Surviving residential school
Need to educate, heal, reclaim arises out of 'sense of bitterness, anger, frustration'
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/07/2021 (702 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
His story doesn’t begin with a stranger in shadow-black darkening the door of his log cabin, but it is the first thing he mentions.
It was the day in 1955 the priest came with papers in hand and the determination to steal away Dave Rundle, 10, and his brother Lawrence, 5, from their parents and grandparents, to force them into Fort Alexander Residential School.
Support is available to provide emotional and crisis referral services to former residential school students. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
The priest knocked. Rundle opened the door to the towering figure in his black cassock.
“And it wasn’t Johnny Cash,” says the now 75-year-old with a chuckle. He pardons the joke. “Humour sometimes helps.”
Rundle’s mother and the priest spoke some words incoherent to young ears, and after a time, his mother signed the papers and told the boys to get ready to leave. The priest put them into the back of a Ford Model T, where three other Indigenous boys waited.
As the car started off, clunking along the dirt path, Rundle and his brother turned back to look out the window. His mother and grandmother stood, watching them leave.
“They were crying,” says Rundle. “My brother and I started crying because we saw our parents and we were going away. And the three other boys in the vehicle, they too started to cry.”
For the next five years, Rundle and his brother would be separated from family, who moved to Winnipeg to find work, 10 months of the year. They would be robbed of familial love and caring. They would be degraded and hurt and denied their language and culture.
However, Rundle’s story truly began in his first 10 years, at what is now called Sagkeeng First Nation, when he hauled water from the river for his mother, when his grandmother told him stories and taught him to be kind and honourable, when his grandfather showed him how to set snares on rabbit tracks and said to him: “When you hunt deer, you need to know the habits of the animal you’re hunting.”
It was a story told in Anishinaabe.
“It was the best time of my life. I was so happy,” says Rundle. “It was a good life. We weren’t rich at all. We were piss poor, but we had lots to eat.”
The priest that took him from this life drove him to Fort Alexander Residential School — a huge, three-story building, a church and a groundskeeper’s cabin surrounded by Manitoba prairie. It was run by a Catholic order of missionary nuns called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Oblate nuns, which included this order and others, ran most of the Roman Catholic residential schools in Canada.
“We walked upstairs and came into the reception area,” says Rundle, “and that’s where the nuns met us.”
The nuns made the boys strip and bathe, and they cut their hair with scissors and mechanical clippers, speaking all the while in English, a language neither Rundle nor his brother understood.
When this was done, Rundle and his brother thought they could go. They put on their jackets and started walking home. When a group of boys ran after them, they fled, thinking they were in for a beating. But the boys caught up.
“There was such a sense of hopelessness, loneliness. Who could you tell that would do anything about it? There was no nurturing, There was no one to speak to if you were feeling down or something was bothering you. There was a sense of bitterness, anger, frustration.”– Dave Rundle
“They didn’t hurt us. They just said, you can’t go home. You got to stay here,” says Rundle. “Of course, that made us cry again, because we wanted to go home.”
Rundle and his brother were captive.
“There was such a sense of hopelessness, loneliness. Who could you tell that would do anything about it?” says Rundle. “There was no nurturing, There was no one to speak to if you were feeling down or something was bothering you.
“There was a sense of bitterness, anger, frustration.”
The boys had no supports but themselves when nuns humiliated a boy for peeing himself, even, as happened to Rundle, when they had asked to use the bathroom. They could not tell their parents when they were smacked across the head or the cheek or made to kneel in the corner on hard wooden floors for hours.
Rundle could not seek protection from a priest who told Rundle to pull down his pants, on the pretext of checking his cleanliness, before “he started to masturbate me.”
After that assault, Rundle went and sat on a bench. His friends called him to play.
“One of my friends, I caught the look in his eye — as if he knew what the hell had happened,” says Rundle.
The boys banded together. They bet their rations of lard and bread on foot races and other contests. Rundle remembers two boys, Elmer Courchene and Phil Fontaine, who took to carrying little Lawrence on their shoulders to keep watch over him.
On Oct. 30, 1990, Fontaine, then-head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, denounced the physical, emotional and sexual abuse at Fort Alexander in an interview on national television. He called for an inquiry, which would not come until after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada formed in 2008.
In the interview, Fontaine said: “Inevitably, if a group of us get together to talk about our experiences in residential school, in this case the one in Fort Alexander, we end up joking and laughing about what we experienced. And I think that’s essentially a way of avoiding embarrassment and shame.”
Humour sometimes helps.
Rundle didn’t see any deaths, but did hear rumours about them. Years later, at a gathering of survivors, a few women who’d been held in the girls’ dorms had told him they suspected people had died.
What he did experience first hand was the loss of family connection.
“We lost, as boys, the whole concept of parenting, being nurtured, being comforted, being encouraged — we lost all that,” says Rundle. His parents died two years after his confinement at Fort Alexander ended.
Rundle says he regained some confidence after he left Fort Alexander. At his new school, despite the previous five years at an institution where “education was not a priority,” he outscored the white kids in his class on a test.
He played hockey and football against white players, and he would often win at that, too. These were the first cracks in a white supremacist myth pounded into his head.
Martina Fisher would scour her skin with soap, hoping it would turn white. She is a survivor of Assiniboia Indian Residential School on Academy Road in Winnipeg. The now-65-year-old went for three years, beginning at age 14.
“When I first got to the school, students would warn me — and I was surprised about the warning — they said don’t go into the priests office alone, but they didn’t explain anything, they didn’t say anything,” says Fisher, who works to help survivors like herself at the Wa-Say Healing Centre.
The institution continued the work the church had begun in her life from an early age. She’d gone to Catholic day schools. There, as at Assiniboia Residential School, she risked punishment if she spoke Anishinaabe, her mother tongue.
“I was so afraid of who I was, as Anishinaabe. And when my late sister invited me to a sweat ceremony, I was literally shaking. I could’ve died there, I was so afraid. I was so afraid because I thought it was so evil. And I thought I was going to hell for sure.”– Martina Fisher
She spoke of a priest who would ask during confession if she touched herself. Once she learned what sin meant, she concocted lies of other, non-sexual sins she’d committed to stop the priest from asking.
Yet the church, using the day school and the residential school, managed to convince her of its moral standing through the threat of punishment.
“I was so afraid of who I was, as Anishinaabe. And when my late sister invited me to a sweat ceremony, I was literally shaking. I could’ve died there, I was so afraid. I was so afraid because I thought it was so evil. And I thought I was going to hell for sure,” says Fisher.
But slowly she relaxed, and as the ceremony continued, something washed over her.
“I felt like I had found something that was a void in my life, something that I should’ve been connected to all my life, just the way my mom and dad taught us at home. And I lost that through all those years,” says Fisher.
But it could not undo what had already been done, nor stop every residual effect.
“One of the things I really missed during day school and residential school is the connection with my mom and dad,” she says. But even had she not gone to residential school herself, she says, the wound would still be open. Her mother, as a youth, had been taken to residential school in Norway House.
Fisher says her mother stopped hugging her after age five, and she began to hit Fisher to punish her.
“When my mom hit me, she said I’m hitting you because I love you. And I never understood what she meant by that,” says Fisher. “Is that how they tried to show her love in residential school?”
After Fisher became a mother herself, she fell into the same habit. She says she had trouble hugging her children after they turned five. She says she used corporal punishment. That was all she knew, says Fisher.
Now, she’s struggling to reconnect with her five surviving children (four have passed), a point that causes tears to well in her eyes and her voice to warble.
“When they get angry with me, especially my daughter, she will not talk to me for a whole year,” says Fisher. “That’s very damaging.”
Through her work, Fisher sees survivors with stories like hers every day. She strives to help them heal and to reconnect with culture and traditions; she seeks the same for herself.
“Maybe I’m strong to keep myself afloat. Maybe I’m strong to make it through the day. But people can see that I’m crushed inside. And that’s how native people are walking around — crushed inside.”
Thirty-one years ago, Phil Fontaine explained why, amongst other reasons, the truth about residential schools needed to come out: “To undertake a healing process, to make our people whole, so that when we talk about the future, we can talk about the future as a whole people, and not as a people that has individuals — many, many individuals — with missing parts and pieces and gaps in their being.”
Fontaine’s old friend, Rundle, agrees.
“I want it known — it’s not to garner sympathy, but rather to share information,” says Rundle. “It’s good for our own people to know their history. That’s my whole purpose in sharing my story.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported at least 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children endured residential schools. And there are just as many stories.