Decades after her years teaching at an Indian residential school, the image of children arriving in a big, open truck stays with one of the Sisters of St. Ann.
“How often did I see them, especially the little six year olds, struggling to jump from the back of the truck, blinded by tears of loneliness and confusion,” wrote the Catholic nun in her written account of those years. “That same truck, however, became a source of freedom and excitement when it was used for picnics … (or) for journeying to pick low-bush cranberries.”
This bittersweet memory is among many written accounts of teaching, nursing and child minding at residential schools by the Sisters of St. Ann, the last of whom are now mostly retired and living in Victoria. It’s a side of the residential school history seldom told, because there is no public forum that welcomes it.
Last weekend, survivors from those schools were invited by the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission to share their memories. On April 13 and 14, dozens of former students spoke about their memories of abuse, shame and loneliness. Roughly 3,000 people came to witness, both from the Aboriginal and wider community.
While school workers were also invited to speak, few dared. Many, however, feel their accounts need to be told.
At the request of the commission, almost all of the Sisters of St. Ann chose to write their own accounts. They also shared them with the News, on condition of anonymity.
“The roles and services of those who worked in the schools have not been described in the media, except for very negative cases,” wrote one representative of the group. “(They) felt a need, in justice, to record some of the memories of a few of the Sisters who dedicated years of their lives to teach and care for the children in Residential Schools.”
The Sisters were assigned to work at schools in Mission, Kamloops, Kuper Island near Chemainus and Lower Post. Seventeen of the Sisters’ written accounts add another perspective to life at these schools – one that shows harsh discipline wasn’t the only reality.
The good times
While all the children experienced homesickness, “people sometimes forget that we had a lot of fun with the kids,” said Marie Zarowny, provincial leader of the Sisters of St. Ann.
The Sisters’ memoirs describe tobogganing, swimming, basketball, movie nights and competitive Irish dancing. In rare instances, some effort was made for cultural learning.
One Sister describes inviting elders to come and teach.
“One year, the principal brought us a large deer hide for the children to make small beadwork crafts,” recalled another.
Many of the Sisters described their years as happy ones and wrote of loving the children as best they could, given the large numbers of children assigned to them.
Their accounts of the conditions of the school varies by location and year. Some describe full days of school, quality clothing and ample food. More describe half-day classes followed by chores, and science classes lacking equipment. They also describe clothes made from second-hand military uniforms, and hungry children stealing bread.
Some also wrote about working long hours and making sacrifices, such as remaining at the school over Christmas, to allow those students whose home lives were challenging to stay behind.
Responding to a need
Not every child was stolen from their families, said Zarowny. Some schools began as orphanages for children whose families were wiped out by disease. Some parents asked that their children be put in residential school.
“We were responding to a need,” she said. “Our call was to teach children who wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity for an education … (our goal was) to help children to really be proud of themselves.”
Of course, it didn’t often work out that way.
“We thought we were changing society by valuing the child, not realizing when they left, they would not be able to realize their potential,” Zarowny said.
In a 2010 statement on behalf of congregations of religious women involved in the schools, Zarowny summed up their current understanding in this way:
“We were products of the times in which we lived, with the teaching methods, cultural misunderstandings, social attitudes and theology of those times. As well, some of our members may have suffered from emotional problems that they took out on the children …
We now know that the residential school system itself, initiated by the federal government and in which we participated, was racist and discriminatory, bringing about a form of cultural oppression and personal shame … We carry immense sorrow for having contributed to this tragedy.”
Looking back with sadness
Today, many of the Sisters’ recollections come with conflicting emotions.
One described her year working at a residential school in Mission as a blessing.
“I was honoured, humbled and loved,” she said. “I gave them the very best I could – all of me – and I think it was reciprocated.”
In hindsight, however, the experience leaves her with big questions: “Could I have known? Should I have known? And what would I have done more than 50 years ago? I don’t know.”
Some look back with regret.
“I did realize with honest concern that they seldom saw their parents and family,” wrote one Sister. “In retrospect, my regret is in not having had special training for this assignment. Perhaps we might have been more forceful in promoting the use and preservation of the native language.”
Another Sister saw with clarity the injustice done to the children during her posting to Kuper Island.
“The fact that the children were not allowed to share in … their worship of God experienced through their ritual dances, singing and prayers in the long house (made me) realize that we were keeping them prisoners away from the beauty of their First Nations life,” she wrote.
When allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at schools started coming forward, it affected the Sisters deeply.
“I no longer told my stories,” wrote one. “I did not want anyone to know that I had ever taught in a residential school.”
That changed in 2010 when she connected with the Cowichan band’s Catholic Legion of Mary, where she was presented with the Elder Shawl and told, “You must tell your stories because your stories are our stories.”
It was a moment, she said, that changed her life.
Looking forward with conviction
At last weekend’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission event, the Sisters of St. Ann’s booth proved very popular. The Sisters offered photo albums from the schools, and former students pored over the pictures. It helped to rekindle a dialogue, said Zarowny.
From the beginning of the commission’s work, the churches have played an active role, said Commissioner Marie Wilson.
Our hope, Zarowny said, is that “our relationship with First Nations would become strong again.”
One Sister wrote her hope was for forgiveness. Another hoped “that First Nations people would take their rightful place in Canadian society and their voices be heard and respected.”
Zarowny is skeptical, however, about the federal government’s determination to create meaningful change.
Many of the racist attitudes that gave rise to the Indian Act and the residential schools continue today, she said. “We need to address the schools, however, we can’t stop there.”
Pointing to the Enbridge pipeline as an example of a failure to respect First Nations’ rights, she asked: “Have we learned nothing?”
From the memoirs: Anonymous excepts from the written submissions by the Sisters of St. Ann about their experiences working in residential schools:
• "I truly tried to nurture and love each girl"
• "I was unaware of the system. I would have preserved the culture."
• "I never saw any abuse and had no suspicions of abuse."
• "The students were delightful … The kids picked up field mice and carried them under their shirt to scare me."
• "At times I wanted to comfort the children, but we were taught not to show affection"
• "The kids didn't want to be there. They weren't happy (and) not used to this disciplined life."
Links to previous stories in this series: