Book Review in Ormsby Review by J.M. Miller

Four months at Alert Bay

January 5, 2022January 6, 2022

St. Michael’s Residential School: Lament and Legacy
by Nancy Dyson and Dan Rubenstein

Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2020
$21.95 / 9781553806233

Reviewed by J.R. (Jim) Miller


In the summer of 1970 Nancy Dyson and Dan Rubinstein, recently married and just graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, wanted to take some time off to explore the north west coast of their country. They contacted a Driveaway agency and got a car that they delivered to Chicago, a short distance from Nancy’s family in Illinois. At her parents’ suggestion, they took a train from Chicago to Winnipeg and then another to Vancouver. In Vancouver they connected with two American friends who had a place on Bowen Island, where they invited the young couple to stay for a few weeks. By this time, they were contemplating remaining a while in Canada, “a country which seemed more benign and compassionate than the United States, which was then severely polarized by the Vietnam War” (p. 4). Their expatriate friends coached them on how to acquire landed immigrant status in Canada, and then told them of a newspaper advertisement for childcare workers at the former Alert Bay Indian Residential School, now known as the Alert Bay Student Residence. Recognizing that having jobs in Canada would enhance their chances of becoming landed immigrants, they applied, were interviewed, and accepted positions. And that was how the two young Americans came to fly to Alert Bay in August 1970.

Nancy Dyson with Watsi (puppy) on the ferry to Alert Bay, 1970. Photo by Dan Rubenstein. Photo courtesy Global News

Four months later the chastened couple left St. Michael’s and relocated in the nearby village of Sointula, formerly a utopian community established much earlier by a group of idealistic Finns. Though they thought often of their brief but intense experience at Alert Bay, they never did much about recording it. They did, though, write down their recollections of St. Michael’s soon after leaving the student residence in Alert Bay. Almost fifty years later, stimulated by the work of the Truth and Recollection Commission, they began to consider turning their memories and their notes made in Sointula into a publication to document their residential schooling experience. Consulting the revered head of Reconciliation Canada, Chief Robert Joseph, Dan was told, “‘You must tell your story. Tell what you witnessed so no one can deny what happened. This is so important to the survivors’” (p. 174). With that encouragement, they prepared the manuscript that Ronsdale Press turned into an attractive, highly readable, and significant book, St. Michael’s Residential School: Lament and Legacy, in 2021.

St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, 1949. Library and Archives Canada

The slim volume has two parts: “Nancy’s Story” (pp. 3-164), and “Dan’s Story” (pp. 167-81). Nancy’s Dyson’s account is her recollection of important events during the four months they spent at the residence, while Dan Rubinstein’s is more a series of reflections on their experience that is addressed mainly to the present day and the reconciliation movement. Both have a lot to say to twenty-first-century Canadians with an interest in residential school history and reconciliation.

Boys from St. Michael’s take a boat ride, 1970. Photo by Dan Rubenstein. Photo courtesy Anglican Journal

Nancy and Dan in 1970 encountered an institution that was trying with limited success to transition from a coercively assimilative school to a less assimilationist residence for students who attended the nearby public school in Alert Bay. Among the personnel, the old school people, as it were, were the Director, the Matron, and a senior childcare worker named Edgar who had all been at the residential school for considerable periods of time. They were still imbued with the evangelical ethos of the residential school system, including its harsh discipline and inadequate methods of caring for the children. There was still a strong dash of paternalism and authoritarianism in the Director, who soon came to view the newcomers with suspicion and concern. The old-style paternalism of the residential school era came through in a veiled warning that the Director issued when he introduced Nancy and Dan to the town doctor: “‘Jack, these are the young Americans. You can tell they’re from the States. They’re revolutionaries. Always questioning the way we do things.’ He laughed but I felt there was a warning in his words” (p. 52). Nancy and Dan, like some of the younger workers at the residence, did not find that the evangelical impulse resonated with them at all. And the two newcomers soon realized that there many other aspects of the regime that bothered them a great deal. In particular, the harsh discipline that Edgar, the third member of the old guard, dished out regularly angered them.

Nancy Dyson and children from St. Michael’s Residential School watching preparations for the potlatch, Alert Bay, 1970. Photo by Dan Rubenstein. Photo courtesy Anglican Journal
Elders and honorary guests at a totem-raising ceremony at Alert Bay, 1970, Chief Alfred Scow speaking. Photo by Dan Rubenstein. Photo courtesy Anglican Journal

“Nancy’s Story” conveys many of the failings of the former residential school system with which many Canadians today have become familiar thanks to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Indigenous spokespeople. A device that Ms. Dyson uses in each chapter enhances the effectiveness of her account and connects her experience in 1970 to the reader today. As she recounts what she saw of, for example, the deficient dietary regime in 1970, she links her observations to points made in more recent sources, including especially the Final Report and other publications of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Another example: after an account of the ‘processing’ of four new students on the first full day of Dan and Nancy’s employment, Nancy says that the Matron told them their work would not be difficult: “‘it’s not a hard job. Just discipline them right from the start, and you’ll have no trouble. Remember, discipline, discipline. It’s for their own good.’” “Dan and I looked at the children huddled on the bench. I wanted to tell the matron that what we had just witnessed, the children being shorn and stripped naked, was not for their own good. Instead. I pressed my lips together” (p. 21).

Nancy Dyson

After her description of the hair-cutting and other aspects of the “processing,” Nancy has a sidebar quoting the summary of the TRC final report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future:

It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or perhaps a Mounted Police officer. The bus for residential school leaves that morning. It is a day the parents have long been dreading. Even if the children have been warned in advance, the morning’s events are still a shock. The officials have arrived and the children must go…. This was the beginning of their residential schooling. They were torn from their parents, who often surrendered them only under threat of prosecution. Then, they were hurled into a strange and frightening place, one in which their parents and culture would be demeaned and oppressed (pp. 23-4).

The book’s treatment — mixing Nancy’s first-hand observations from 1970 with later reflections and analysis about the schools — is an effective way of connecting the past and present to remind readers that the residential school experience is still with us.

Dan Rubenstein

Another aspect of St. Michael’s Residential School that is noteworthy is the thumbnail sketch it provides of the impact of authority figures at both the local and national level. The residence’s director, with his hidebound approach to dealing with the children and his suspicion of anyone who wanted change, is one example. Another is found in the behaviour of the federal cabinet minister responsible for Indian Affairs in the authors’ time, Jean Chrétien, when he visited the nearby reserve. The minister’s aim was to defend the federal government’s 1969 White Paper on Indian policy, which called for the elimination of treaties and Indian status, and the devolution of matters concerning First Nations people to the provinces. Chrétien gave the task a game try, explaining, as the White Paper did, that all the problems First Nations faced were caused by the fact that they were treated differently, kept separate and apart from other Canadians, not racial discrimination and almost a century of administration under the Indian Act. The audience responded: “the white Canadians clapped and nodded their heads in agreement. The other half of the room was silent” (p. 61). The final revelation about authority figures arises from Nancy’s account of her and Dan’s interview with a trio of Indian Affairs officials who visited the school in 1970. The meeting went well until Dan read a list of “concerns” to the visitors. “‘St. Michael’s tries to take the Indian out of the Indian child.’… ‘There’s a name for what’s done here. It’s called cultural genocide.’” Angrily, “‘Edgar rose to his feet. ‘Dan and Nancy are both Americans. And they’re not Christians. They have no place here’” (p. 141). Shortly after the outburst, the Ottawa officials packed up their papers and left the residence. Nancy’s anecdote of the bureaucrats’ response is an epitome of the way in which complaints about residential problems were handled by officialdom.

A backhoe begins destruction of St. Michael’s Residential School, Alert Bay, February 2015. Photo by Erin Haluschak

The use of contemporary sidebars to throw additional light on Nancy’s experience in 1970 is not completely unproblematic. For example, when talking about disease, she portrays the Matron as being blasé about a girl who had got out of a sanatorium in August. “‘Is she contagious?’” Nancy asked. “‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Shouldn’t she be monitored by a doctor?’ ‘If she starts coughing again, I’ll take her to Dr. Pickup. She’s a tough girl.’ ‘Not as tough as TB,’ I protested. ‘I think we’re done here,’ the matron said, ignoring my comment” (p. 127). That exchange is followed by a sidebar about the famous Dr. Peter Bryce, who tried to call attention to the horrific rates of tuberculosis in the prairie residential schools that he surveyed in the first decade of the twentieth century (pp. 127-8). The conditions in the western interior in the early twentieth century were drastically different from coastal British Columbia in the early twenty-first century, but the book treats the two situations as though they were similar enough to compare.

Demolition ceremony at St. Michael’s, February 2015. Photo courtesy CBC

A more trivial issue was an error that Ms. Dyson included, presumably because of her limited knowledge of residential schools in general. An Indian agent told the young couple that “‘… government wanted to close residential schools back in the 1940s,’” but that “‘The churches fought to keep them open’” (p. 150). In fact, in the 1940s the leaders of the Anglican Church, with the exception of those in the Arctic North, favoured shutting down the residential schools, as did their counterparts in the United and Presbyterian churches. It was only the Roman Catholics who opposed closure and lobbied effectively to prevent it from happening. A small point no doubt, but undoubtedly not to those from the Anglican and Protestant churches involved in residential schooling at that time and since.

Finally, a worrisome feature of “Nancy’s Story” is its reproduction of dialogue. One of the things that makes St. Michael’s Residential School so gripping is its use of reported conversations, some of them quite lengthy. As the authors say in their introduction, “The events we describe are based on our recollections; the dialogue, based on memory, is not a word-for-word account but captures the essence of conversations we had at the time” (p. xii). It is easy while reading the descriptions of their time at St. Michael’s residence to forget that the spoken words they report are not necessarily accurately recalled and portrayed on the page. Is this a serious problem? Probably not, given that the authors based their narrative in general on notes made soon after the occurrence of the events, but readers will likely not remember the warning about accuracy implied in their introduction.

The imperfections of St. Michael’s Residential School, if that is what they are, do not diminish its effectiveness and importance for people wanting to learn more about the residential school and hostel experience through which so many First Nations children went until the late twentieth century. If you are interested in understanding better the residential schooling experience, this volume is an essential aid. If one of your acquaintances thinks residential schools could not have been as bad as they’ve been portrayed, hand them a copy of St. Michael’s Residential School.

Beau Dick (1955-2017), Kwakwaka’wakw artist and hereditary chief of the ‘Namgis people, dances at the demolition ceremony of St. Michael’s School, Alert Bay, February 2015. Photo by John Lehmann, courtesy The Globe and Mail


J.R. (Jim) Miller. Photo by Liam Richards

J.R. (Jim) Miller, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Saskatchewan, is a specialist in the history of Native-newcomer relations. He was the author of the first general history of relations between Indigenous peoples and immigrants in Canada, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Native-Newcomer Relations in Canada (1989; 4th edition, 2018); the first history of residential schools for Native children in Canada, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (1996); the first historical overview of treaties between the Canadian crown and Aboriginal peoples, Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada (2009); and the first historical examination of the reconciliation movement in Canada, Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History (2017). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an Officer of the Order of Canada. Editor’s note: Jim Miller has also reviewed books by Arthur Manuel & Ronald Derrickson and Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail for The Ormsby Review.


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