Book focuses on railcars, residential schools

Duane Hicks

Local author Jack Hedman’s new work, “Dire Needs–Dire Straits,” focuses on two very different modes of education that ran here from the 1930s to the mid-1960s.
The book, which will be launched this Saturday (Dec. 2) from noon-3 p.m. at Betty’s, contains first-person accounts of area residents who attended railcar classrooms and residential schools, as well as a plethora of photos to accompany their stories.
“These stories had nothing to do with local boards of education,” said Hedman, a retired school teacher who spent the last two-and-a-half years writing the book.
“The basic truth is that both were a creation of government,” he noted.
In the case of the railcar classrooms, Hedman said the provincial government, the railroad industry, and a brilliant young educator named Dr. J. M. McDougall were the main characters responsible for the inception–and success–of the “school on wheels.”
“Readers will discover that this program satisfied a very ‘dire need’ in the province,” explained Hedman, referring to the title of his book.
The railcar classroom program was conducted in a refurbished passenger coach that travelled the rails on the backs of freight trains.
Sidings were built along the lines to accommodate this “itinerant classroom” for stretches of five-six days, he noted.
“The students it served were the children off immigrants displaced following the world wars, First Nations’ children, and some adults with little or no education,” said Hedman.
“These students were very eager to learn and became a captivated audience,” he added. “I read reports indicating close to 100 percent attendance, which is unheard of today.”
One young man paddled and snowshoed 40 km in order to attend classes, noted Hedman. He encountered 40 F below zero weather and ended up building himself a shack near the siding for a winter residence.
Hedman also recorded the recollections of local residents Mike Solomon and the late Lawrence Allan, both of whom learned in railcar classrooms.
On a darker note, the second part of the book focuses on the stories of Dick Bird and Glen Jourdain, who attended the St. Marguerite’s Indian Residential School here, and Don Jones, who attended the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, where he was a contemporary of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack.
“‘Dire straits’ seems to me the best way to describe the Indian residential school program,” said Hedman, referring to the second part of his book’s title.
Hedman admitted that in all his years as a student (he majored in history) and teacher, he never learned about residential schools. It’s only in the past decade that he has found out more about them, just as many other Canadians have.
“There is very little evidence in the history of these so-called schools where education received top billing,” he remarked.
Attendance was mandatory with no consent required by the parents, and in many cases, children were taken forcibly.
“They did not receive the love and attention that the school [railcar] program provided,” Hedman stressed. “The [residential] schools were ill-equipped to provide compassion when their stated mandate was to ‘take the Indian out of the child.’
“[The student’s] name was taken away from them and substituted with a number,” he noted. “Severe punishment was doled out to those who spoke their own language.”
Many of the students had no way to see their families for long periods of time, and the structure of their lives was mandated by the church in many cases.
The government merely was “a bystander” and provided funding that would be looked upon today as “totally inadequate.”
“The best analogy I can think of is that these children were placed in an environment that resembled a prison,” said Hedman.
While Bird, Jourdain, and Jones all shared heartfelt but often sad stories for the book, Hedman noted none of them blamed the government or church for their experiences.
“To a person, they all said, ‘I got an education that I might never have had if it were not for these schools,'” he recounted.
“But it begs the question: ‘At what price?'”
The book closes with a look at the apologies that have been made to Indigenous peoples and reconciliation efforts going forward.
For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Summary, contains 94 recommendations to help rectify “a most horrific past,” and in doing so, presents “the opportunity to right past wrongs,” including addressing the disconnect that many indigenous people now experience with Mother Earth, said Hedman.
“The ugly head of colonization is a very real and a heartfelt source of loss for these people,” he noted.
Hedman also was granted full permission from the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops to include in the book a working paper it recently developed that is “food for thought.”
“The Vatican is often pointed to as the rationale for conquest in the Americas,” he noted. “[But] what I have read suggests that this accusation is false, and has been used in North America to justify the taking of land and intolerable injustices.
“It’s an interesting stance and one that I have never seen before.”
Hedman believes Canadians have a strong desire to be responsible and hopes reconciliation will happen one day.
“If we can own up to the atrocious treatment of the first inhabitants of Canada, then it behooves us to right past wrongs,” Hedman reasoned.
This is not going to happen by throwing money at the problem, which is a “stopgap” and “a feel good initiative” that has been used far too much in this country, he stressed.
It has not worked in the past–and won’t work in the future.
“I believe that the best source of hope can be vested in our children’s education and wise counsel in the home,” Hedman said.
“I have seen initiatives take place in the last year and it gives me a strong indication that reconciliation–no matter how long it takes–is within our grasp.”
As noted, the launch for “Dire Needs–Dire Straits” will be held this Saturday at Betty’s.
Starting on that day, the book also will be sold at Pharmasave, Northwoods Gallery & Gifts, the Fort Frances Museum, the Fort Frances Seniors’ Centre (Sister Kennedy Centre). and Tompkins Hardware in Emo.
It costs $20 each.
Only 250 copies of the self-published book have been printed but, as Hedman said, he’s not really intended it to become a national best-seller.
“It’s a local book for local people who can understand it through local eyes,” he explained.
In addition to various magazine articles that have been published over the years, Hedman wrote “The Gift of Gab: A Collection of Recollections” back in 2012.
This book featured three tall tales as told by the late local bus driver Sid Asselin, who passed away in 2002.