‘They tried to extinguish us’: Sḵwx̱wú7mesh elder shares healing from residential school

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised

Elder Sam George’s voice doesn’t waver as he points himself out in a black and white photo of First Nations children, standing on the doorsteps of St. Paul’s Residential School in the 1950s.

A seasoned speaker, elder, sundance chief and counsellor, he has years of practice sharing his experience at the North Vancouver institution, which he attended from the ages of seven to 14.

“These sweaters were really neat,” he tells Global News, choosing to vocalize a lighthearted memory as his finger passes over one of the nuns who abused him.

“We used them every time we went out and people always really liked them. It was our school colours – red and white.”

Almost everyone in the front row of the photo is now gone, he adds matter-of-factly, sitting in the living room of his home in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw, or Squamish Nation in English.

Sam George and his brother Andy appear in a photo at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver in the early 1950s. George attended the school from the ages of seven to 14. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

There are other moments of levity in the dark years that defined most of George’s childhood and adult life, from the time he stole heaps of candy from the nuns at St. Paul’s without discovery, to the party where he smoked a joint with Jimi Hendrix, unknowingly, many years later.


No details are glossed over in his new memoir, The Fire Still Burns, which shares his journey of healing and self-love with astonishing candor, and is dedicated to “all those who didn’t make it.”

“I’ve taken myself back, my good self,” George says of the decision to bare his soul in print, with help from three creative writing students and their instructor at Langara College in Vancouver.

“They tried to extinguish me – all of us – but there was always that little belief in there that I belong.

“Although I tried to walk away from it … when it was time to come back, everything just came up. The fire’s still in there, the flame.”

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Click to play video: 'Sḵwx̱wú7mesh elder shares healing from residential school in new memoir'
Sḵwx̱wú7mesh elder shares healing from residential school in new memoir

Learning how to hate

Canada’s residential school system was a sophisticated tool of genocide run by the federal government and multiple Christian religious orders for more than 150 years.

Some 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families to be assimilated in the prison-like facilities. Countless among them suffered unthinkable physical, sexual and spiritual violence, and unknown thousands never returned home.

At 78 years old, George is one of the last survivors of the St. Paul’s school, which operated from 1899 to 1959 – the only such institution in what is now the greater Vancouver area.

He was taken from a loving home, filled with the smell of his grandmother’s frybread and the sound of laughter from stories shared in the Squamish language. He slept around the wood stove with his siblings and hunted with his father for the last time around 1951.

Within the walls of St. Paul’s, George was robbed of his language and his traditional name, Tseatsultux, which was replaced by a designated number: Three.

Click to play video: 'Tsleil-Waututh take pilgrimage along North Vancouver residential school route'
Tsleil-Waututh take pilgrimage along North Vancouver residential school route

He survived malnutrition, sickness, abuse, and the disappearance or death under mysterious circumstances of other children. In his memoir, the chapter titled, “A Girl Named Pearl, a Boy Named Charlie” ensures those little ones are not forgotten.

“Charlie was like my little brother,” George recalls, his hands resting against a black Harley-Davidson sweater and his signature bear claw necklace.

“He followed me all over in school. He was four or five. He probably knew how to do his own shoes, but I put his shoes on.”

For a brief time, caring for Charlie – George’s “puppy” – brought him some measure of comfort and happiness, he writes. Charlie died, however, a short time after arriving at St. Paul’s, his passing attributed by nuns to a tumor in his brain.

George later learned that the day before Charlie was taken to the hospital, one of the nuns had thrown him down the stairs.

“He was an innocent little boy who was hurt by a grown woman who felt she was entitled to do so by God,” he says in the memoir.

“Whenever people ask me what I learned at that school, my answer remains the same: I learned how to steal, I learned how to lie, I learned how to mistrust, and I learned how to hate.”

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Elder Sam George reads from his new memoir, The Fire Still Burns, at his home on unceded Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw territory in North Vancouver on Thurs. April 20, 2023. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

Coming back to culture

George tried to escape St. Paul’s twice, at ages nine and 12. He was brought back each time in handcuffs and made to kneel in front of the other students as he was sorely beaten.


When he was finally allowed to return home as a teenager, he was so full of anger and enmity, only substance use could fill the void.

“I had religion beaten into me,” George describes, peering through his tinted square-framed glasses.

“I liked it in jail because it was better than residential school. I was already institutionalized … I was so used to that, already groomed for that.”

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George had served a little over half of his seven-year sentence for a life-threatening assault on his brother. After his release – and practically still a teenager – he embarked on what would become a decades-long career as a longshoreman, interrupted only by a handful of trips to rehabilitation.

He married four times after at least 10 engagements – “I wanted people to be miserable with me,” he writes in the book.

For decades, George says he was unable to link his destructive behaviour with the trauma of residential school. At a treatment centre on Vancouver Island, he was forced to write it all down and confront his “dysfunctional self” in front of counsellors who called “bullshit” on his excuses.

He says he realized that because he felt unloved at residential school, he didn’t love himself, and connected the dots between his pain and the alcohol he used to mask it. He returned to his community, its sacred practices and places.

“I started going back to my longhouse. It played a big role in my healing journey, my culture,” he says gently, as rain trickles down his living room window.

With treatment and support, after years of working to understand his pain and anger, Elder Sam George is clean and sober. He now works to support others in their own path to healing. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

Bureaucracy delaying meaningful change

George’s multigenerational home on Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw is a vibrant representation of that culture, filled with Coast Salish woodwork, weaving and textiles.

Tobacco and a smudge bowl sit on the buffet hutch. Family photos and artwork made from hide and bone adorn the walls, while the mantel above the fireplace is propped up by totem poles.

It’s a showcase of everything residential school tried to snuff out of him.

Now retired, he has spent years helping others navigate their healing journeys. He was a drug and alcohol counsellor for his union local, and in the ‘90s, worked as an elder at one of the treatment centres he’d attended himself.

“I’m no longer that person,” George says proudly. “I’m happy where I went, where I’ve been – not the life I led – but happy that I found something else.”

Click to play video: 'Reconciliation in 2022: What’s changed and what hasn’t'
Reconciliation in 2022: What’s changed and what hasn’t

He’s accustomed to sharing his story now, but the first time he ever revealed every gruesome detail of it was with a lawyer during the residential school settlement process in the early 2000s. He didn’t participate in the years-long, fact-finding Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed, calling it “a lot of government words.”

Even today, bureaucracy continues to hamper meaningful change, George adds, particularly when federal officials engage communities in consultation.

“Usually they’re coming, then they’ve got to go back to somebody, then that somebody’s got to go back to somebody else. In my mind, I think it gets lost along the way.

“Some people are trying,” he adds. “Not as much as I’d like to see, but it is happening.”


George says his hope for the next generation is complete self-determination and independence from colonial Canada. He’s encouraged by what he’s seeing, from Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth alike.

“I appreciate them,” he says of the Langara students who helped him write the memoir, building off a draft he had written long ago.

“They brought up some stuff, and I’d get into it – stuff I’d forgotten. They asked a lot of good questions. We spent a couple of hours together and that’s what came out.”

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Elder Sam George stands with three of four co-authors on his new memoir, The Fire Still Burns, on Thurs. April 20, 2023. Pictured are (left to right) Langara College instructor Jill Yonit Goldberg and students Dylan MacPhee and Tanis Wilson. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

Relationship-based reconciliation

The Fire Still Burns, published by Purich Books, will celebrate its formal launch on June 3 at the Chief Joe Mathias Community Centre in North Vancouver. It’s a product of Langara’s “Writing Lives” course, where George was invited to speak four years ago.

Taught by Jill Yonit Goldberg, the course focuses on Indigenous literature, trauma-informed interviewing technique, and pairing students with elders and survivors to write memoirs for presentation at the end of the school year.

George and his student partners – Liam Belson, Dylan MacPhee and Tanis Wilson – took it one step further, and with help from Goldberg, turned his memoir into a published book. All five feel The Fire Still Burns is an example of what relationship-based reconciliation can achieve.

“Anytime you build a relationship, if you build it in the right way, you feel accountable to it,” says Goldberg.

“You feel a kind of obligation to treat the other people that you’re in a relationship with right. You feel love, you feel a desire to seek justice for the people that you’re in a relationship with, and if anything, that is the most important thing that I hope comes out of the class.”

Click to play video: 'Langara student talks about settler responsibility to learn Indigenous history'
Langara student talks about settler responsibility to learn Indigenous history

The group spent many hours over the course of four years together, interviewing, note-taking, writing, and editing.

MacPhee, who is now studying psychology at the University of British Columbia, says hearing and sharing George’s story will inform the way he eventually practices as a counsellor.

“You’re on the land where these things happened. You can still see the impacts of it. It’s something that I carry with me all the time and it’s ever-present,” MacPhee explains.

“If you are a settler in Canada, I feel as though you have a responsibility to learn these histories … and in my mind, when you learn those histories, you have to work to affect change.”

Wilson, a citizen of Constance Lake First Nation in northeastern Ontario, says she signed up for Writing Lives because she felt it aligned with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

“I’ve known my whole life about the residential school system. My family’s been impacted by it, so I just really felt it would be a good opportunity to help an elder get his story out on paper.”

George’s story helped solidify her resolve to pursue a career in social work, she adds, and she thinks it will help bring healing and encouragement to Indigenous men who are also suffering from “generational curses.”


“Canada, from the get-go, wanted to steal our identities as Indigenous people, but they could never, ever do it,” Wilson says, wearing a bright blue ribbon skirt and beaded eagle earrings.

“So Indigenous men need to be reminded of who they are, that they carry the blood of warriors, and that no matter what Canada says to them and speaks into their life, it is lies, it is not true, and they can and they will overcome it.”

Click to play video: '‘The blood of warriors’: Student reflects on co-authoring residential school survivor’s memoir'
‘The blood of warriors’: Student reflects on co-authoring residential school survivor’s memoir

Collaboration in collecting survivor stories

In 2008, when former prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologized for the federal government’s role in residential schools, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimated about 80,000 survivors were still alive.

Today, staff at the organization that’s been charged with preserving the record of human rights abuses entrenched in the harrowing system believe less than half that number remain.

As with survivors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, the centre’s Kaila Johnston says there’s a sense of “urgency” to collect residential school survivors’ stories, like George’s, before they disappear. The task is made even more urgent, she adds, as more and more suspected unmarked graves are detected at former residential school grounds across the country.

“We have to work with the collection of records, which are spotty and missing, which might not have all the information needed to locate those missing children or unmarked burials,” Johnston, supervisor of education, outreach and public programming, tells Global News in a video interview from her office in Winnipeg.

“And really, what fills those gaps is connecting with communities and community members who may be carrying that knowledge, who might not have had that opportunity to share.”

The “small but mighty” centre team is doing all it can to collect and honour the stories of survivors, but Johnston acknowledged they “can’t do it all ourselves.” She applauded the collaboration between George and Langara College for helping fill in the gaps.

“I absolutely love the community involvement and really seeing the younger generation get paired with our older generations, not only to collect that information, but also to safeguard it and preserve it for future use,” Johnston says, wearing an orange T-shirt for the “Every Child Matters” movement.

“Unfortunately, we’ve lost a great number of individuals who had great histories, stories and experiences … so the more that we can get our school groups and clubs and organizations involved in this, the greater we can safeguard and collect that history.”

Click to play video: 'National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation feels ‘sense of urgency’ to collect survivor stories'
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation feels ‘sense of urgency’ to collect survivor stories

A life story of lessons

When George learned that more than 200 suspected unmarked graves had been found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site in May 2021, he travelled to Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc with his two sons to mourn and pray for Le Estcwéy̓, the missing children.


He was almost sent to that school, he writes in the memoir, but it was full at the time.

After his visit, he made a second pilgrimage to cemetery on his reserve. He wanted to visit Charlie’s grave, and found that it was still there, untouched.

All these years later, George says it’s difficult to see another school occupying the space, calling it “just another ripoff” of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh land. He hopes anyone who reads his memoir finds a few lessons within it.

“I know I’m not the last of the residential school (survivors). There’s some I know that are younger than me and they’re still suffering,” he says softly.

“Hopefully, maybe they’ll pick it up and read and say, ‘Okay, I can change too. I can do this. I’ve been there.’”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers culturally competent counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous Peoples experiencing trauma, distress, strong emotions and painful memories. The line can be reached anytime toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.