Marking the End of a ‘Dark Era’
Residential school demolition ceremony gives former residents a chance to heal.
It’s been 70 years since Pauline Alfred, then six years old, started at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, a tiny village on Cormorant Island just off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Operated by the Anglican Church from 1929 until 1974, the school housed up to 200 aboriginal children a year, forced to attend by the local government Indian agent.
Alfred remembers how school officials addressed her — not by name — but by her student number, 564, during the six years she spent at St. Michael’s.
“I’m surprised I remember my name,” said Alfred, 76, a member of the Kwikwasut’inuxw First Nation. “If they found your jacket on the floor they’d yell your number out, and you had to run for it to grab that jacket to hang it up. If you didn’t then you got hit with a strap.”
Alfred still lives in Alert Bay where she met her husband and raised seven children. She looks at the crumbling brick building almost every day; a disturbing sight, which she says has kept some St. Michael’s survivors from returning to Alert Bay.
That will change today when as many as 600 visitors are expected to descend on the island of less than 1,300 people for a healing ceremony to mark the demolition of St. Michael’s, although the building itself will be taken apart in stages because of asbestos inside.
“So many survivors are reminded of their experience in there [by the building], and of course that’s traumatizing for many of them,” said Chief Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, who spent 11 years as a student in St. Michael’s and is organizing today’s event for the ‘Namgis First Nation.
“Part of the reason why they’re really welcoming the demolition is that it’s going to remove that blight on the landscape and that blight in their mind’s eye about their life experience there.”
Born on Gilford Island — about 100 kilometres from Alert Bay — and raised by her mother, grandmother and great-aunts, Alfred recalled happier times before St. Michael’s: “They spoiled me, they hugged me, and they said they loved me, and they would sing songs for me.”
Her memories of residential school are much darker. The first day she arrived, Alfred only spoke Kwakwala language. She didn’t understand the words staff said to her when they threw out the pretty dresses her mother had made and packed for her.
With no nurturing adult figure in her life at school, Alfred was plagued by loneliness and hunger. She can still smell the bacon and eggs cooked for staff when children were forced to eat porridge. Alfred said some kids told her their meals contained worms.
“They brought us to that school so we could be good Christian girls,” she said. “But it just taught us how to steal because we’re hungry. It taught us how to lie because if we told the truth we’d get strapped.”
One of 18 residential schools in B.C., St. Michael’s opened in 1929 and took students until 1974 when it closed. After that, the ‘Namgis First Nation took over and had several uses for the building including housing its own school, a restaurant, a nightclub and band offices.
As recently as 2001, the band wanted to house a language centre in the building to help preserve and revive the Kwakwala language. But it was unable to raise the $15 million necessary. Eventually the space was used for carvers, but the cost of heating and maintenance became too much and the band closed St. Michael’s doors for good in 2012.
Chief Joseph, 75, was a couple weeks away from turning seven when he started at St. Michael’s in 1946. For over a decade he suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of staff. He believes even the students who were never touched are traumatized.
“There was no redeeming grace about taking little children away from their families, homes and communities; destroying their sense of pride and their language; and stripping them of the ability to have loving relationships with their parents and family,” he said.
Day of prayers and speeches
Today’s day-long ceremony will feature prayers and speeches from former students — including Alfred, who will lead the Survivors’ Prayer — representatives from the ‘Namgis First Nation, an Anglican Church representative, the Assembly of First Nations, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, and Reconciliation Canada, an aboriginal-led charity aiming to bridge the divide between indigenous communities and settler Canadians.
Former students and their families will have the chance to strike back by throwing stones at the building, as well as honouring students — through songs and prayer — who did not return to their homelands after they left the school.
Alfred isn’t looking forward to the ceremony. “Why would I throw rocks at that school?” she asked, noting that it was people who caused harm — not the building. “It was the people that built it, and the Indian agent, and the white staff.”
Chief Joseph says no one will be forced to participate if they aren’t comfortable.
“The main theme in this gathering is to mark the passing of a dark era, and look to the future with hope and optimism,” he said, adding that includes survivors finding their own path to healing.
“We should no longer be defined by that building and that history, otherwise we’ll be doomed to pass on the same characteristics of the next generation.”