In the third of a five-part series on racism and reconciliation in rural Canada, Al Jazeera explores the legacy of the country’s residential schools.
Read more from the series here:
Alberta, Canada – Alsena White, aged 67, is illiterate. She gets by with the help of her children and grandchildren.
Alsena was taught at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School near St Paul, Alberta. From the age of five to 16, she lived at the federal government-funded school, ushered through grade after grade. Yet no one seemed to notice – or to care – that she could neither read nor write.
“[To them] I was just another Indian,” she says of the Catholic nuns and priests who administered her education. Leaning slightly forward, as if to make sure it is safe to speak, Alsena continues: “I tell people I spent 10 years in jail even though I never committed a crime.”
It has been more than 50 years since she felt enslaved inside the walls of the school, but the memories still haunt her.
Some of them she had suppressed, she explains. But they returned with a vengeance years later, plunging her into fear and anxiety. Others she has carried with her whole life.
“There’s that little girl inside of me who was severely abused, tormented and told ‘you’re going to hell’,” she says, sitting in the cultural room at the Boys and Girls Club on her home reserve of Saddle Lake Cree Nation. The club serves young people from the reserve, providing social support and resources.
The circular room is painted bright yellow and represents a traditional sharing circle – an important part of the Cree way of life, which offers a safe space to exchange stories, solve disputes and encourage healing.
A small, circular table holds a smudge bowl and other ceremonial items. A trickle of smoke rises from the burning sage and sweetgrass as the aroma fills the room.
The aim of the residential schools, according to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), was to remove parental influence – spiritual, cultural and intellectual – from the children and to assimilate them into settler society.
The TRC was launched in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) Settlement Agreement, which saw billions of dollars paid out to former students in compensation for mistreatment, sexual and physical abuse.
It was a federal government-mandated initiative with “hopes to guide and inspire First Nations, Inuit, and Metis peoples and Canadians in a process of truth and healing leading toward reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect”.
Alsena remembers the dread that she and other children on Saddle Lake would feel towards the end of each summer. Their parents were mandated by the federal government to deliver them to the Catholic church on the reserve, where farm trucks waited to return them to the Blue Quills Residential School. If the parents refused, they faced arrest and imprisonment.
Alsena recalls how the children were “loaded up like cattle” onto the trucks and driven the 25km (15 miles) to the school, where they would stay until the following summer.
It was a game of survival from that point on, she says. The drive alone was dangerous – the trucks were overcrowded, there was only a chain to hold on to, and children would often end up with broken bones from falling.
Alsena says she never felt love at the school. In fact, she never felt human. Until she was 13 years old, she was known by the number 11. From the age of 13 to 16, she was number 39.
“I was not Alsena. They threw my name out the window,” she says.
Sometimes, though, the French-speaking nuns would call her by something other than her number. “Dirty sauvage,” she remembers them saying. To this day, she says she despises the French language.
They were on a mission to “civilise the Indians”, she explains, “… by changing our language, changing our religion, changing us as Cree people.”
Speaking Cree was forbidden at the school. The punishment was being beaten with a strap, scolded and made to miss a meal. But the pupils spoke it in secret anyway.
The children would find ways to help others being punished for breaking that rule and others. Later that day, in the basement of the former school, Alsena knocks on an old, vertical steel pipe. “If you knock just so,” she explains, “the girls could hear us upstairs.”
“Certain knocks would mean ‘I’m coming up now to give you some food’,” she says of how they would sneak food to friends who had been sent to bed hungry.
Alsena also remembers reunions in what was called the “parlour” – the room where parents could come to visit. The visits were on the weekends, but Alsena’s parents could only make it when they could find a ride as they had no car of their own. That was just a few times a year. But even when she could see them, the meetings were awkward because her parents spoke little English and with a nun and priest supervising nearby, she was unable to talk to them in Cree.
“They were always watching us,” she says.
A sense of shame about who she was and where she came from was instilled in Alsena.
The priests and nuns worked in the name of a holy God and, as a child, Alsena struggled to understand the God of the Moniyaw (White Man).
“I hated God,” she recalls with a shudder. “I thought: ‘Why is there a real wicked God? Why a God that makes you feel terrible of being a native person?'”
“‘Why is there a God that doesn’t care about your feelings at all?'” she adds with sadness.
When Alsena was in her mid-50s, she met a lawyer working with survivors of the residential schools. The federal government was compensating residential school survivors as part of the TRC, and the lawyer wanted to know if Alsena had experienced abuse at the school.
She told the lawyer about the physical and verbal abuse she had endured. But she was sure she had not experienced any sexual abuse. Then, later that day, she had a flashback.
“I was sitting on my bed, putting away clothes; the memories rushed back,” she says. “I saw what happened to me. I was looking into the air, on my bed, reliving memories. I remembered what happened to me … and I started to scream. I was crying and thought ‘what the f***?'”
The long-suppressed memory Alsena was recalling was of being molested by a nun.
Through long, heavy breaths and tears, Alsena describes the abuse – one incident in particular, when she was eight years old and being bathed by a nun.
In 1971, Blue Quills Residential School became the first in Canada to be turned over to an Indigenous group to administer. The federal government was moving to phase out the schools, and Blue Quills was to be shut down. However, the residents of Saddle Lake and the surrounding Indigenous communities proposed that they take over the building for the education of Indigenous students. The federal government agreed, after about 300 people took part in a sit-in protest at the school.
One of those who took part in the sit-in was Charles Wood, a former manager of the Saddle Lake band.
“We have been told that native culture was not good, and that our customs were no-good pagan rites for so long that it was hard for us to believe we were good enough [to run our own schools],” he recalls.
“But, one evening, one of the elders stood up and asked, ‘how many of you have studied up to grade 12?’ No hand showed. Then, ‘how many of you have studied up to ninth grade?’ A few hands. ‘See?’ the old man said, ‘almost none of us can claim to have received an education. But the white man, the clergy, have been in charge of our education for over a century. We can’t do worse than them.'”
The group reached a deal with the federal government and control of the school was handed over to them.
Now, it is a First Nations university, offering post-secondary education, primarily to Indigenous people. It also welcomes people of all cultures to study Indigenous world views.
The Blue Quills vision statement reads that “a prime objective is to promote a sense of pride in Indigenous heritage and reclaim traditional knowledge and practices.” It is governed by seven appointed board members, each representing one of the seven nearby First Nations communities – Beaver Lake, Cold Lake, Frog Lake, Whitefish Lake, Heart Lake, Kehewin, and Saddle Lake – plus one elder from the Saddle Lake First Nation.
Aesthetically, not much has changed in the sprawling, three-storey, red brick building originally built in the 1930s. The brown staircases and black and white chequered floor tiles remain the same.
The dorm rooms once held rows of wire cots used as beds. They were cold, lonely, often scary places to sleep, Alsena recalls. But if anyone was caught whimpering in the night, they could be punished, she says. And sometimes that meant being taken away and molested.
In the basement, there is a strong, musty smell. The walls are crumbling, and there is debris everywhere. In one of the basement bathrooms, a number 39 is still visible above the spot where Alsena once kept her toothbrush, cup, face cloth and towel.
She sometimes gives tours of the school to groups of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people wanting to learn about what happened in such places. Reactions are varied, she says. But many times, people cry.
“That is good, because I want them to feel,” she says, pointing to her chest, to the place where her heart is. “I don’t want people to forget. I want to leave them with an emotion. A feeling. Something to take with them.”
Alsena believes that sharing her experience helps her and others to heal.
Not everyone has the chance to heal, however. Because not everyone made it out alive. More than 6,000 children are estimated to have died in Canada’s residential schools during the years they operated, most due to neglect, disease and abuse. According to the National Post, there were no listings of any deaths at the Blue Quills Residential School.
Despite this, Alsena says she recalls hearing of a student who was beaten to death by a member of the clergy at Blue Quills, but those kinds of stories were often covered up, she adds. Some children were buried in unmarked graves on residential school grounds. Others were listed as “missing” or “discharged”. And some parents were never told what happened to their children.
The TRC established a Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Project in “a systematic effort to record and analyze the deaths at the schools, and the presence and condition of student cemeteries, within the regulatory context in which the schools were intended to operate”.
When Alsena returned to the school for the first time about 12 years ago – to help a friend retrieve art supplies from inside the building – she says she had felt ready to enter the space that had for so long been the place of her nightmares.
But as she walked past a closet in the basement, she felt a rush of wind.
“I stopped in my tracks, and I cried and cried. It was like my feet were glued to the floor.”
She felt frozen in time, she says.
Her friend rushed to comfort her, and Alsena was jerked back into the present.
“I felt something let me go, and I walked away,” she says.
Alsena finds some solace in knowing that she has reclaimed what the school tried to take from her.
When she returned home at 16, she surrounded herself with her culture and language, learned from her mother and grandfather.
“I would go with my mother in the bush. Sit and talk with the old ladies [elders], and we’d eat sandwiches together. I loved it,” she says. “My mother showed me how to find medicines and what plant was good for what. My grandfather taught me culture and encouraged me to speak my language.”
She still speaks fluent Cree.
She became an expert in plants foraged from the lands of her traditional territories and is known in her community as a medicine helper. “I don’t like when people refer to me as a ‘Medicine Woman’ because then they think I’m into witchcraft,” she says, laughing at how people can mistake her role as a teacher of nature with being a witch.
“So, I say I’m a medicine helper. I know medicines – which ones are good for healing from our Mother Earth.”
Alsena knows she could very well have gone down the path of addiction, as so many survivors of childhood trauma do, and she did for a brief time. She fell into a cycle of alcoholism and dysfunction as a youth, but by the time she was 24, she had turned her life around.
She did it for her three children and future generations, she says.
“I was sick and tired of living the way I lived, of all the things that happened to me. I thought, ‘I’m going to make a better life for myself’,” she says.
Alsena has been sober for more than 40 years.
But not every survivor has coped so well. Healing is a journey that can take many twists and turns, Alsena explains, and she respects every stage other survivors find themselves at, including intergenerational survivors who are carrying the trauma of their parents and grandparents.
“Others are at their own stages of healing, and that’s ok. Some people don’t like to talk about what happened, and that’s ok too. But I do talk about it – it’s helpful.”
According to the TRC Final Report, released in 2015, residential schools had enduring effects, including health problems, substance abuse, mortality and suicide rates, criminal activity and disintegration of families and communities.
“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as cultural genocide,” reads the report.
Reconciliation in Canada is still in its infancy.
Just last year, the head pastor of the St Paul Roman Catholic Cathedral Parish, Gerard Gauthier, wrote a letter to the St Paul Journal about why he thought residential schools were not “that bad”. He received a backlash online after posting the letter on the local diocese Facebook page.
Since then, Gerard has attended a monthly reconciliation group in St Paul. He says it is an effort to show his support for renewed relationships with Indigenous peoples.
However, he stands by his opinion about residential schools.
“People are exaggerating when they say it’s all bad,” he told Al Jazeera during a telephone interview.
“They [Indigenous people] would still be in the Stone Age, and we’d be living the good life if we didn’t teach them to read.”
Gerard leads a congregation of 600. He says St Paul struggles with racism, but he believes it is connected to fear.
“It’s fear of one another. There’s an element of fear in me. They [Indigenous people] might say to me ‘oh, he’s just another priest’,” he says.
To Alsena, nothing good came out of her time at Blue Quills.
Over the years, she has found healing and reconciliation in reconnecting with her First Nation identity and through spending time on the lands of her ancestors, the land where she wants to live and, one day, die and be buried. To her, it is a beloved place.
“I never want to be anywhere else. I have been to other countries, and Canada-Saddle Lake is where I want to die. I don’t want to ever move … This is where I’m safe. This is where I know the land, free of white man’s laws.”
Last May, Alsena received an Esquao award from the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women for her dedication to culture, work in traditional healthcare, being a Knowledge Keeper and role model for her community. The award is considered the most prestigious of its kind in Canada for Indigenous women.
One of the TRC’s findings was that attempts to force assimilation failed, in part due to the resilience and resistance of many Indigenous communities – and of survivors like Alsena.