George Kakeway remembers he was wearing "raggedy old pants" and a summer jacket when his parents dropped him off at the St. Mary’s Catholic residential school in Kenora, Ont., in the fall of 1951.
He was six years old.
A priest was waiting, wearing a black robe. The walls were painted white.
"It smelled like a hospital," recalls Kakeway, now 71. "Not knowing what was on the inside of the walls, I was scared. I was intimidated, of course."
The boy was first told to shower. His hair was "cut bald."
Then Kakeway was taken to the dormitory to meet the rest of the small boys. He didn’t speak a word of English.
"One of the most difficult parts was the loneliness, and also the unknown," he said. "The worst was in the evening. Kids crying. They used to cry under the blankets, to make sure the priests didn’t hear us."
There was no way young Kakeway could know it then, but those were the first steps in his long journey to the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.
Kakeway will be inducted into the hall Oct. 7, along with his teammates from more than a half-century ago as a member of Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Indian Residential School program from 1960-64.
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The boys and girls of Assiniboia all had something in common: they were taken from their First Nations homes across Manitoba and northwestern Ontario as young children and placed in nearby residential grade schools. As teenagers, they were eventually transferred to the Winnipeg school, founded in 1958, on Academy Road at the foot of the St. James Bridge.
Many of them arrived at Assiniboia emotionally damaged. Some had been sexually abused. Some had been physically beaten.
All were uprooted and in survival mode.
Father Omer Robidoux was Assiniboia’s first headmaster. He may have been a Catholic priest, but before that he was property of what some might consider another Canadian religious order — the Montreal Canadiens.
Robidoux was born in St. Pierre-Jolys, and had once played on the same line in St. Boniface as Modere (Mud) Bruneteau, who went on to play 11 seasons with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings.
In fact, in the 1950s and ’60s, many residential schools in Manitoba and Saskatchewan used hockey programs as not only a pastime, but an incentive to keep students in the classroom.
When Robidoux was hired at Assiniboia, one of this first recruits as an instructor was 20-year-old Luc Marchildon, a graduate of the Catholic college system in southern Saskatchewan, someone who had first-hand knowledge of the priests’ hockey prowess.
"They all played hockey to beat hell," says Marchildon, now 79. "And they were very good players. But they all became priests, so they never turned pro. The teacher we had (in Saskatchewan) ran us like a hockey school."
Robidoux followed the same blueprint at Assiniboia, immediately establishing high school, juvenile and junior-B teams drawn from the more than 120 male and female students. Three outdoor rinks were built on the school grounds — two for the boys, one for the girls.
By the time Kakeway arrived from Kenora at 16, he had spent 10 years in the residential school system. He was an orphan; he’d lost his parents when he was 10.
"It was tragic," he says. "That’s all I’ll say."
In the summer months, he would stay with his uncle or grandparents.
Kakeway had learned to survive on his own. He would pick blueberries in the summer to pay for his food while back home at Rat Portage (now called Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation).
"Of course, when you go to a residential school, the first person you want is your mother. So without a mother... there’s nothing else that can really support you," he says.
Kakeway wanted to attend Assiniboia not for the hockey, but for the academics. The school offered private tutors and university-level courses. And he wanted to make something of himself.
"One of the things we were taught at Assiniboia... education was very important as a way for a kid coming in from the bush to fit in the world, and improving yourself," he says.
But hockey was omnipresent. As coach, Marchildon ran his players through military-style dryland drills from the moment they arrived in September.
"We had an obstacle course," says Marchildon, who now lives in a seniors apartment in St. Boniface. "It was rough. It was like the army: crawling, jumping, running and climbing walls."
Once the outdoor ice was ready in November, practices would start at 7 a.m. Then there was a noon-hour skate, followed by intramural hockey at night. Followed by practice.
"So we spent about 21/2 to three hours on the ice," Kakeway says. "It made the time go faster."
For Danny Highway — who arrived in the mid-1960s — the program at Assiniboia was a welcome escape. Highway had spent the previous decade at Guy Hill Residential School in The Pas, enduring years of physical and sexual abuse.
"The high school part of it was quite positive," says Highway, who was born in Brochet (Barren Lands First Nation). "I had more freedom. Better food, nicer clothes, a girlfriend. I think it made me a stronger person. More aware, smarter. Although you would need to be to work through all that garbage (from Guy Hill).
"I survived anyway, so..."
The hockey, he says, was memorable.
"It kept my mind occupied, kept me busy," he says. "Because I loved playing hockey. I was on the ice every day... the cold didn’t bother me."
Many of them arrived as strangers whose first languages were Cree, Ojibway, Oji-Cree, Dakota or Sioux. That’s often how they communicated on the ice and in private — "underground talking" — even though they’d been prohibited from speaking their native tongues right from the beginning in the residential schools.
"We got along very well with kids from all over the province, everywhere," says Joe Malcolm, 68, a left-winger from Ebb and Flow First Nation. "We played a lot of sports, not only hockey, but volleyball and gymnastics. Everything. There wasn’t a lot of time for loneliness."
Assiniboia teams didn’t just play. They won.
Between 1960 and 1964, the school captured three junior-B provincial titles, a junior-B city championship and one junior-C championship.
Kakeway was 17 when he was named captain of the junior-B team.
"We were told, ‘Just be competitive,’" he says. "‘Yeah, right. We’re going to win this thing.’ And that’s what we did, against all odds."
Many of the top city schools were essentially all-star teams, Kakeway says. At Assiniboia, meanwhile, most teams consisted of about a dozen kids.
"That’s all we had," he says. "Three lines and four defence. That was it. But guys were in physical shape and mentally strong. With our spirituality, that goes a long ways."
Adds Marchildon: "We had some proud players. What I remember about my boys is they had teamwork beyond belief. Teamwork is the spiritual side of hockey. The way to think about the players around us. You had to think of your buddies. You played for the team."
Former Assiniboia players say there was little in the way of racism when they were on the ice; the odd shout — "Mohawks go home!" — from the stands. But rarely were harsh words spoken by opponents, Kakeway says.
Not that it mattered to him; he’d been steeled against verbal taunts from his days in minor hockey in Kenora.
"There was always that, but I ignored it," he says. "I concentrated on hockey. I didn’t respond. After all, it was about the score... I spoke my words on the ice.
"Certainly, as the captain of the team I made sure the boys stuck together and not get intimidated. Don’t be afraid."
Marchildon has similar memories.
"I’d talk to them and say, ‘We’re going to play our game. Don’t listen to them. Some guys are calling you names, but you know how we’re going to handle it? We’re going to beat them.’"
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The Assiniboia hockey program equipped players with leadership qualities that remained long after the ice melted. In all, eight members of those championship teams went on to become chiefs of their communities: Kakeway (Wauzhushk Onigum), Harvey Nepinak (Skownan, formerly Waterhen), Steve Skead (Wauzhushk Onigum), Oliver Nelson (Roseau River), Joe Guy Woods (St. Theresa Point), Ambrose Wood (Wasagamack), Steve Jourdain (Lac la Croix, Ont.) and Philip Gardner (Eagle Lake, Ont.).
Another notable Assiniboia alumni member arrived in 1959 as a precocious 14-year-old.
Phil Fontaine later became chief of Sagkeeng First Nation and, later, chief of the national Assembly of First Nations.
"He was a very intelligent boy," Marchildon recalls. "If there were tricks played, we knew he was behind (them). He even organized the older boys. And he loved hockey."
Few graduates can speak to the paradox of the Assiniboia residential school with more authority than Fontaine, who has spent decades in the spotlight speaking out against — and demanding government reconciliation for — the abuses suffered by former students across Canada.
For Fontaine, there is no conflict in acknowledging there were positive aspects of Assiniboia life within the wretched residential school system.
"I don’t have a problem separating the good from the bad," Fontaine says from his home in Ottawa. "The story that’s emerged (from residential schools) hasn’t been the most positive. In fact, it describes a pretty tragic part of Canadian history. But there’s no doubt... in fact, it defies logic that there weren’t good people at these schools who actually cared about the kids. And there were some aspects of the residential school experience that were positive.
"But even those positive experiences are compromised by the fact that the residential school policy.... was racist, was assimilationist. And the government was bound and determined to eradicate any sense of ‘Indian-ness.’ And they used residential schools as a vehicle to try and achieve that. But they failed in the long run.
"And I never, ever forgot that I wasn’t at home," Fontaine adds. "And that I was away for a large part of those 10 years that I attended two residential schools."
Still, in many ways, the Assiniboia hockey program worked against the very intent of government efforts to "de-Indianize" children. The bonds formed and championships won on the ice only served to fill the young men with pride.
"Sports gave you a lot of self-esteem," Kakeway says. "I felt I was just as good as anybody."
Of the championship teams that came before him, Highway adds: "It was quite a challenge being away from home, and pretty strange living in the city. It must have been tough for them. I think hockey pulled them through."
Jordy Douglas, vice-president of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame and chairman of selection committee, says the Assiniboia hockey program was a beacon of light in the darkness and destruction of the residential school experience. And that was not lost on the Hall of Fame decision.
"Holy cow, these guys banded together," says Douglas, a former player in the National Hockey League and World Hockey Association. "They flew in the face of what was trying to be taken away from them. They ran with it, and won with it. And they didn’t know each other until they got here.
"That’s such a cool story."
At 25, Kakeway became chief at the First Nation he first left as a six-year-old boy. He served for the next 28 years. While he led council, the community built a hockey rink.
Highway worked for the provincial highways department (yeah, he knows) as a diversity and employment equity co-ordinator for almost three decades before retiring in 2005.
Highway, who Marchildon insists could have played pro, returned to The Pas after graduation, where he played senior hockey. In 1972, at 25, he was offered a tryout with a WHA startup in Winnipeg called the Jets. He turned it down.
"I thought I was too old," he says. "I had a new wife and daughter."
Joe Malcolm played senior hockey and rec-league games, too, before his knees finally betrayed him.
"My last skate was when I was 50 years old," he says. "But I still have friends that I played hockey with in the city in their late 60s and early 70s playing hockey. If my knees were OK, I would probably be playing myself."
Marchildon spent seven years at Assiniboia before becoming athletic director at St. Paul’s High School, then the Universite de Saint-Boniface. He later taught industrial education at Vincent Massey Collegiate for 21 years.
He didn’t coach hockey after leaving Assiniboia, but Hall of Fame recognition for the school’s program puts a smile on his face.
"These boys deserved that," he says, sifting through old photos of the teams on his kitchen table. "They played so hard and worked so hard in school."
Father Robidoux became Catholic Bishop of Central and Eastern Arctic, but died in plane crash in 1986 on a flight into Rankin Inlet. He was 72.
Several former Assiniboia students attended his funeral.
Fontaine, meanwhile, was elected Sagkeeng’s chief at the age of 29. He served three terms as Assembly of First Nations national chief from 1997-2000.
While on Sagkeeng, Fontaine reunited several former Assiniboia players — including Malcolm and Kakeway — and formed a travelling aboriginal all-star team.
"Those guys have been friends forever," he says.
They all remember their days and their teammates at Assiniboia with fondness. They will never forget what they went through together on and off the ice.
Kakeway doesn’t know how many of his long-ago teammates he’ll see at the induction ceremony in October.
"It will be quite emotional," the old captain admits. "I’ll see some of my buddies who went through this type of training, teamwork, camaraderie. Looking after each other on the ice.
"I just hope I don’t start crying. I don’t want to be a wimp at 70, when I wasn’t at 16."