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Residential school misery

What two childcare workers witnesssed at an Indigenous school residence 51 years ago.

May 17th, 2021

Entrance to St. Michael’s Residential School, Alert Bay, B.C., 1970. Photography by Anthony Carter. (COURTESY: UBC MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY, A037992)

The newly-wed couple were hired to work at the Alert Bay Student Residence in 1970. Within days of starting their new jobs, they were exposed to the ugly truths of what happened to Indigenous children there.

It was one of Nancy Dyson and Dan Rubenstein’s first jobs in Canada. The idealistic couple had recently left the United States to get away from the Vietnam war turmoil of the era and were in the process of seeking permanent residency status in Canada.

Their work was to look after the children at the student residence before and after school and on weekends. The residence was formerly the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School and that was the name it was still called although all schooling now took place at the Alert Bay public school and Port McNeill’s high school.

Dan and Nancy couldn’t help question the way the school was run under a punitive philosophy. Four months after their arrival, a delegation from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs visited St. Michael’s and the couple presented a long list of concerns, which were ignored. The next day they were dismissed by the school administrator.

Decades later in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation reports divulged survivor’s stories about Canada’s residential schools, shocking Nancy and Dan. “When we read the survivors’ statements and realized the lasting, tragic legacy of the schools, we felt compelled to share our story.”

Encouraged by Chief Robert Joseph, Ambassador of Reconciliation Canada, Nancy and Dan published St. Michael’s Residential School: Lament & Legacy (Ronsdale $21.95). “You must tell your story,” Chief Joseph counselled the couple. “Tell what you witnessed so no one can deny what happened. This is so important to the survivors.”

Following are two excerpts from the tell-all book, written primarily from Nancy’s point of view and including passages from the Truth and Reconciliation reports that relate to the couple’s experiences.


The First Supper

At five o’clock, Dan and I followed the children down a steep flight of stairs to a dark, musty dining room in the basement of the residence. The children sat on metal chairs at long, grey folding tables. Bare fluorescent bulbs cast a green light over their faces.

Dan and I sat at a table with a group of little boys. When they looked at us and smiled, there were gaps where they had lost their baby teeth. I guessed that they were young, five or six years of age.

Ahem.” A white-haired man in a black suit stood and cleared his throat. His face was thin with a pointed nose and a tic contracted his features into a grimace. As he brought his hands together for prayer, his bony wrists extended well past the cuffs of his jacket. He cast his eyes around the room, warning all to be quiet. Then he intoned, “O Everlasting God, Who hast ordained and constituted the services of angels and men in a wonderful order; mercifully grant that, as Thy holy angels always do Thee service in heaven, so by Thy appointment they must succour and defend us on earth. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.” His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he spoke. He reminded me of the character of Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The older students began ladling soup from metal pots into Melmac bowls. The bowls were passed, hand to hand, to each child. A basket of white Wonder Bread was also passed down the tables and each child eagerly laid two slices beside his plate. The bread disappeared quickly, unlike the watery and tasteless soup. The children, their eyes fixed on their bowls, ate in silence. The meal was meagre and I thought the children must be hungry.

“Is there any joy here?” I asked myself.

“Again and again, former students spoke of how hungry they were at residential schools. Students who spoke of hunger also spoke of their efforts to improve their diet secretly.”

-The Survivors Speak, A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 7.

Residential school misery | BC Booklook

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