Canada’s residential school settlement a bitter disappointment

By Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country
Count yourself lucky if you, as a Native, never had to experience the traumas of being placed, against your will, in one of Canada’s residential schools. Whatever horror tales you may have heard are true. I know because I was there. I saw the beatings, listened to the weeping of the students and saw many incidents of sexual abuse. While initially shocking to an 11-year-old from Kanatakon, I learned to suppress my outrage at seeing my friends humiliated, their spirits broken, their physical selves violated by adults who were in positions of trust and had unqualified power to do to us what they willed.

In January 1967 my brother Dean and I were shipped off, anonymously, to the infamous Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario, over 350 miles from our Akwesasne (St. Regis) home. We were told by the Indian Affairs social workers that the school would provide us with schooling, a warm, safe place to live and good food to eat. We should have realized the magnitude of the lie when we arrived at the train station and waited for many hours, far past midnight, for one of the supervisors (called “housefathers”) to come and pick us up. He forgot there were two children, hungry, confused and so terrified after being abandoned we found it impossible to speak. Frustrated by our silence and the way in which we refused to lift our heads, the station master wanted to force us out into the January snow as we were preventing him from going home. He finally guessed right: these two skinny boys in their cast off clothes must be bound for the Institute.

The Mohawk Institute stood for many generations as the source of fear for hundreds of students, confined behind its red brick exterior. It consisted of five large buildings: a four story residence with attached dining hall, a fairly new school and two barns which housed livestock and hay along with a shed for farm equipment. 1967 was the last year the Institute had an operating farm but planting crops in its large fields and maintaining an orchard at the entrance to the school would continue until its closing two and a half years later.

I am pleased to state that our arrival led to a series of events which forced the federal government to investigate the Institute and force its closure; I am angry that the investigation stemmed, in part, from the death of our great friend, a 12-year-old Algonquin from Gold Lake named Joey Commanda. Joey, who spoke with a wonderful Cockney accent from mysterious origins, was our pal and co-conspirator as we fought to keep ourselves safe while engaging in many acts of defiance, both personal and collective.

We were bad students. We learned why it was called the “mushhole” at 6:30 AM on the first day of our 18 month stay there. The “housefather” found narrow, metal bunk beds for us to sleep earlier that morning but we did not rest. Our fear was raw and made worse when a harsh bell sounded to awaken the other students followed by the turning on of brilliant fluorescent lights. We lay on the thin mattresses surrounded by dozens of thin Cree boys, staring at these two newcomers, placed as if by magic in their dorm.

The Crees had been bussed from hundreds of miles away. Most of them came from the James Bay region in Quebec and others from Waswanipi in the central part of the province. Their names were Happyjack, Otter, Gull, Ottereyes. They had been selected to replace the Iroquois students and were, by the time of our arrival, the largest group at the Institute. A small contingent of Akwesasne Mohawks were also there as were a few Iroquois from Oshweken, one Anishnabe boy from Christian Island, another Mohawk from Tyendinaga and our pals from Golden Lake: Joey, Rocky and their brother Guy. Across a closely guarded hallway was the girls dorm with “housemothers” as overseers. Many very bad things happened there, abuses beyond our imagination initially, but all too common as the months dragged by.

The only way the “housefathers” kept control over the boys in our section was to organize us into platoons with the biggest boys in charge of the smallest ones. We learned from the first day to stand at attention, march at the sound of a whistle and take our assigned place in a basement which contained the kitchen and our dining room. We were fed burnt toast, powdered milk and mush, a watery porridge which slid through the stomach and bowels, hence the name “mushhole.” This was our breakfast, an aberration of the food we had been assured would be ours in abundance. Another lie with many more to follow. The other daily meals were as bad and nutriionally corrupt. Forty years later, I feel the shadow pains of hunger whenever I think about the Institute; we were always scratching for the smallest of food morsels to fill growling stomachs. But for that food every one of the students should have been seven feet tall and able to bend steel or so it seemed in our restless dreams.

The military structure of the Mushhole carried over into other areas and activities. We were signed up to be Navy cadets. We marched as squads the few times we left the school as a group. We responded to bells and whistles. We were beaten with the same straps used for corporal punishment in the Royal Navy.

How we came to be expelled from the Institute is another story, one which gives us pride to the present day for we, the notorius, thieving, fighting, runaway “St. Regis boys” were the only collective group ever to accomplish this.

And so too is the death of Joey Commanda, struck by a train near Toronto as he fled a hell hole from which his friends had been thrown out. But Joey’s family made a lot of noise and compelled others to look at the entire residential school system. He died but saved so many others from the horrors of the mushhole and the clutches of child rapists.

So now Canada has begun to issue checks to cover its shame. The amounts are trivial compared to the tens of millions paid to the lawyers who represented the student survivors. $45,000,000 at last count. Each one of us, by sickening contrast, get $10,000 for the first year of our confinements and $3,000 for each year thereafter. For many, this triviality compounds our anger while for others it rips open wounds which no amount of money can heal.

But I wonder: How much will Canada pay for Joey Commanda, walking in fear along an isolated stretch of train tracks, shuffling his way homewards hundreds of miles in the distance, wishing his Akwesasne pals were there to show him the way. Maybe the lawyers can chip in and buy him a decent memorial.

Or perhaps, they can stop the rumbling train in my mind before it hits Joey and drives his nearby brother Rocky insane.


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