Focus On

Residential school memoir in shadow of Kamloops | Tony Stevenson

Monday, May 31, 2021 @ 2:48 PM | By Tony Stevenson


Tony Stevenson %>
Tony Stevenson
It is unfortunate that some people can only truly know what is good by facing up to the reality of true evil. The discovery of the 215 children at Kamloops and those that will most assuredly follow, will serve us well in that regard. However, real and lasting change will only occur if we face it head on, if we don’t turn away from the worst of what it says about who we are. For only then, will we strive for who we can be in response. Let this be our turning point, our reckoning, our path to reconciliation.

My first memory of residential school was when I was asked to come and play hockey for their hockey team. I had an uncle that worked at the boarding school and felt I could contribute. Until then I had only heard about the boarding school and felt it must be lonely to attend such a place without family around.

In my case, the family I had was two brothers, an older sister and my mom. Our little family unit had lost our father in a car accident. Unfortunately, we had the experience of living with a stepfather who was a product of the residential school legacy and that was not a very nice experience. The First Nation community we were living in had the dubious distinction of having the highest suicide rate in Canada for two years straight, 1973-74. Although it was flourishing, it was struggling with a hidden issue that refused to allow my people to grow with these new opportunities. Knowing what I know now, these unresolved mental and emotional issues of their past had found a way to come back and haunt them. Sadly this was expressed through the cycle of abuse (physical, domestic, emotional, sexual, alcohol, drug, etc.) and the ultimate act of suicide.

The First Nations leadership did not have the solution and to this day, many of our First Nations communities still do not have the solution. It was new to them back then and it continues to be new to those who do not understand why it happens. I believe it was the intergenerational trauma passed down from the older generations who were forced to attend these boarding schools. (I feel this is an important lesson for the learned legal professionals to take into consideration when creating laws, sentencing and dealing with First Nations clients. There is a learned lack of trust for the general authority figure and non-First Nations people that comes from this history. The lack of consultation and inclusion of the First Nations shows in the justice system. That can be changed and should be.)

My mother felt it was time to move on and the only house that was available to us on her First Nation, Peepeekisis, Sask., was a condemned home. It was in terrible condition but it was a home where we did not have to worry about walking on eggshells, and the relatives on my mother’s side made it feel more welcoming. Freedom at its finest! The greatest event was the ability to walk out of this house with a .22 or 30-30 shotgun and roam the bushes with friends and/or family for hours. Rabbits, ducks and deer were a big part of the diet back then, but you can only cook the delicacies in so many ways until it does not taste as good.

Playing hockey and fastball were the sports of choice for any and all First Nations in the 1980s. This allowed the communities to become closer and created a positive outlet for everyone. Plus the fact that the people of the community would hold a talented individual in high regard for their athletic ability. That feeling and sense of pride they were able to give those who could not otherwise do, to physically do what they could do, with ease, hit me at a young age. I wanted to do that. I wanted to be able to bring that sense of pride back to my people. I spent hours on the frozen sloughs, public skating and even joined figure skating. (Of course there was the teasing, but growing up on a First Nation as a fair skinned, green-eyed First Nation made me stronger.) Plus this allowed me to travel!

So when my uncle told me that the Qu’appelle Indian Residential School’s hockey team could use another player, I jumped at the chance. As I walked into this huge brick building, I remember being greeted from what I felt were some pretty-unique looking students. Beautiful, healthy, vibrant, young, energetic, distinctive features, long black hair, chiseled cheekbones, stoic, pretty, handsome, athletic and just the positive way they interacted with me was very heartwarming. I was hooked. This is the kind of environment I wanted to be a part of. My people!

The feeling of acceptance was instant because the white school I had been in was very different. I was judged maybe by the clothes I wore or my appearance. My mom would later tell me that the French principal of this white school had advised her that I was “crazy” and needed to seek a therapist. I suppose in all fairness he was right to assert his psychological assessment as I did not show too much respect for his educational environment. Simply because he was quite rude to me in his classroom. I just reciprocated his actions and feelings towards me.

The first impression of the residential school was great because of the extracurricular activities — movies, sports, trips, summer events and the time being with everyone on the weekends was just not accessible at home on the First Nation. My extended family at this boarding school had welcomed me without any prejudice of my background. This was a comfort zone.

It was 1980 and I was admitted into the school as a junior boy. Unfortunately, being in this group was not quite what I anticipated it to be as they were treated with a little less dignity than the senior boys’ department. I was not too happy with the restricted rules that were imposed upon us in a way I thought was ad hoc. Free time was not very long and a few of the childcare workers, who were First Nations, had no business working with children. They were overbearing with their demands of us and had no real empathy. There were three male childcare workers that reminded me of very cold, uneducated, strict, slave masters that I had seen the movie Roots. Again, I felt I had to grin and bear it as the commitment to playing hockey for free was greater than being treated like an abused stepkid.

I felt especially sad when I saw and heard the younger kids, grade threes, crying at night and in the morning. I guess I tried to help them in my own way to look and act like nothing bothered me. These young ones should never have been in this place.

The junior girls’ department had their four childcare workers that emulated the nuns of the old schools. I distinctly remember how they would bark stern orders to the girls in our dining room. (We shared a dining room with the girls on one side and us on the other). We would stand until everyone was at their assigned seat and then the Lord’s Prayer was recited. It was very apparent that these female childcare workers had some very real unresolved issues from their time in residential school. The nuns’ and priests’ way of raising them was now their “playbook” or “bible” to show us how to be productive little Indian savages. And they pulled out many a play from that ole book!

One morning I witnessed an older female childcare worker chastising a young girl, very pretty, innocent, had to be about 6 or 7 years old, in the hallway by the laundry room. This little girl had sheets in her arms and was on the verge of tears because of the words that this wicked old childcare worker had spewed was to publicly embarrass her. The little girl had wet her bed, through no fault of her own, of course but this wicked old childcare worker felt it was her duty to embarrass her and call her “coo-coosh!” Anishinabic word for “pig.” I have to state, with great satisfaction, years later, when the former student compensation process came to be, I had the pleasure of “tracking down” this old childcare worker and reminding her of the “excellent example” she was now being publicly known for because of her mindless ability to be a human. And the few others that shared her dubious distinction.

The harmful intergenerational trauma from the priests and nuns who raised the generation that cared for us was alive and well in our supposed caretakers. Even though the nuns and priests were gone, their footprint of abuse was very evident in the actions of the “few” that raised us in this school.

Peter A. (Tony) Stevenson is a member of the Anishnabec First Nation in theTreaty 4 Area in Saskatchewan who attended the QuAppelle Indian Residential School in Lebret, Sask. He worked extensively with the independent assessment process preparing and representing peers and elders for compensation hearings. He was awarded the Queens Diamond Jubilee Medal and recognized by both the Saskatchewan and Regina chambers of commerce for creating a cross-culture work project at the Conexus Credit Union. He travels to schools, universities, businesses and labour organizations to give presentations on truth and reconciliation. Learn more at MJ’s Ole Skool Crew.

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