EXCERPT: Life in Residential School

The year I turned six, it was my turn to start school. I can clearly remember
the sound of my mother pouring the water into the galvanized tub until it
was full. The room was warm from the stove as she heated the water. She
gently picked me up and placed me into the tub that she normally used to
hand wash our clothes. The warmness of the water was soothing to my
body as it trickled down my skin. As my mother scrubbed me, I repeatedly
questioned, “Ma, where am I going?”

She was silent for several minutes, scrubbing me gently with her
hard-working hands until I was squeaky clean. She wrapped me in a towel
and gave me new clothes to put on (underwear, dress, socks and shoes).
She dried my hair and put it into pigtails. Then she said quietly, “To school
with the rest of the kids.”

I returned her answer with a full-sized smile and said, “Oh, goody,
I can go with the kids.

Am I one of the big kids now? I get to go with the big kids.” I was so excited to get my new clothes and to be going to school with my older brothers
and sister. I felt so proud that I had graduated from babyhood. It made me smile. I honestly could not understand the puzzled looks I received from my
brothers and sister; I wondered why they did not seem to share this excitement with me.

My mother remained quiet. It was her choice to have all of us clean with new clothes, along with new socks and shoes before entering the school. Dad helped by giving my brothers haircuts. This became a yearly tradition for our family. We travelled by boat to catch the train to go to the school. Everyone remained quiet except for me. I repeatedly said, “I am going to school … I am going to school!”

As we waited for the big black train to come and pick us up, everyone
remained silent. You would think we were attending a funeral. I could
hear the whistle of the train as it rounded the bend. The sound of it was
something that echoed throughout my head. I became hesitant of where
I was going and clung to my mother’s leg. I was afraid of the big steam
engine that was coming to pick us up. It was huge.

After boarding the train, my brothers and sisters quietly greeted other
students they knew who were also on their way to school. It was confusing
and scary. The children on the train all talked in whispers to each other.
I still could not understand why everyone was so silent. I sensed something
was not right. It seemed I was the only one who talked as I glanced at the
scenery. The leaves were turning colours; summer was soon disappearing.
The train ride to Fort Frances did not last long. When we approached Fort
Frances, we took a taxi to the residential school.

As I neared the big white building, I became breathless and scared.
I finally realized I was going to be left behind. I clung to my mother with
both arms, hoping she would rescue me. I cried, “Ma, can I go home with
you? Please . . .?”

She replied in a faint voice, “No, you have to go to school.”

I wondered why I was supposed to go, but I didn’t ask questions.
I became confused: scared in my own shell. I could not understand why
there was so much sadness and silence. Why was everyone so quiet?
I sensed something was wrong but how could I understand what residential
school meant?

The school building could only be described as a huge mountain compared to what I was used to living in back home. It had three floors—four
including the basement. I was so used to living in a small two-bedroom
home. As I went up the outside steps to the second floor, my heart began
beating faster and louder. I became very frightened and felt like I wanted
to runaway, but that was impossible. Where could I go? I turned to my
mother and begged her not to leave me there.

“Ma, please, I don’t want to go . . . please, Ma!” I started to cry and
scream while clinging to my mother’s dress. I continually pleaded with her
to not leave me there. Crying usually worked and I would get my way. This
time it did not. I continued to beg, “Please, Ma, take me back home. I don’t
want to be here. Please, Ma, I’ll be good. Please take me home. Ma . . . Ma,
I wanna go home! Please, Ma . . . Ma . . .” With a crack in her voice, she
hopelessly answered, “I have to leave you here, but I’ll be back.” My mother
acted like she did not hear my desperate pleads, and she silently walked me
to the doors. She gave me a big hug and kisses and abruptly left the building
as someone, called a nun, grabbed my arm and pulled me away from my
mother. I continued to cry, “Ma! Ma, please don’t leave me! Ma . . . Ma!”

But my mother continued to walk away. She disappeared into nowhere as
the school doors slammed behind me, and the sound echoed down the halls.
I do not think I was capable of understanding, as I was only six. My
mother became distant and shut her feelings as she left me. How could she
explain to me—a six-year-old—what was going to happen to me? This
was a hopeless situation for both of us. A mother giving up her child to
strangers is one of the hardest things to do, and I would soon know what
alone meant.

The priests and nuns who ran and maintained the residential school
did not comfort me. Instead they were upset because I was crying. I was
scared of the priests and nuns and their dark attire. This was the first time
I had ever seen someone dress like that. They did not look human to me.
The priests wore black pants and a black shirt with a white circle around
their necks. The nuns covered their body with black material from head
to toe and wore a white apron. It made them looked like penguins afraid
to reveal their true nature.

A priest took my brothers to the boy side of the building. I cried out as
they were leaving, “Joseph, John, help me! I don’t wanna . . . go . . . help
me! Elmer, help me please. Get Ma. I don’t wanna go.” But all my crying
did not help. Silence had taken over, as I felt my family was deserting me.
The boys unwillingly went to their side of the building.
A nun took Anne and me to the girl’s side. There, Anne was directed
to the big-girl side of the school. I started to tear up and cry again, “Anne
where are you going? Please don’t leave me, Anne. Please don’t leave me.
I want Ma. Please don’t leave me.” Anne looked at me and silently went
her way. Shaken, I felt like no one cared, and they were all walking out
on me. I wanted my family, as I continued to cry, calling my mom. “Ma,
come back. I want my Ma.”

One nun said, “Shut up you little savage. You will soon learn to be quiet.
Your mother has left you. She is not coming back, so shut up and come with
me!” I was crushed. My mother had deserted me. I felt my world caving in.
Who could I depend on and where was my family? I was lost.

Sternly, the nun said, “Take off your clothes! You are to have a bath!”

I replied, “But I had a bath at home. My mom gave me a bath.”

“Well, it’s not good enough; we have to give you one,” she said, pointing
her finger in my face. As I undressed, she said, “Give me those clothes!”
She scrubbed my body with no mercy and washed my hair with some
stinky shampoo.

I repeatedly said, “Ma gave me a bath at home.”

The nun gave me an angry look and said, “She didn’t do a good job.
Give me your arm you dirty little Indian. We will teach you to be human
. . . You little savage.” She scrubbed my arms until they were raw. There
was no loving care in the way she handled me. Her actions told me I was
a burden, and that she did not like me.

My new clothes, that I had been so proud to wear, vanished. I never did
see them again. My long hair, that I was so pleased with having, was cut short below my ears. I was deloused with DDTs: stinky dreadful powder used to kill lice. Every student was subjected to this same procedure upon arrival.