When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada visits Vancouver from September 18 to 21, it will stimulate a great deal of discussion about Indian residential schools.
That’s because the TRC’s mandate includes promoting public education about this issue and providing “a holistic, culturally appropriate and safe setting for former students, their families and communities as they come forward” to share stories.
However, the commission is not required to delve into the experiences of students who attended Indian day schools, which were located near First Nations reserves. That’s because the day schools were not included in the settlement agreement reached between the Assembly of First Nations, the federal government, and various churches to bring an end to numerous lawsuits arising from abuse in residential schools.
This concerns Andy Wilson, a member of the Haida Nation who attended an Indian day school on Haida Gwaii. In an interview at the Georgia Straight office, he described how he and fellow First Nations students were beaten and strapped for speaking their language and expressing their culture at the school, which was operated by the United Church of Canada.
“We weren’t allowed to speak Haida, not even mention a word in Haida,” Wilson said. “We weren’t allowed to draw. We weren’t allowed to sing and dance. We weren’t allowed to talk about anything about Haida culture.”
And if they disobeyed, Wilson said that they were “whipped across the face” and sometimes “whipped across the back”.
“This was happening throughout my kindergarten, Grade 1, 2, and 3,” he recalled. “When I went home to tell my parents what had happened to me, they just told me I had to listen to what the teachers were doing, were telling us, [even when they] were telling us not to speak Haida.”
Wilson, who now lives on the Musqueam reserve, said that he didn’t understand why his parents didn’t defend him. Only after he grew up did he realize that if his parents had spoken out, they could have been arrested by the RCMP. He said all the other aboriginal students in his school had a similar experience.
“I lost that connection with my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents,” he stated. “I lost my whole culture for a while. I think it’s coming back slowly, and I’ve worked really hard at that.”
He acknowledged overcoming struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. “It was a long time that I just felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.”
Wilson spent two decades looking after the Bill Reid canoe on Haida Gwaii. In this position, he reconnected with his culture and appeared in several documentaries. He moved to Vancouver when his wife enrolled in a UBC master’s program.
He said that there are programs for residential-school survivors, but very little for those who went through Indian day schools. “We still haven’t gotten to the point where we’re openly talking about it,” he suggested. “Sometimes, I feel anger and I feel hurt, and my kids want to know why. I try to tell them about what it was like for me to grow up in Indian day school.”
The Manitoba-based Joan Jack Law Office has launched a class-action lawsuit on behalf of aboriginal day-school students. Earlier this month, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the firm has received more than 10,000 forms from people in Western Canada who want to be part of the lawsuit.
Sometimes, nonaboriginal callers to radio talk shows liken the abuse meted out to aboriginal students to the strappings they received before corporal punishment was outlawed in B.C.
Wilson, however, took exception to that analogy.
“They were getting strapped for breaking a rule in school,” he said. “We were getting strapped for being Haida. We were getting whipped for talking our language, trying to maintain our culture.…We weren’t getting punished. We were getting beaten and tortured.”