A Mi’kmaw woman who attended a residential school in Nova Scotia for seven years in the 1960s recalls her childhood as a sad one.
Rosemary Paul, who friends and family call Ducy, says she’s been thinking about her past as Friday, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, approached.
“It’s something I don’t really think about every day, I try not to anyway,” Paul said.
Paul attended the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, open from 1930 to 1967.
Nonetheless, her memory was vivid.
“I remember somebody coming to get me, it was a black car,” Paul said. She was at her grandmother’s house when she was taken.
“I remember getting there. It was on a hill, and to me, it looked like a hospital. I thought I was sick or something.”
To the seven-year-old girl at the time, the Shubenacadie Residential School seemed like a massive building. Paul had never seen a nun before that day, either.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
What little was being explained to her was spoken in English. To Paul, that sounded like gibberish; she only spoke Mi’kmaw at the time.
For the next seven years – until the school was shut down – Paul felt alone.
“I went through a lot,” she said.
“We’d be getting up early in the morning, lining up your underwear to show that we didn’t pee in them or anything. I remember saying the rosary, doing our chores before breakfast, having cold showers, cold baths, and then going to school.
“And right from there, they said I couldn’t speak my language. And each time I spoke it I would get a beating.”
She still remembers the food they were given.
“We used to have porridge every morning, it was lumpy and sloppy… But we ate it. If we didn’t, and if we did eat it and threw up, they’d make us eat it — with the throw-up in it.”
Paul said the children did anything to avoid the beatings, which she still remembers.
“I remember being pulled up by my ears every other day, because I wasn’t a smart girl, you know? And the nuns, I guess they didn’t like it if you weren’t smart.”
Her younger sister Freda was brought to Shubenacadie a few years later. Paul didn’t know who she was.
“At the time, they brainwashed you and they told you that you had no family, ‘there’s no one here for you.’”
Eventually, she learned from other children who Freda was, and they bonded.
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“I tried to protect her as best I can, cause of the sexual abuse that we had done to us,” Paul said. “It was hard sometimes, because there was times I couldn’t help her and she couldn’t help me.”
Learning to love again
She remembers her childhood as a sad one.
“My childhood wasn’t a happy childhood there. I always felt sad; I felt alone,” she said.
“They stripped me of love, affection. They stripped me of my family.”
Paul now knows of her eight sisters and two brothers, but they’re not very close because of their childhoods. They only see each other at funerals, she said.
After she left Shubenacadie Residential School in 1967 – only when the school was shut down – she was placed in foster homes, and never went back to her original family.
Paul said abuse and hunger continued in the several foster families she stayed with. “I was skinny… The people I stayed with wouldn’t let me when I wanted to eat.”
That changed when she went to her final foster family, the Bernards in We’koqma’q.
“They were the ones that treated me good, treated me right. I never got no beatings.”
She recalls seeing a jar of peanut butter and fearfully grabbing a spoon.
“I looked around to see if anybody was going to holler at me. I could hear my stepfather saying something in Mi’kmaw. At the time, I didn’t know what he said, but later on, I learned he told my stepmother, ‘let her eat the peanut butter until I was full,’” she said with tears in her eyes. “I ate the whole jar of it, and they never said a word to me.”
Paul described her stepfather as strict, but good.
“He told me, as long as you are in this house, nobody will touch you, nobody will beat you, so don’t ever be scared of that – and it never happened.”
Though she learned to accept kindness from the Bernards, Paul said it was difficult for her to be soft with others.
She was 20 when she had her first child, and soon after she had another. She called it “the greatest gift in the world,” but motherhood wasn’t easy.
“It’s hard for me to talk to them about it because I feel bad because I wasn’t really a good mother,” she admitted.
“At the time, I didn’t know how to be a mother; I didn’t know how to really love. I was a very strict woman, very, very hard on my kids.
“It wasn’t until about 20 years now that I’ve learned to love again, learned to show my affection to my kids.”
Paul spent months relearning Mi’kmaw after leaving the residential school. Having her descendants continuing to learn the language was most important to her.
“In the residential school, we were stripped of all that… they beat us every time we tried to speak (Mi’kmaw),” she said. “I learned how to speak it, and I speak it this to this day. I try to teach my kids,” she said, though confessed it was difficult when they moved to the city and had their own children.
Her family is everything to her, she said. But she still never talked to her children about what she went through.
“All the stuff that happened to me, all the wrong things… I’ve learned to put that behind me.”
‘No faith’ in Catholic Church
In May of 2021, when news came out about the 215 children found in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., those feelings of sadness overwhelmed her.
“It hurt me a lot, that they were discarded — these babies, young kids — just like trash. They didn’t care; none of them really cared.”
It’s estimated that about 150,000 Indigenous children across Canada were forced to attend residential schools between the 1880s when the federal government began funding the church-led program, and 1996 when the last school was shut down. It’s estimated more than 4,000 children had died at the schools.
Paul observed the historic apology of Pope Francis in July, but she did not accept it.
“He never did nothing for me, except make me hate the Catholic Church,” she said.
“I was taught I had to say the rosary every day, every day go to church.. and (it) never made no sense to me… I don’t have faith in the Catholic Church at all, I’m sorry.”
She said she believes the Church has not acknowledged the full extent of what was done to Indigenous children at the church-led schools.
Though it’s hard for her to talk about it, Paul said she’s sharing her story because she wants people to know.
“We never made it up… We all had our stories, some worse than others.
“I would just like the people to know what really happened there, and accept that wrongdoings that were done to us really happened,” Paul said.
“I’m thankful I survived.”