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‘No one is exempt’: Former B.C. residential school caretakers on truth and reconciliation

A plaque is seen outside of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C. on Thursday, May 27, 2021. Andrew Snucins / The Canadian Press

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

Sept. 30 marks the first federal Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada.

It is a day many have fought to have, to help recognize the ongoing trauma experienced by so many Indigenous people in Canada in the residential school system.

For two former residential school caretakers, it is an important day to honour and learn from those who survived the residential schools.

Dan Rubenstein and Nancy Dyson, originally from the U.S. but who now live in Ottawa, worked at a residential school in Alert Bay, B.C. in 1970.

They worked at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School for four months but what they saw shocked them and their view of Canada forever.

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

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The couple eventually wrote a book about their time at the school, where Rubenstein was in charge of 25 little boys and Dyson was in charge of 18 teenage girls.

They hope their story will shed light on the horrors of the residential school system and how Canadians can start to begin to help that healing process for Indigenous people.

“What I’m coming to think just in the last couple of days, is that for most of non-Indigenous people, up really to 2015, we were really in a form of passive, what I call passive denial,” Rubenstein told Global News, adding that it can be hard for people to connect emotionally with what happened because it is still so raw and difficult for survivors to speak about.

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“And also, is it their job to educate us?” he said.

Sept. 30 coincides with Orange Shirt Day, described by the federal government as “an Indigenous-led grassroots commemorative day” that encourages the wearing of an orange shirt in honour of Indian residential school survivors and the thousands of Indigenous children who never came home.

For Rubenstein and Dyson, they hope Canadians will at least “stop and reflect” on what the day means.

“To really reflect and be open and to really open up their hearts to feel,” Rubenstein said.

“Because what we’re seeing is the link between comprehension and feeling the truth and then the reconciliation.

“No one is exempt from this conversation about the residential schools — not new Canadians, not Canadians that were just born in the last 10, 15 years, not those Canadians that have ancestors that that were alive during the reign of the residential schools and those they didn’t know about it.”

Dyson added that while they have seen people find excuses not to want to take part in the discussions, they feel “everyone needs to be involved in this conversation.”

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But as British Columbians pause and mark Sept. 30, the key is going to be sustaining the momentum going forward.

“This is an uncomfortable space,” Dyson said.

“Sometimes when something (is) very emotional, something (is) very important, yes, there will be different opinions and there may be anger and resentment. And yes, you don’t walk away from that. You stay in that uncomfortable space and keep working things through.”

The couple was newly married when they worked at the school.

When a petition was circulated in the community of Alert Bay for someone from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs to come and visit the school and see what was going on, they supported it and spoke out about what they had seen.

While Dyson had already resigned, Rubenstein was fired.

The school was eventually closed in 1974.

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“What can people do for this day of recognition?” Rubenstein asked. “Well, be prepared to move out of your comfort zone. Nancy was saying this year we move out of the comfort zone because it’s really hard to reconcile our views of how we’d like Canada to be with what happened in the school system.

“And you’re going to be uncomfortable if you really accept the truth and get used to that and engage in some difficult conversations.”

Dyson said they know they are by no means experts on Indigenous issues but they have an outsider’s perspective on what happened at a residential school.

She said they are sad they haven’t heard from any former students since their book was published but they were contacted by a woman whose dad was the principal at the school from 1929 to 1942 and they are interested to see if he ever talked about his job.

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.

They suggested if everyone took 30 hours over the next year to study and learn about an important Indigenous issue and talk to Indigenous people, that maybe a person could find some way to be an ally.

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“Rejoice in being an ally,” Rubenstein said. “It’s a privilege.”

He said the Truth and Reconciliation report isn’t just about the truth of what happened but it’s also about finding that way forward.

“The roadmap is there, and let’s embrace it with heart, embrace it as a worthwhile and wonderful thing to do.”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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