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Treaties 101, and understanding residential schools

Sept. 21, Unity Public Library brought a program to the adults of our community that included a powerful presentation by Tony Stevenson, residential school survivor

UNITY — [What was being a residential school student really like for many students? If you have not seen the National Film Board movie, We Were Children, which tells the stories of two such students, Glen Anaquod and Lyna Hart, you should. It is available online.]

Residential school survivor Tony Stevenson, an Anishinaabe First Nation from Treaty 4 land, opens his “The Legacy of Residential Schools: Knowledge-Sharing” presentations with quotes. Here are portions of those quotes.

Sir John A. Macdonald: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages.” Hence, theoretically, in his eyes and the eyes of other government and church officials of the day, the need to remove the children from the reserve to a residential school.

Bishop St. Vital Grandin: “We instill in them a pronounced distaste for the native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their origin.”

Stevenson is travelling the province, with what he termed a “Treaty 101” or “Reconciliation 101” presentation. He was in Unity Sept. 21, speaking to Grade 11 and 12 students at Unity Composite High School in the afternoon and to interested members of the general public in the evening, courtesy of the Unity branch of Wheatland Public Library.

As Stevenson pointed out, a treaty is an agreement between two sovereign nations. (The Oxford Canadian dictionary agrees, defining it as a “formally concluded and ratified agreement between states.”)

From the point of view of the First Nations, the idea was to share the land which they occupied with the newcomers. Two illustrative slides in Stevenson’s PowerPoint show the distribution of the various Indian tribes across North America before the Europeans arrived, then dots indicating the land reserves allocated to them. Did you know First Nation reserves make up only 0.2 per cent of the land mass in Canada?

And did you know treaties refer to the land as to “the depth of a plow” only? First Nations are now taking governments to court over natural resource revenues and multi-million-dollar judgments are being awarded. Stevenson said the awards mean “wrongdoings are being exposed.”

After talking about the treaties, We Were Children was shown. Despite over 30 people being packed into the UCHS library for the public presentation, there was not a sound to be heard during the one-hour, 23-minute running time. UCHS vice-principal Ken Parker said “you could have heard a pin drop” in the gym when more than 80 Grade 11 and 12 students watched the movie earlier in the day.

Some takeaways from Lyna’s (true) story: 1) her head was smothered in DDT for 24 hours upon arrival at the school; 2) as a young six-year-old, away from her family, she was expected to understand what was said to her in English and to obey although she was unfamiliar with the language and had no idea what was going on; 3) she became a number, number 99 [“99 – that’s you – 99.”]

A priest told the class of students that here they would learn not only to cook and sew and farm but also how to pray and to whom to pray.

At his school, Glen was a little more rebellious and would sometimes deliberately talk back in his native tongue, despite being told, “You will learn to speak God’s language and you will obey,” with “God’s language” supposedly being English and French. Glen said talking back in Indian “drove them crazy but I paid the price … eventually you get beaten enough and you quit.”

After a year or two at the school, Glen asked to go home to see his grandparents (he had lost his parents). He was told he could go home for a week and excitedly packed his small suitcase. It was winter and, after putting the suitcase in the pickup truck, the priest suggested he come into his house while the truck warmed up. He was tricked into climbing down into the basement (the trap door hidden under a carpet in the living room) to “see something”; instead he was pushed into a tiny room and the door locked.

One of the nuns found him a few days later and returned him to the boys’ dormitory.

As an adult recalling this incident, Glen said, “I don’t know what kind of a God they have that likes to hurt people.”

Later during his school days, Glen and a couple of friends made a run for freedom. They stopped at an aunt’s in Fort Qu’Appelle. She fed them and then the priests arrived. She had called them and told the children, “You boys are getting a good education. I won’t let you throw your lives away.”

Upon their return to the school, the boys were locked in a room and the priest and his reinforcements arrived. Glen said, “We knew it was coming” and they were mostly afraid of whether they’d “be able to endure it.” All three boys had to spend more than a week in the infirmary afterwards.

When Lyna was still a little girl and losing weight due to not eating the unfamiliar food, she was sent to the infirmary at her school. In the night, she heard boys crying. She climbed out of bed and padded down the hall to the boys’ room. The priest was there. She wondered why one boy was naked and bent over behind the priest, who turned and saw her in the doorway.

The next night, she – a young child and a patient in the infirmary – was raped. As she expressed it years later, the infirmary was “a place we were supposed to heal.”

Over 150,000 children were sent to residential schools. Glen said it was like being in jail a long time, and then you’re released. Suddenly you have “all that freedom and the great majority of us couldn’t handle all that freedom.”

Stevenson summed up the movie by saying: “History, the truth.”

He himself attended residential school in Lebret for 10 years; wife Marcie McArthur-Stevenson for eight. Showing a photo of McArthur-Stevenson’s Grade 4 class, he pointed out four of her classmates who had committed suicide. He also thought she was the only one of her class who was still alive and drug- and alcohol-free.

The Lebret school closed in 1998, less than 25 years ago.

“That needs to be understood by everybody,” he said. Stevenson closed the presentation by engaging the audience in discussion, asking and being asked questions.

In a discussion of the inter-generational effects of residential schools, a First Nation member of the audience shared how it “hurts” to tell his son and daughter, “I love you.” Although his own mother was drug- and alcohol-free, she was emotionally withdrawn. As a result, while he makes the effort to say, “I love you,” to his own children, he worries when doing so. “Am I doing it right? What should I do when they say it to me?”

In his concluding remarks, Stevenson emphasized the importance of everyone understanding the sanctity of the treaties and recognizing that they were explicitly written to be in effect for “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows.”

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