Sihkos’ Story, Part III: Guy Hill Residential School
Jane Glennon (Woodland Cree), B.A., B.S.W., M.S.W., is a retired social worker, counsellor and teacher who currently lives in Prince Albert, SK. This is the third in her series of writings for MI about her time at residential school and beyond; consult parts one and two for earlier instalments.
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My first residential school having burned to the ground, what was supposed to be a summer stay with family was mercifully extended to December.
When winter came, our parents had us all move into a small, one-room log cabin built by my father. Somehow, nine people fit inside that tiny structure, a lone wood stove doing its best to keep us warm. There was no concrete flooring; all we had to sleep on was thick bedding placed atop tree boughs and canvass material.
Despite our obvious poverty, I remember nothing but contentedness and happiness, and we young children found our thrills where we could, such as all-day sliding sessions down a nearby hill. Sometimes we’d accompany my mother to check on her rabbit snares (pictured above). Made of stainless steel wire that could be readily bent into a circle, this contraption was attached to a stick low to the ground. Once the rabbit’s head went through the wire trap, the contraption would snap. Highly visible rabbit tracks made it easy for my mother to figure out where to set the snares.
But the snares proved just as useful to other creatures, allowing some animals (likely owls) to help themselves to the spoils. This prompted my mother to hatch a plan of checking the snares at night. Some of us kids tagged along, and I remember how brightly the full moon illuminated the forest. Everything was quiet. All we could hear was the snow crunching beneath our feet: that and maybe the sound of our hungry stomachs, hoping tonight’s moonlit walk would result in tomorrow’s delicious rabbit soup.
Beyond a modest family allowance of five dollars per child, there was no welfare available, so my father also provided for us by trapping and hunting. There were some extremely hard economic times. Things got so bad at one point that my father had to approach the Northern Store manager to see if he could borrow some frozen fish the manager had been saving for his dogs. I could easily tell how very low and desperate my father felt doing this, but his pride had to be put aside if he was to feed his family.
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The day would eventually come for my return to residential school, only this time in a new building and in a new province. Upon my arrival at the Guy Hill Indian Residential School in The Pas, Manitoba — some 90-odd kilometres southeast of my last school — I was subjected to the same coal-oil delousing I had gone through at Sturgeon Landing. Here too our original outfits were taken away, to be either trashed or burned, and individual numbers assigned to us for identification purposes.
Accompanying me on my first days at this new institution was my older sister Charlotte (continuing the support mission our parents had sent her on at my first school). Two other sisters would later come to Guy Hill when they were of school age. By this point, Charlotte had been deemed ‘unteachable’ by those in charge, so they had her work as a maid instead. Charlotte would carry out these domestic duties at Guy Hill until she turned sixteen, three years after our arrival in 1950.
Clothes for newly-admitted girls included dresses or skirts, plus thick navy bloomers (a kind of undergarment or panty). In between the dress/skirt and the bloomer was an awkwardly-designed slip: featuring a pocket in the middle, it meant that, in order for us to reach our hankies, we’d have to lift up our skirts or dresses. This involuntary exhibitionism left me feeling embarrassed whenever I had a cold, especially when we were in the presence of the boys.
Still on the subject of clothes, I remember one time I had been given what I perceived to be some sort of uniform. Convinced that I had been promoted to a leadership role of some kind, I beamed with pride at my new ‘honour.’ I later found out that the dress was actually just something a girls’ scout troop had donated to the school.
Students were taught according to the provincial curriculum, delivered by the nuns and a few lay teachers. Classes featured no Aboriginal content whatsoever: clearly, the objective here was to assimilate and acculturate Native students. Time and time again, we were reminded of how we had to be civilized. After all, it’s why we were brought to this residential school environment — to forget that we were Indians so that we’d become productive little brown white people capable of joining mainstream society. Still, I must have learned something because I kept passing, even excelling in some subjects, as I earned the required grades to move on.
It was surely an injustice that we were not allowed to learn our history as Aboriginal people. I wondered why we had to study foreign cultures like the ancient Egyptians. Meantime, some of us had come into the school having learned Aboriginal spirituality from our parents, but these students were told that they had to forget these practices because they were ‘pagan.’ The Catholic religion was pounded into our heads on a daily basis.
The one bit of relief came courtesy of a class clown (every classroom seems to have one). I recall one morning when the teacher-nun had briefly left the room, the perfect opportunity for this boy to push out a big loud fart. Upon hearing the entire class roar with laughter, the teacher-nun came rushing back in to see what the commotion was all about. Walking directly up to the class clown, she demanded: “Please repeat your joke.” Once again, the class immediately burst out laughing, a moment of hilarity that made everyone’s otherwise boring day.
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Where Guy Hill differed most from Sturgeon Landing was in the way it segregated students into groups of small, medium and big girls. This segregation eventually alienated a number of us from our younger, smaller siblings. As a consequence, over the course of my time at Guy Hill, I would increasingly come to reject my younger sister. It was not until after we’d both left school that we became reacquainted, something I found very difficult. For the longest time, I could not forgive myself for what I had done to her. Even today, I have not fully apologized to my sister for rejecting and neglecting her while at Guy Hill. Today, I try to make amends to her in as many ways as I can.
What skills Guy Hill did provide students were of a mostly practical, household nature. The nuns taught us girls how to knit our stockings, socks, mittens and scarves (perhaps the one useful ability I picked up in all my time there). The bigger girls also took turns performing such tasks as mending as well as washing clothes, stairs and floors. The nuns used to constantly stress the importance of doing everything to perfection: for some students, such nagging meant they went on to become clean freaks as adults. (Whether that is a negative or positive characteristic is anyone’s guess. Happily, I have not been so impacted. My housekeeping standards have always been wanting, carried out only according to my inclination and no one else’s.)
Girls would also help out in the kitchen, peeling potatoes and preparing vegetables. Meanwhile, I liked cleaning up the dining room where the priests and brothers ate — thanks to their privileged plates, they regularly dined on much finer foods — because I could then help myself to leftovers when the nuns weren’t looking. The nuns likewise ate much better than we did, leaving us to be satisfied with mediocre rations.
Still with food, I recall one late afternoon when five of us girls waited anxiously on the porch for the baker to bring that week’s supply of fresh bread to school. Soon after he had neatly stacked the loaves and was on his way, we attacked them like starved little animals. With each of us ripping up a loaf, we devoured almost the entire shipment. Of course, it wouldn’t take long for us to get caught and, while it meant we were denied that night’s supper and movie, we all agreed that it was well worth it.
Now, as punishments go, that was relatively mild. But, in fact, fear and intimidation never felt far from the surface at Guy Hill. I’ll never forget the time this one nun got into a fight with a student. The girl’s medium build was no match for the burly nun’s enormous weight. It all started because the young girl was upset that her little sister’s hair had been forcibly cut by a school employee. Next thing I know, I’m part of a circle of students, some of us with tears in our eyes, unable to do anything but watch this stout older woman pin down and pound on this poor girl. We were all so scared; none of us had the courage to intervene. How desperate and helpless I felt watching this abuse. If I remember correctly, as a consequence of this clash, the girl was sent home, which I thought was totally unfair because no caregiver should ever resort to that type of treatment.
Some of us girls developed a saying whenever one of the nuns scolded us. We used to whisper the word, kiyâm (kee-YAM), which in Cree means “I don’t care.” We also said it whenever one of the nuns used to whisper “sauvage” under their breath. (Despite their use of French, we understood perfectly well that they considered us savages.) The word kiyâm frustrated the nuns to no end, their faces becoming beet red, a reaction we little rascals enjoyed immensely.
Another intimidating incident I recall involved me and a boy with whom I was friends at school. With the rules forbidding any talking on the stairway between students, my friend and I had been ‘caught in the act’ by a janitor, who then immediately took us to the principal’s office. The first thing the principal asks when we get there is what the date of my last period was, his not-so-subtle implication that the boy and I had been sexually active. I assured the principal that nothing of the sort had happened, but he was determined to punish me. His strap in hand, the principal then proceeded to instruct me to drop my bloomers down to my ankles. But I had made up my mind that I was not getting strapped for something that I did not do. I started to cry, and after much convincing on my part that I hadn’t done anything wrong, the principal relented, but not before making me promise never to talk to the boy again.
Incidents like these made it clear to me that the priest and nuns most likely thought of us boys and girls as little more than immoral pagans and savages constantly preoccupied with fornication. I would later come to realize that, if anyone had had a hard time suppressing these kinds of thoughts, it was them — the people whose supposed vows of chastity seemed to only fuel the fire that would leave so many kids scarred. There is much more to tell here, I’m afraid, but, for now, it is a story best left to another day.
As a young girl, I had not been taught about menstruation, either at home and school. I thus came to regard it as something shameful, and when my period would come every month, I did everything to hide it. I remember that I used to wash my underwear whenever I could and wear it soaking wet. It was a very trying time for me. As for the school itself, all it offered in the way of menstrual pads at the time were flannel cloths. Staff made us soak our soiled cloths in the bathtub, then take turns rinsing them prior to washing. The stench was unbearable. (Later, the school did eventually supply girls with actual menstrual pads.) But that wasn’t the only substitution forced upon us. Instead of regular toilet paper, we were made to use cut-up, square pieces of newspaper. I assumed such deprivation was a way to save the school money.
Meanwhile, what little recreation we were permitted typically came with its share of negatives. For example, the school often selected films depicting stereotypical ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ with the Indians always portrayed as stupid losers. The assimilation process was certainly at work here: I remember well how some girls used to later re-enact and reflect some of the movies’ themes at playtime. Contrast that experience with the annual dog sled races, which we were never allowed to watch even though some of us knew some of the participants who’d come from our reserves. Undaunted, we snuck around anyway and saw the races through the windows. Of course, for those who were caught, it meant a night without supper or a movie.
At Christmas time, I remember the children were given the opportunity to visit Santa Claus at some downtown location. We felt privileged as we carried our little bags of candy, the only time that we were allowed to enjoy such treats. Though I doubt it was because staff were concerned about tooth decay: our dental care was administered once a year, usually by a foreign doctor who’d rather pull out teeth than try to save them. It was assumed more money could be made that way, a rationale that infused much of the overall health care we received as children.
Turning from matters of the body to those of the spirit, my attitude towards Christianity was deeply and enduringly shaped by my time at residential schools, but not in the way those responsible for their creation likely intended. As a result of having to go to church almost every single day at school, I honestly believe that this is why, from the moment I left school, I never went back to church. I would like to believe that God is fair and just. I hope that He hears me as I pray on my own. However, I regret very much that I did not act to instil a sense of spirituality within my own children. When he was five, I had my son Rick baptized in the Catholic Church but this is the one and only time he’s ever attended a service. Had his father been Catholic, or had we been of the same faith, perhaps things would have turned out differently. We were of the opinion that our children would decide on their own as adults what religion to embrace, a decision I very much wish I could have over again. I now see that being forced to attend church as a child had still affected the way I approached religion as a parent, just one of the many ways my earlier experience would later impact my children.
There are parallels here perhaps with my parents and me. Growing up, they were not church goers. As I mentioned in an earlier instalment, when my parents migrated to Southend, SK they were the only Anglicans amidst a community of Catholics. Like me, my mother was a residential school product and, also like me, she consciously or unconsciously decided not to teach her children any religion. This is partly why I believe my mother underwent the same assimilation process as I did. In fact, I can honestly say that all of my siblings experienced residential school impacts growing up. That said, I acknowledge that my mother tried her best as a parent, and did so despite carrying the struggles that came with being orphaned at a young age then placed in an arranged marriage.
I eventually did try to embrace Aboriginal spirituality, when my adult daughter Samara and I took part in a ceremony to receive our Native names. However, that’s where our participation in such practices ended; again, I think that’s because I was too deeply brainwashed by my Catholic indoctrination at the schools. Even today, I struggle to rid myself of the fear that I will be condemned forever if I ever decide to leave the Church altogether.
In my next instalment, I will write of my time at yet another residential school, one that would take me the furthest I’d ever been from my home.