“What are your hopes for future generations?”
That they can understand where everything is coming from and we can go on through forgiveness… and that hopefully we all heal from the residential school.
I was born on a trapline, in Ekwan, which is 35 miles from Attawapiskat. My father had a trap line. That’s where I was born. I was born premature. My mother carried me for eight months. Imagine that, eh, on a trapline.
We were on the trapline during the winter, so come Christmas all the families come back to the community to celebrate Christmas, come to church … and they exchanged gifts, like bannock or food, wild food, that’s what they exchanged. And that’s the kind of traditional lifestyle that was going on …and I really enjoyed that, because I lived it.
I was born 1951 and my father left the trap line 1952 to find a job, so we came to Moosonee. My father found work first with the Catholic mission. And then after, when there was an opening, he found work with Ontario Northland. Manual labour. That’s what they used long time ago; it’s not like today. The train would stop every twelve miles; there would be laborers every twelve miles. They have to shovel the snow in the winter time and change the ties. It was always manual labour.
I lived at mileage 83, Foxville, on the tracks where my dad worked. But while my father worked there we snared rabbits, we went fishing the summer time [and] we picked berries. Blueberries and strawberries and raspberries. Whenever my father killed a moose, my mother would show us how to prepare moose hide. We had all kinds of traditional food, us. In the spring my father would go out and kill geese. My mother would make smoked meat. You can preserve the food throughout the winter. Even the fish: smoked fish. We always had wild food and I would always wake up in the morning to the smell of bannock. My mother would be making bannock on the wood stove and then there would be the aroma of wild food. That was my life. I really enjoyed my life.
It would be the section and the foreman and their families. It would be about 6-10 families. There was lots of us kids, so we would play together, or we would walk to another section. Mileage 83 is not far from the radar. There used to be a radar base there, so me and the foreman’s daughter, we would walk there, to the radar base, because they had this little store there we went to buy junk, our treats. And then we would hitch a ride back with the section.
My mother taught me how to do bead work. It was very good for families long time ago. We learned when we were very young to work. We would do all kinds of bead work. We would make little broaches, small ones. They would teach us to make necklaces and my mother used to make my dresses. Just hand sewn. We ordered from Eaton’s for winter coat and winter boots.
We never had any transistor radios, no, we never had iPods, you know, we never had a TV … and yet life was so good. We enjoyed our lives, we played outside, we did chores. I never heard “I’m bored”, never.
We were taught to help others. And we shared food. And my parents would tell us, “Go help other families.” For instance, if a mother had a baby then we would have to go and help that mother. If she needed water, we would have to go get water for her. If she needed her dishes done, we would have to wash her dishes. It was always something to do. We have to haul water with a yoke and pails for our home or for other people who we help. We never complained.
For some reason I wondered where my siblings went sometimes; I didn’t really know. They would go away. They would leave on a plane, my older siblings. It seems like they went to a residential school because there was no school along the tracks where my dad worked. My older sister also told me it was to make things easier for my mother. Cause my mother had to use a scrubbing board to wash clothes. And it would be easier for her if we all went; this is what my sister thought.
I was excited going away that morning to the residential school on a float plane. When we landed on Anderson Island a truck pick us up. We went on a little plane. We got picked up by a dump truck. That’s how they pick us up at Anderson Island and took us to the residential school. I really remember the way my mood changed. It’s like everybody was quiet.
When we went to the big stone building. When we went in there, everything was taken away from us. The clothes we had on, they were removed and taken away. I felt I should not [have] ever gone there; this is the way I felt. And it dawned on me that I would be there for ten months, and that was a long time. They cut our hair. When we got there everyone had their hair cut. We had our hair cut very short and they put something on our hair, some white powder. I found out many years later that this white powder is what is used to destroy bugs in the garden, that’s what it was. And they would leave it on for a couple of days. We were given a number. We were all given a number and we always had to sit at the same place. We had benches in the dining room and we all had to sit in the same spot we were assigned. And the food was terrible. And we had to eat everything whether we like it or not. There was a brother there that made bread. The bread was good. Homemade bread. But the food that was made in the big pot, it was goulash and we had to eat whatever they cook. It was gross. We were assigned chores, even as little kids. We had to clean the sinks in the bathroom, clean the bathtub, sweep the floor. Everybody had a chore.
The boys and girls were kept in a different part of the building. I think the boys had better food than we did. But there were bad things that happened to the boys. I remember seeing them from our side of the building. I remember seeing them all wet in the winter time, playing outside. Because the washroom doors were locked. They couldn’t go when they wanted to. But us girls, our washroom was always open and we could go anytime we want. There was a sister that took care of the boys and she liked to treat the boys mean. There was a sister that look after the girls, at times she was not that mean. At times she would be kind.
We would come back in June and to go back at the end of August. I went there for four years. I couldn’t have stayed [home] because my father had a good job and my mother was a good mother. She was traditional: always doing handicrafts and cooking food. The reason why I kept going back [to residential school] is because my sister and my brothers were there. But, after the fourth year I told my mom, “I cried all the time. When I go to bed, I cry.” And she said, “You don’t have to go back,” and I never went back.
My sister, they took her on the last year and dressed her like a nun and the nun said, “God is calling your sister.” The girls were taken away; it was not their choice. Eventually they left where they were and they went home, got married… because it was not their choice.
They found me a school in Toronto, a girls school. It was probably a training school. There [was] about a 150 girls there from all nationalities, whether they were English, French, coloured or Indian, any kids went there, any colour. St. Joseph’s nuns took care of us. Things were so different there. Better different. We had one round table and four girls sit at the table. We had a glass for milk, we had our plate, we had our bowl, we had silver. A big dining room. The food was good. We had bacon and eggs, we had porridge, we had fruit. Not like the residential school. The thing is, I miss my mom. I miss my mom in Toronto, but I continued learning the things that she taught me like sewing, so the woman that was giving me sewing lessons she would always hug me, she was always of proud me because I was good at sewing.
And the school too they taught us dancing lessons, and back in those days we had dances like the Charleston, the foxtrot, the samba. We went swimming, we had a pool right there, outside. And in the summertime we went camping. I went home on special occasions; there was no reason why they should hold me back. The only reason I was there was because of the school. They let me go home. They were worried about me travelling alone, but I was okay. They kept asking me, “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” and I said, “Yeah, I’ll be okay.” I travelled from Toronto to Moosonee by myself. The only thing I was scared I was going to miss the train in North Bay there we had to get off and wait and I would fall asleep in the middle of the night. I was so worried I would miss the train, I’d be falling asleep and it would be cold, the door would be open, the cold air coming in. But I made it home and then I would go back again. They told me I could go home and stay with my parents, I could go to school in Moosonee, but it’s up to you, or you could go to Toronto. I live in Toronto for seven years. Seven years. I just kept coming back and forth, back and forth all those years.
You know what I explain to young people? Like, if I know that their parents or grandparents went to residential school. I am really hurt sometime when I hear young people disrespect their parents and I tell them a little bit of their history. I tell them,
“Your parents were in a residential school and because of that they don’t how to be parents, because the people that took care us, that’s not my mom and dad, these were nuns, they were surrogate parenting. They just looked after us, they never explained things to us, they didn’t guide us. More or less they tried to change us from who we were. We didn’t want that.”
I didn’t know what was going on, because I was too young, so when I raised my kids I didn’t have no parenting skills because of my residential school experience.
For instance in my family I tell my grandkids, “Your dad never went home in the summer time. Your dad just stayed [at the] school. Because there was no place for him to go home to. That’s how life was. So I tell them you should love your dad. You should learn to forgive your dad.” That is a very good thing to tell them and explain to them. So then they will understand, and they can forgive their dad.