
— Brian Rae told the commission said a female employee gave a physical exam to him and the other boys at the Fort Frances, Ont., school
“As soon we entered the residential school, the abuse started right away. We were stripped, taken up to a dormitory, stripped. Our hair was sprayed.… We were told we were little, stupid savages, and that they had to educate us.”
— Elaine Durocher, who was at the Roman Catholic school in Kamsack, Sask.
Losing their culture and heritage
“A sister, a nun started talking to me in English and French, and yelling at me. I did not speak English, and didn’t understand what she, what she was asking. She got very upset, and started hitting me all over my body, hands, legs and back. I began to cry, yell, and became very scared, and this infuriated her more. She got a black strap and hit me some more.”
— Marcel Guiboche
“The only way I got by was my friend Sally taught me words, ‘this is how you say, say words.’ She taught me what to do so I wouldn’t get into trouble and we weren’t allowed to cry. If we cried, we got spanked.”
— Emily Kematch, who grew up speaking Cree in northern Manitoba
Emotional, verbal and physical abuse
I learned the fear, how to be so fearful at six years old.
“We had no place to drink water, and we had a little … bathroom there. And I was one of them that drank water from the toilet bowl, because I was caught by the matron, and after that they just locked it.”
— Ron Windsor, telling the commission that students at his school were denied access to water at night
“Every day was, you were in constant fear that, your hope was that it wasn’t you today that were going to, that was going to be the target, the victim.”
— Timothy Henderson, who attended two different schools in Manitoba
“I learned the fear, how to be so fearful at six years old. It was instilled in me. I was scared and fearful all the time, and that stayed with me throughout my life.”
— Shirley Waskewitch who was in Kindergarten in Onion Lake, Sask.
We had to weep silently. You were not allowed to cry.
“You hear children crying at bedtime, you know. But all that time, you know, you know we had to weep silently. You were not allowed to cry, and we were in fear that we, as nobody to hear us, you know. If one child was caught crying, eh, oh, everybody was in trouble … they hit you between your legs, or pull you out of bed by the hair … Homesickness was your constant companion besides hunger, loneliness, and fear.”
— Paul Dixon, who attended schools in Québec and Ontario
“When I first got hit by the nuns, it was really devastating ’cause how can they hit me when my parents didn’t hit me, you know?”
— Isabelle Whitford, who said she’d never been physically disciplined before attending a residential school
“I saw my brother with his face held to a hot steaming pipe and then getting burned on the arm by the supervisor. And I took my brother, tried to get him out of there. And I saw my cousin get beat up to the point where he was getting kicked where he couldn’t even walk and then it was my turn. I got beat so bad that I wet my pants.”
— Fred Brass said his years at the residential school in Kamsack, Sask., were “hellish”
“They tied him by his ankles and they tied him to the [heat] register and they put him out the window with a broomstick handle shoved up his ass. And I witnessed that.”
— Raynie Tuckanow said he witnessed staff committing acts of abuse
“I fought back and fought back and I don’t know how long it was, I just fought and pretty soon he just, I don’t know what he did, he had restrained me somehow. And when that happened, he had sexually abused me, he penetrated me and I was just, all I remember was just a pain. A pain was just strong. It was really hurtful and I remember that day after that I was a very, very angry kid.”
— Richard Morrison, a student at residential school in the 1960s, recalling what happened after he was called into a change room
“After they got to know us, they started making us touch their penis for candy. So not only were we going to church to pray, and go to catechism, but we were also going to church ’cause they were giving us candy for touching them. We didn’t have money.”
— Elaine Durocher on being coerced into sexual activities
I always blamed the residential school for killing my brother.
“Even though a lot of times once somebody caught something and it spread in the whole school like wildfire, and they would just more or less, we had to live out whatever it is that we caught, whether it’s measles, mumps, sores, bedbugs, all that kind of stuff, we just had to live with it.”
—Roger Cromarty on not being able to recall a doctor visiting the Sioux Lookout school during his seven years there
“I always blamed the residential school for killing my brother. Dalton was his name. I never, I never, I never ever forgave them. I don’t know whether my dad and mother ever knew how he died, but I never found out. But I know that he died over there. They allowed me to [go] and see him once before he died, and he didn’t even know me. He was a little guy, laying in the bed in the infirmary, dying, and I didn’t know ’til he died. You know that’s, that was the end of my education.”
— Ray Silver, blaming the residential school staff for his brother’s death
Students resorting to suicide
“I must have been about 11, 12 years old, and I remember … and I had a plan, I was gonna go steal some Aspirins, which I did. I can’t remember what store it was, and, you know, later on that night I, I took a whole bunch of them, and I remember, you know, going to sleep, and then I remember the next morning, you know, someone waking me up, but I couldn’t hear them, because there was that really loud buzzing in my ears … I could remember the supervisor, you know, telling me, you know, ‘You’re just not wanting to go to school today,’ you know, ‘You’re just pretending to be sick.’ And she sent me off to see the nurse. And on my way I, you know, threw up, and it was all brown, and so I went and seen the nurse on the top floor, and same thing, too, she says, ‘You need to get to school. There’s nothing wrong with you.’ So that was, you know, the first time in my life that I attempted suicide, and, you know, just at a young age.”
— Elizabeth Joyce Brass, talking about an attempted suicide during the 1960s at a school in Manitoba
“I remember the one young fellow that hung himself in the gym, and they brought us in there, and showed, showed us, as kids, and they just left him hanging there, and, like, what was that supposed to teach us?”
— Antonette White, recalling the staff at the school in British Columbia forcing the students to look at a suicide victim
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