I Went to an Indian Residential School, and My Father was the Principal

Guest post by Mark DeWolf

Indian residential schools

Part of my Truth is my memory of how it was at the residential school during the years my Dad was the Principal

IT’S A COLD BUT sunny day in Edmonton as I cross Jasper Avenue and approach the front doors of the Shaw Centre, the venue for the final national event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Streaming out one door is a large group of non-aboriginal teens, chatting, laughing, doing a bit of good-natured jostling. It’s Education Day at the TRC event, and a good number of local schools have arranged for their students to attend, no doubt hoping that the kids will not only learn about the work of the TRC and the reason for its establishment, but also gain something from the experience of sharing the event with thousands of their First Nations neighbours. Have they? I wonder.

I approach three male teens on the fringe of the group and, after assuring them that I’m not a reporter, ask if they believe the expedition was a worthwhile learning experience.  Put on the spot and probably unwilling to appear either too callous or too earnest – they are teenagers, after all – they smile awkwardly, exchange glances, and finally indicate that yes, they think it was.  They seem relieved when I thank them and move on. Inside, the same question put to three aboriginal boys seated near the down escalator elicits a similar response, and my follow-up question – “Do you think this event will change anything?” – leads two of them to shrug and say “I don’t know.” Which is, if you think about it, a very sensible reply.

A big question mark hangs over this national event, as it does over the entire TRC initiative – for unlike Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in other parts of the world, this one is the child of a legal document, the 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, and not a widespread, grassroots, publicly-supported demand.

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It’s far too early to know whether any of the TRC’s work – its extensive research, many local hearings, large national gatherings, its final report due out in 2015, or the soon-to-be established National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation – will bring about significant change in the way all Canadians think about the Indian Residential School system. Will it, I wonder, change the way they see the relationship between our indigenous and non-indigenous populations, and the amount of support shown for policies that help undo the damage done to First Nations, Inuit and Metis people by previous federal governments? A big question mark hangs over this national event, as it does over the entire TRC initiative – for unlike Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in other parts of the world, this one is the child of a legal document, the 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, and not a widespread, grassroots, publicly-supported demand.

As I take the escalator down into the already-crowded depths of the Shaw Centre, I think about this key difference and its possible significance. Even my own presence at this national gathering is a big question mark. I have absolutely no idea as to whether my being here will make any difference at all, or whether I will achieve any of the aims that brought me to Alberta from Halifax, in far-away Nova Scotia. When I walk into the wide-open reception hall, I find it completely filled with First Nations people – some sitting around tables, some lining up for hot dogs at a small eatery, some lining up to register and collect their event packages, and many – like me – just wandering through the crowd, taking it all in, perhaps just enjoying the experience of being in the midst of so many indigenous Canadians assembled in one place. Over the four-day event, total attendance has been estimated to reach an amazing 21,000 people.

Being surrounded by a sea of First Nations faces isn’t an entirely new or strange sensation for me, although it must be for many of the other non-aboriginals in the hall. As the son of an Anglican minister who for ten years was the Principal of a residential school on Alberta’s Blood Reserve, I lived at the school and attended classes with the Kainai children from grades 1 to 6.  By the time my classmates and I started riding the bus into the nearby town of Cardston, where we would attend public secondary school, I was pretty well used to being the only white kid in the crowd. My two sisters also attended classes at St. Paul’s, but they were in different grades, and the girls had separate playrooms and playgrounds. Some days, I must have felt a lot like one of those old Western movie wagon trains.

I certainly didn’t fit in very well. As a child, I was shy, not adept at making friends, hooked on books. And, hey, I was the son of the school’s Principal, so I didn’t make a lot of friends. I may have been more than an oddity to my Kainai classmates; in their eyes, I may have been a disagreeable, unlikeable outcast. Which I now very much regret, believe me. There’s so much that I missed out on.

DeWolf-family-arrivesBut more than 60 years later, and looking back at this rather unusual childhood, I’m truly grateful for that experience. For one thing, I learned about the cruelty and hurt of racism. Mingling with the friendly Bloods on the reserve, seeing them at church, watching them interact with my Mum and Dad, I began to learn just how silly is the idea of racial discrimination. And I like to think that because of my early years on the reserve, I have a better understanding than most of the challenges that face First Nations people in this country and of the ways in which they have risen, and are rising, to meet those challenges. My interest in, and concerns about, aboriginal issues have steadily grown over the years.

But it’s not general interest and concern that bring me to the Shaw Centre on this cold March morning. Having attended the TRC’s national event held in Halifax two years earlier, and having followed the media coverage of the Commission’s work from its first days, I’m worried about Truth, and I’m worried about Reconciliation – the stated goal of the Truth-exploring process. Part of that Truth is the neglect, mistreatment and outright abuse suffered by children in the IRS system. Part of that Truth is the federal government’s unsuccessful attempt to use the schools as a way of assimilating aboriginal people into “mainstream” Canadian society – what some have labeled “cultural genocide.” And part of that Truth is the damaging effect that the IRS system eventually had on families and whole communities. I’ve signed up to speak at the Churches’ Sharing Circle later in the day, and I know I must begin my small contribution by acknowledging all of those Truths.

But as far as I can tell, and judging by the Halifax event, everyone else who’s planning to speak at this final national event, either in a sharing circle or in one of the Commissioners’ plenary sessions, will be affirming those Truths. I know there will be story after story told of harsh treatment, loneliness, cultural deprivation and – most shocking of all – sexual predation. And I understand the need for this. A pain that remains undisclosed, hidden from others, is unlikely to soon go away. And these are Truths that for many years were kept from the general public, leaving nearly all Canadians unaware of what their elected governments and taxpayer-supported officials and the country’s major churches were actually doing to native children.

auxiliary-bannerAbove: Junior Auxiliary was one of several uniformed groups at St. Paul’s Anglican Residential School. Source: Mark DeWolf.

St Paul's ApplicationAbove: A 1953 “Application for Admission” form to St Paul’s Indian Residential School. Source: Library and Archives Canada.
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Obviously I have no story of that kind to tell. But two strong impulses have prompted me to make the trip to Edmonton. One is a desire to reconnect if possible with some of those Kainai kids I went to class with, a personal attempt at genuine reconciliation. I want to sit down with them, maybe over coffee or a meal, and talk about the way things were back then at the school. I want to know if their memories of the place and everyday school life correspond with mine, for I remember St. Paul’s as a fairly happy institution: happy not only in the smiles and laughter on the playground or at the Saturday night movie or at the occasional sock hop, but also in the fact that administration, teachers, supervisors, children and parents had a shared understanding of the purpose of the school, as well as the treatment of the children enrolled. On the Blood Reserve in the 1950s, the children of St. Paul’s were not torn from the arms of their loved ones; they were brought to the school by parents who themselves had once been students there, and who felt only the natural reluctance and sadness of any parent who places a child in a boarding school. Like all parents who compel their kids to attend school every day, those Kainai parents were pretty sure it was the best thing for them, and knowing how things were at St. Paul’s, they trusted the school to treat – and teach – their children well.

Part of my Truth is my memory of how it was at the residential school during the years my Dad was the Principal. I believe that memory needs to be spoken and shared, along with the other stories – painful to tell, painful to hear – that so many former students have brought to the TRC events.

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At least, that’s how I remember things. But I’ve been wondering if my memories are overly selective, blinkered or conveniently fuzzy. I want to find out if my relatively positive impression about life at St. Paul’s has any correspondence with the memories that my Blood classmates have of their years there. I’m hoping that this huge Alberta event will draw some Kainai from their reserve at the southwest corner of the province and that, through them, I’ll get a chance to achieve that personal reconciliation.

And the second impulse? It can be summed up by a phrase that has been much repeated during the years in which the harsh facts of the residential school system have been revealed: “Speaking my truth.” For my Truth is as valid as any told to the TRC during its multi-year mandate, even if it is quite different.

Part of my Truth is what I’ve just described as my memory of how it was at the residential school during the years my Dad was the Principal. I believe that memory needs to be spoken and shared, along with the other stories – painful to tell, painful to hear – that so many former students have brought to the TRC events. I’ve deliberately chosen to speak at the Churches’ Sharing Circle because my Dad was an Anglican minister, and many of the staff who worked at St. Paul’s were devout Christians, supposedly committed to the second of Jesus’s prime directives: “Love your neighbour.”  For ten years I saw them teach, supervise, discipline, assist and in some cases befriend the Blood children who – when they weren’t lined up – swarmed through the classrooms and halls of the school. I thought those staff members were a pretty decent bunch.  Some were clearly more strict and less approachable than others, but did I ever see a supervisor strike a child? No. Did I ever see a fellow student cringe away from a particular teacher? No.  Did my Dad, who was as kindly and devoted a man as anyone I’ve ever met, get any pleasure out of the very occasional strapping he administered to those who’d committed serious offenses?  No, quite the opposite.

So it was to speak up for my Dad, and for all those other residential school staff members who weren’t predators or sadists or fanatical moralizers obsessed with combatting Satan and all his works, that I had come to speak at the TRC’s final gathering, the main focus of which was proclaimed to be Wisdom. I hoped to remind those who heard me speak that wisdom comes from standing in the right spot, not so far from actual experience that hurt and misery become just words, and not so close that memories of hurt and misery cloud your view of how things really were. Wisdom, I planned to say, comes from recognizing the Entire Truth.

But now that I was actually in the middle of the TRC event, surrounded by people who might not want to hear anything good at all said about a system that caused so much hurt and damage, I wondered if my words would be brushed aside – or, even worse, be the cause of more pain for those who had only bitter memories of the residential school staff. My resolve to speak, so firm when I got on that WestJet plane to Alberta, was beginning to weaken.

With this very much in my thoughts, I began walking along the aisle of displays that featured photographs and short histories of Alberta’s residential schools. I was looking for the one that dealt with St. Paul’s, and when I found it, I wasn’t the only one peering closely at the text that accompanied the old black-and-white photo. An elderly First Nations woman, still bundled up in a warm coat, was reading it so intently that I plucked up my courage and said, “Excuse me, may I ask if you attended St. Paul’s at some point?” A bit flustered at being suddenly approached like this, she admitted that she had. When I told her that I, too, had been a student there, she was naturally confused and maybe a bit suspicious. But when I told her my name and whose son I was, that all changed. Her face broadened into a smile of delight. She reached out, hugged me, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Later, seated at a table in the Anglican Church’s information section, she took great pleasure in seeing some of the pictures I’d brought with me, many of them stills from the family’s home movies, and she spoke fondly of my Dad. “I wish he was here with us today,” she said, an audible catch in her voice. She introduced me to her daughter, now a lawyer, who had briefly attended St. Paul’s in the years after my Dad’s principalship, and we agreed to keep in touch.

That chance meeting made my entire trip worthwhile. Not only did it give me a warm glow (after all, it was a validation of my Dad’s work and my own memory of it), but it seemed to symbolize what has to be the way forward for Canada’s indigenous and non-indigenous people. Personal contact, mutual respect and understanding, the warmth of friendship, and a shared desire to make things better – all of which might lead us to finally trust each other – are the elements that will make up the framework for future harmony, restorative justice and a renewed covenant between our peoples. Not an original thought, I’m sure, but thanks to the hour I spent talking to that former St. Paul’s student and her daughter, I feel encouraged to keep up the communication, continue to follow stories of treaty negotiations and disputes over resource exploitation, and, whenever possible, speak up for the legitimate claims of Canada’s indigenous people. My trip to Edmonton may have begun as a big question mark, but it proved to be one small step in a much longer journey I am now emboldened to make.

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10 responses to “I Went to an Indian Residential School, and My Father was the Principal

  1. I would be delighted to receive messages from former IRS students, particularly those who might have attended St. Paul’s on the Blood Reserve, or even St. Mary’s, the RC school that was “the competition.”

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  2. Still hoping to hear from former IRS students, particularly those who may have attended St. Paul’s… or even St. Mary’s, the RC school at Standoff.

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  3. Sure thing, Martina. The memoirs of a student who attended when I was there would be welcome — assuming he/she isn’t a particularly embittered individual who’s lashing out at the school for the way his/her life turned out. Read a book recently that showed fairly convincingly that human memory is not very reliable (and thus my own memories of St. Paul’s can be called into question), and there have been some stories coming from “survivors” that strain credibility.

    Are you familiar with the writings of Everett Soop? He was a cartoonist and satirical writer on the Kainai (Blood) Reserve, and his little essays are particularly interesting for me when he touches upon his time at St. Paul’s. He didn’t enjoy the experience, but it certainly gave him the education that enabled him to become an articulate critic of many things on the Reserve. I wish you well on your project, and if there’s any way I can help with, do let me know.

    Cheers,

    Mark

    p.s. I’m going to be in Calgary for an Indspire conference in mid-November. Perhaps the individual who’s providing the material for the memoir would like to meet with me? Or perhaps you?

    p.p.s. For contact, use mark@jmdewolf.com or phone 902-444-6691 (my home number). I’m also on Skype.

    >

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  4. HI, I am starting to write the memoirs of one of the students at St.Paul’s when Father deWolf was the principal. It would love to talk to you! Could you get in touch with me?

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  5. Hey, great! You’ve just made my day — which until now wasn’t terrific. I’ve been back to the Reserve two or three times, hoping to talk to former students, but for one reason or another haven’t had a lot of luck. 1963 was just about the time my family left (although I stayed on in Cardston to finish high school) but I’d very much like to share stories with you. And learn from you what things were like at St. Paul’s after my Dad stepped down as Principal. Get back to me. Please!

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  6. Hello Lena. Thank-you for your message. My email address is wayne.k.spear@gmail.com

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  7. hello i am a former indian residential school student from st pauls. i went from 1963-1973. it would be nice if we can email one another

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  8. Good to see Hannora’s response. Yes, some preacher’s kids weren’t always very nice. And as a very shy and bookish little boy, I wouldn’t have made a great playmate for the Kainai kids — although I did have a few friends. Sadly, when I moved to Nova Scotia for university, all connection with the Reserve was lost, and I’m finding it difficult to reach out to my former classmates. One reason, I guess, while I don’t mind people across the country reading about me; maybe some of them will get in touch.

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  9. Thank-you! I’ll be visiting the Mush Hole this week and taking photos. I was glad to hear the building will not be torn down.

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  10. hannora froman

    Nice to read this. Not so the children of the Anglican minister who ran the Mohawk Institute when I was there in the ’50s.
    Well the past is gone. As to Truth we are telling.
    Reconciliation – that works both ways but hard to believe as the Truth was deliberately suppressed for so many decades.
    Hope? There is always hope.
    Hannora

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