In 1857, the Gradual Civilization Act was passed to assimilate Indians. It was the objective of both missionaries and government to assimilate aboriginal children into mainstream society.
By 1910, attendance at a residential school was compulsory for all aboriginal children between the ages of seven and 15.
Roughly 150,000 children were forced into schools run by religious denominations and the Canadian government. Some 6,000 of those children died while at school.
The residential school located on what is now Couchiching First Nation was called St. Marguerite’s.
This is the story of brothers Kelvin and Ernie Morrison of Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation (also known as Red Gut First Nation) as told to Fort Frances Times’ advertising manager Debbie Ballard:
Life was good for two young boys. They lived with doting grandparents while their parents went away to work. They learned the ways of their elders, taught and nurtured by their grandparents. They played with toys their grandfather made them–a boat carved from a piece of wood with a prop cut from a sardine can lid, a slingshot, or a flute made from a poplar stick.
The community was just that, a community–where all members were equal, none excluded. The culture was one of sharing. They split up the work and whatever was harvested or hunted. Nothing was eaten until a ceremony was held, thanking the animal for giving its life to feed them.
Then the whole community came together it clean it and cut it up. Each got their portion.
Most food came from the land. Things like flour, sugar, and salt came from Mine Centre, whatever they couldn’t grow, catch or hunt. They had a community garden and a cold storage building. They were never hungry. Everything was shared, even parenting.
The boys always felt loved. In the winter, they went to the trapline with their grandparents. In the summer, they went to the mouth of the Ottertail River, where the main village was and where their community gathered.
It was a happy life.
Everyone spoke softly. The brothers speak softly still.
They were raised with love and laughter within the safety and affection of their family and their community. . . .
(Kelvin’s voice is printed in regular font; Ernie’s voice is in italics)
Then one day everything changed. The Indian Agent came with the priest and an RCMP. They promised a boat ride. What little kid doesn’t like a boat ride? Our parents came along. We were taken to St. Marguerite’s school. I remember walking up the stairs to the school and feeling fear for the very first time in my life.
That was in 1959. I was six years old. I spoke no English.
My parents were powerless. They were threatened with arrest if they didn’t let us go. That’s why the RCMP officer was there.
I remember hanging onto a stair post so they couldn’t take me inside. I understood nothing about what was happening. Finally, another kid was allowed to speak to me in Ojibway. He told me to listen and try to learn English. He told me not to speak Ojibway.
I still don’t speak Ojibway. I understand it but something stops me from speaking it. I have memories of being hit on the back of the head with a ruler if I spoke my own language. I have the scars to prove it.
There were straps of different sizes. Different straps for different punishment. Boys who didn’t listen and conform were put in the middle of a circle of kids, their pants pulled down and beaten with a strap until they bled.
St. Marguerite’s had pedophiles. Me and my brother were both molested by nuns. I have memories of being naked and her hands touching me.
My supervisor was a pedophile, he abused both boys and girls. The scariest time was nighttime because that’s when they come to the dorm and picked out the boy or girl they wanted. It wasn’t safe.
Terror struck when we heard footsteps and we could only pray that we wouldn’t be chosen that night. It was always the younger boys who were chosen.
I have no memory of this man, only the memory of the terror. I’ve blocked it from my mind.
I didn’t think I was being abused, especially by a woman. It’s only been in the past 10 years or so that I’ve been able to talk about it. I heard my brother talking about it and I started telling my stories, too.
My brain would go blank when I was naked and being touched. I refused to think about it. I have huge blanks in my memory from age six to 13.
We were called pigs, put down constantly. Kelvin looks white and he was put down by both natives and the whites.
The things we experienced at school became normalized. Some kids at the school abused other students. This behaviour went back to their families on the reserves, “learned behaviour” they call it. We didn’t realize until years later that it wasn’t right.
How do you tell someone you were introduced to sex at six years old?
We suffered spiritual abuse, forced to become Catholic. We had our own beliefs, taught to us by our grandparents. We went through the motions of becoming and being Catholic to avoid being beaten. We had to go to church, we got baptized, took communion. We had to confess.
What could you have to confess to when you’re six years old?
We were shamed. We weren’t allowed to leave our beds after lights out. We couldn’t go to the bathroom. If someone wet the bed, they were made to wrap the pissy sheets around themselves and parade around.
My supervisor carried a BB gun. He’d shoot us if we didn’t do what we were told. Every day we were subject to physical abuse. The supervisor would play “Cowboys and Indians” and shoot at us for fun. We learned to hide.
One day when we were playing Cowboys and Indians in the gravel pit, we got up on a bluff and threw a piece of clay at him. We knocked him out. No one would confess to doing it so everyone was punished for a month. It was worth it, though.
If I wanted to talk to Ernie, my own brother, I had to sneak. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other. If we got caught, we’d get in trouble.
The kitchen was the best place to work. We could see what the nuns and priests ate compared to what we got. We’d swipe the good food and barter it. Steak for the priests and nuns, macaroni for us. I still won’t eat spaghetti or macaroni and neither will Ernie.
It was lonely. I could hear other boys crying in their beds.
It took us a long time to learn to talk to each other, to feel, to hug each other. To this day a lot of our people can’t hug. Some of this has been handed down to children and grandchildren.
I was 40 years old when my mother first told me she loved me. I broke down and cried.
It wasn’t all bad. There were sports. The boys from Moose Factory, Moosonee, they could run. They’d run all the way to Emo and come in first, even beating the teacher.
There were good people. One of the good nuns was in charge of the laundry. That was a safe place for me. To this day I still like to do laundry. My wife really likes that.
We always had good hockey teams. So good we weren’t always allowed to play in championship tournaments against town leagues.
We had a basketball team. When we got to high school, we became the practice squad. We weren’t allowed to play on the Muskie team. We got called “Wagon Burners” and “Jigaboos.” There’s just so much. . . .
I was in my late 30s before I was finally able to deal with the abuse in my childhood. The first time I talked about being abused, a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. I took a self-awareness program called “Flying on Your Own.” Ernie was in my circle there and that’s when we realized we’d both been abused.
It was the strong foundation given to us by our grandparents that saved us.
When we started walking our spiritual traditional ways, our parents would scold. They were afraid the government would do something. That fear is still in them. They thought we would bring hard to ourselves and others in the family. “Ojiine” is they word they used–meaning it will cause harm, bad things will happen.
Eventually they changed their minds. We did it because we want to bring good change and maybe lessen some of the social problems in our community.
Our culture was always based on helping the least fortunate. The community is the family. We forgot how to be humans and how to be compassionate.
The things I practice today help. Therapy and counselling helped me to understand. Our culture helps me understand. The rituals of daily life and community are healing.
The culture pushes me to the good things. Ernie and I are both pipe carriers, we help others. We are all sweat lodge keepers.
We are trying to rebuild our families, govern ourselves. We have to work through our past first. There are still a lot of social problems. We choose to move forward. We talk with others who are on their healing journey. Everyone is at a different place in their journey.
My wife used to get mad at me. She says I don’t know how to show love, how to show my feelings. Inside I wanted to tell her but I always stayed silent. I was really good at staying silent. To this day, I want to go silent when someone gets mad at me.
I told my wife everything, the truth about my whole life. I didn’t keep nothing from her. She told the truth about her life and it made us stronger, closer. We’ve been married 40 years.
I don’t feel like a whole person. There is a big part of my life I don’t remember. I know what’s wrong with me but I want my life back. Talking with other residential school survivors helps me. We gather the pieces of our lives together.
Today we’re happy for the most part. There is no blame in our hearts.
You can find Kelvin working for the Seven Generations Education Institute here. He works as a translator and educator–one of the few St. Marguerite’s survivors able to speak Ojibway.
He has a college degree, defying the predictions of the nuns that he was stupid and never would amount to anything.
Ernie is retired. He was a carpenter–a trade he learned at Seven Gens.
Editor’s note: “We Were Taught Differently: The Indian Residential School Experience” remains on exhibit on the main floor of the Fort Frances Museum through the summer while a secondary exhibit by Couchiching historian Glenn Jourdain is located in the second-floor gallery.