Warning: This report contains details that can be disturbing to some readers
Long time friends and residential school survivors Roger Gray of Greenville in the Nass Valley and Thomas Samuels from Haida Gwaii watched from the Kitsumkalum Community Hall where a solemn crowd was gathered to see Pope Francis make his apology to Indigenous people in Maskwacis, Alberta on July 25.
Gray attended the Port Alberni Indian Residential School in B.C. for three years before being transferred to the Edmonton area for another three years. Watching the Pope brought back the pain of what happened to him when he was a child, as happens “from time to time” when the issue comes up in the media.
“I came from the Indian hospital and was put into the residential school after they took me out of the hospital. My parents had no idea where I was because back in my younger days we were completely isolated from towns and there were no roads to the Nass,” Gray told The Terrace Standard in an interview.
“I was quite isolated and left all alone all the time… That’s where I learned to be an angry person. I lost all my language I didn’t know anything about my culture. Everything I had as a First Nations was all taken away from me… Not only was I physically abused but I was also sexually abused.”
For Gray, the Pope’s apology was lacking because it didn’t acknowledge sexual abuse.
“There’s good apology and then there’s some bad apologies and that, to me, wasn’t a very good apology at all. The physical, and mental and sexual abuse that happened at the residential school is what I wanted to hear him apologize about.
“I have nothing against the Pope or any Christian person. I know that Christianity isn’t about hurting people. It’s those evil people who used Christianity to take advantage of vulnerable children such as myself.”
Samuels attended a residential school in the Edmonton area for four years. He said he had to leave the room during the Pope’s televised address because he “felt so disgusted.”
“It’s too little too late. It should have been done all those years ago when we left to those residential schools.”
Samuels remembers the day when he was taken from his family as a child.
“The Indian agent came down with the RCMP saying that they had a white paper with my name on it and he said ‘these are the kids that we want.’ So they also took two of my brothers and my sister.”
From there Samuels said he was taken to Masset and put on a steam boat, the boys loaded separately from the girls.
“We heard the screams of the girls upstairs and we knew exactly what was happening, the crew members were abusing the girls up in the crew section.”
They were taken to Prince Rupert and put on a train headed for Edmonton. The voyage took a long time because of delays and stops along the way. Samuels said they were given very little to eat aside from pork sandwiches and powdered milk that made them sick.
“When the train finally pulled out of Prince Rupert, we knew we were on the train to hell,” he said.
“But a lot of the kids were still excited because they were never on a train before. They had never taken a two-day journey like that before.”
The gravity of their situation really hit home when they arrived at the residential school near Edmonton.
“It was just one big ugly grey building that stood out in the middle of nowhere. The kids were so excited that they all just ran off the bus — and that’s the first time I saw the three-foot strap come out,” said Samuels.
“They were running around after the kids just hitting them with the straps. That’s when we knew we were in a whole pile of trouble.”
Samuels said over the first few days, as winter approached, the children suffered from frostbite and malnutrition. They weren’t prepared for the harsh Alberta weather and didn’t have proper clothing.
“There were not doctors or nurses there to help us through this. Kids were crying because the frostbite got so bad that they just couldn’t handle the pain.”
Things only got worse from there. Samuels described days-long torture sessions, the sexual abuse — of himself and his classmates with hockey sticks — and being beaten “black and blue” if they spoke their language.
“We were prisoners in a place that was supposed to be a house of learning — but it was just a house of pain and a lot of misery and a lot of anger,” he said.
“That’s where that phrase ‘beat the Indian out of you’ came from. That’s what they intended to do to us.”
Samuels said practising their own culture became a kind of rebellion, but those acts of dissent had consequences.
“We started singing our songs and doing our dances there and we started speaking our own language.
“But that was the scary part, we knew that if we ever spoke our own language, sang our songs or did our dances we would be beaten without mercy.”
In his second year at the school Samuels said he tried to escape along with some of his friends.
“I told my friends, I’m going to run away and go home tomorrow. We gathered enough potatoes and corn — and we started on our journey. We had no idea where Prince Rupert was,” he said.
“We got as far as Prince Rupert and we thought we would get to go back home but they sent us back to Edmonton again. We really paid for that. I still feel that pain in my body.”
He said they learned not to show their pain because that’s what his torturers wanted.
“All the time they were doing that they were just laughing at me. We were fighting back with whatever inner strength we were being given that day.
“I just said ‘I just hope it hurts you as much as it’s hurting me…’ That really got them mad because they were losing that power they had over us. They couldn’t torture us anymore.”
During that time Samuels said his brother tried to comfort him and was also punished for that when he was caught. They were totally separated from their female relatives, who they worried about.
“We heard horror stories about our sisters and cousins, our own women getting abused over on the other side. We were in the same building but I never seen my sister for two years.
“That really hurt because we were so close and we couldn’t go see them.”
After his fourth year at the school Samuels said his parents decided enough was enough, and his father refused to send them back to Edmonton when the Indian agent came knocking.
“He stood up to them. He tore up the white paper. My father told him ‘get off my property,’ and the Indian agent looked at the RCMP officer and the officer said, ‘it’s not my problem anymore, it’s yours.’”
Samuels could finally play with his sisters and began a lifelong project of healing.
“My dad said ‘my son went away an angel and he came back a devil.’ I had so much hate in my heart that it scared him,” he said.
“I really have to thank my dad for giving us the courage that day and to stand behind him and not move when the Indian agent was trying to reach for us.”
Gray talked about how the abuse they suffered at residential school tore at the fabric of First Nations society by breaking down the family unit as the abuse suffered at those schools was passed down to the next generation.
“I call myself a true survivor because I managed to help myself by going to a treatment centre and trying to do something about myself but a lot of people didn’t do that,” he said.
“The residential school not only hurt the people that were there but they also hurt the people that weren’t there. It affected the families and it affected the whole community that they lived in — it affected everybody.”
Gray sees some light at the end of the tunnel as Indigenous youth start to regain their identity.
“Only now that we see that there’s a slight turn around with our native people, where our native people can start saying ‘I love you’ and ‘it’s nice to see you’ because this is what we’ve been missing,” he said.
“As children of the residential schools we’ve never heard these words before but now we’re starting to hear them a little bit more often.”
Samuels said the most important thing moving forward is “that we live together like a family.”
“We shouldn’t have enemies amongst ourselves, we should respect each other, and we should love each other, and we should reach out, and embrace each other and say ‘we’re going to be OK.’
“As long as we’re not killing each other in the name of God.”
A national 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to support survivors and those affected. You can access emotional and crisis support referral services by calling 1-866-925-4419.
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