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‘The children were dehumanized’: Former caretakers at B.C. residential school share their story

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Warning: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.

It has been 51 years since Dan Rubenstein and Nancy Dyson worked at a residential school in Alert Bay, B.C.

But while time has passed and the school crumbled into ruin, eventually being demolished in 2015, their memories of what they saw have never been forgotten.

In 1970, Rubenstein and Dyson were newlyweds and in search of adventure.

After travelling from the east coast of the United States and eventually making their way to B.C., the couple fell in love with Canada.

“By the time we arrived in Vancouver, we had a sense that Canada was much more benign, much more a cohesive society than the U.S. because Vietnam was raging and there were protests,” Dyson told Global News. “And we’ve been involved in protests and we thought Canada’s so calm and compassionate and cohesive. Let’s stay here a while.”

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They knew they needed jobs so after looking around for a while they were hired as child-care workers at the Alert Bay Student Residence.

The school had changed its name one year earlier after being taken over by the federal government.

It was previously known as St. Michael’s Indian Residential School.

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The first school buildings were built at the site in 1893, on small Cormorant Island, near the town of Port McNeill on northeast Vancouver Island.

Over the years it grew in size and attendance, eventually hitting peak enrolment in 1959 with 228 children in residence, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

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From its inception in 1893, the school was managed by a number of church organizations and from 1929 to 1969, it was managed by the Missionary Society of the Church of England in Canada (MSCC), which later changed its name to the Missionary Society of the Anglican Church of Canada.

From April 1, 1969, and when Rubenstein and Dyson were hired there, until its closure in December 1974, the school was administered by the federal government.

“We had no experience working with children,” Dyson said. “We did not have any understanding of Indigenous history in Canada, nor in the U.S., for that matter. So we really didn’t know what we were getting into.

“And within a day or two, our sense that Canada was a benign country was really upended, shattered.”

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Nancy Dyson and children from St. Michael’s watching preparations for the potlatch, Alert Bay, B.C., 1970. (COURTESY: DAN RUBENSTEIN)
Nancy Dyson and children from St. Michael’s watching preparations for the potlatch, Alert Bay, B.C., 1970. (COURTESY: DAN RUBENSTEIN).

Dyson and Rubenstein were hired to be child-care workers at the school so their responsibilities included making sure the children got up on time, ate breakfast and made it to school, and then they would pick them up and look after them in the evenings and on weekends.

The children attended either the elementary school in Alert Bay or the high school a ferry ride away in Port McNeill.

“My most vivid memory of the school was in the mornings you go in there and all the 25 little boys would wet their beds every night,” Rubenstein said.

“So I go in and just take all the linen and get it down to the laundry, then get the kids down to breakfast, get them back and make sure that they had clean clothes out of their lockers, then walk them to the school, get them there around nine or so, and then we’d be off duty to when we brought them back to the school and me and others organized activities.

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“There wasn’t much for them after school and then (we’d) take them to dinner and then get them ready for bed.”

Dyson, who was in charge of 18 teenage girls, remembers vividly their first day on the job.

“The very first day, the matron who is in charge of the girls led us to a subbasement of the school, and there we waited until an Indian agent came with four little children — two little girls and two little boys — and she had a white apron,” Dyson recalled.

“Then she put a rubber apron over that and she picked up a pair of heavy shears and she cut the children’s hair and she cut their clothing. And there they stood, shorn and naked, and she gathered up the hair in the clothing and she threw them into the firebox in this enormous boiler.”

She said the children were absolutely terrified and when they asked the matron if this was necessary, Dyson said she took one look at them and said “lice.”

“That was it, and the dehumanization started there,” Dyson said.

“The children didn’t cry, they just looked down, but they trembled and then she put them in showers and most of them weren’t accustomed to showers. They had baths, but not showers. There was a galvanized pipe with showerheads and she used a very harsh shampoo on their heads. And on their little bodies, it had to be painful.”

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She said they wrapped the children in towels and tried to comfort them, saying, “It’s OK, it’s OK.”

“It was not OK. And I tried to put out my hand to them. And of course, they just hung their arms at their sides. Why would they trust us?”

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According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, 15 children were documented to have died at the school over the years.

When Dyson and Rubenstein heard about the findings of the remains of 215 children at the former site of the Kamloops residential school a few weeks ago, they said it was shocking and awful but they were not terribly surprised.

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“Where children go to schools, you expect records, you expect oversight by the superintendent of education,” Rubenstein said. “You expect that parents know every day what happens to their kids when they come home. And if there’s a problem, they get on the phone, you know, but there’s none of that there. There was absolutely no oversight.”

He said even when the federal government took over in 1969, there was minimal supervision from what they could see about what went on at the school and there were no procedures or protocols in place.

Dyson and Rubenstein recalled seeing many incidents of punishment being administered at the school for things like children playing together and speaking their Indigenous language or drawing memories of their home and culture.

One night they said they learned a 12-year-old boy had slipped out, filled his pockets with rocks and walked into the ocean. Two fishermen saw him and pulled him out and one of the girls in Dyson’s care ran back to the school to get help.

Dyson said she didn’t know why one of her girls was down on the beach at the time and that’s when she found out some of the girls went down the fire escape at night and prostituted themselves on the docks.

“They wanted money for jeans and T-shirts and lipstick and modern things,” Dyson said.

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She said two boys tried to hang their puppy one day and luckily a janitor found him and cut him down in time.

“That wasn’t surprising because children who are treated with cruelty learned to bestow cruelty on others,” Dyson added.

“So all along, we questioned, we protested, and we were told that we were very naive. We did not know what we were doing.

“The staff repeatedly told us discipline, discipline, discipline — that’s what children need.”

Nancy Dyson with Watsi on the ferry to Alert Bay, B.C., 1970. (COURTESY: DAN RUBENSTEIN)
Nancy Dyson with Watsi on the ferry to Alert Bay, B.C., 1970. (COURTESY: DAN RUBENSTEIN).
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After the couple had been at the school for a few months, a petition started to circulate in town asking for someone from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to come and visit the school and see what was going on.

Dyson and Rubenstein supported the petition and then in December 1970, three men came for a visit.

“The three men asked if they could speak with staff without the administrator being present,” Dyson said. “And then when we were alone, they said, ‘Do you have any concerns?’ And no one else on staff spoke up. But Dan and I had a list that we had prepared with elders and others in the community.

“So we read the concerns, the lack of medical history, the lack of educational, historical history, records, the lack of records about where the children were from with their siblings, where were their parents, what languages they spoke, which traditions their families followed, which different tribes they come from, nations, bands and the poor food and the discipline.

“Well, the other staff were very angry with us for reading our list of concerns, and they were particularly upset when Dan ended by summarizing that the school was an instrument of cultural genocide.”

After just four months at the school, Dyson and Rubenstein were fired.

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They moved to Sointula on neighbouring Malcolm Island and said they tried to keep in contact with some of the children but it was difficult.

The school was eventually closed in 1974.

“We thought, that’s great. That’s the end of this terrible era, the residential school,” Dyson said.

But of course, it wasn’t.

In 2015, Rubenstein travelled to Ottawa to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and after hearing stories from some of the survivors of the schools, all the memories of their short time in Alert Bay came flooding back and Rubenstein said that’s when he knew he had to try and tell their story as few employees of these former schools ever have.

“I came back and shared this with Nancy and said, ‘Are you willing to tell it?'” Rubenstein said.

“And it started off as just sitting down and writing it. And then we tried to contact the children we had worked with. That was very sad because one person after another said most of those children are dead. And that was such a stark statement that some had died of suicide, some have addictions.”

The couple has also worked with Chief Robert Joseph of Reconciliation Canada, himself a survivor of St. Michael’s Residential School as he was a student there in the 1950s.

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Their book, St. Michael’s Residential School: Lament and Legacy, is now available at local book shops, Chapters and Amazon.

All of the royalties from the book will be donated to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.

“The churches raised money for these schools by printing little brochures about these happy children and how productive they were and, you know, photographing the dormitories where the children were, just rows of metal beds and quilts that were made by the church ladies,” Dyson recalled.

“They’re colourful, but they were just thin cotton and they were all the same. The children had nothing personal. These children didn’t have even a feather or a rock or a shell or anything or anywhere to put those things.

“They were dehumanized.”

Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.

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