School Days, School Days
AROUND THE 26TH OF AUGUST, 1935, MY FATHER decided it was time for us kids to be taken to Sturgeon Landing by canoe, which was propelled by a four horsepower motor. It took several days to get there on the river. We had to reckon with a dozen rough rapids and eight portages. Two or three of those were about three quarters of a mile long, with thousands of black flies and mosquitoes to fight all the way.
In those days, the whole country was teeming with northern wildlife, including fish of many kinds, which my dad scooped out of the waterfalls with a scoop net made especially for that purpose. We lost about twenty-four hours of travelling time in all. My dad shot and killed a bull moose, and we had to stay in one spot on the South Sturgeon weir to smoke the fish and cut and dry the moose meat. Yet we got to our destination a whole day ahead of schedule.
I was born in 1930 at Sturgeon Landing and baptized there by Father Aquinas Merton, OMI , who was also the head administrator and principal at St. Therese Residential School from 1927 when the school was opened. Two of my sisters and my brother Peter were the first three to walk inside the school. Annie and Jeanette were the names of my two sisters. There were also six uncles and the same number of aunts who attended the school in its first year.
All those sisters and cousins, uncles, and many other unrelated people from other villages told me what had happened. Good and bad, positive or negative, were told to me and others when we got to school eight years later, and they all told basically the same stories. So one has to assume they were speaking the truth and nothing but.
A lot of their stories I already wrote and submitted to our lawyers, who number about thirty-six across Canada, representing the survivors of residential schools. The six that are working with me and others here in Saskatchewan have offices downtown in Saskatoon.
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THE FORMER PRINCIPAL, Father Aquinas Merton, was the hardest working man that I have ever known. Well, he was not like the next one. It was just the opposite with this kind and friendly principal, Father Bernard Pommier. He never touched a plow or any farm implement, and I honestly could say I never even saw him enter the barn. He was always super clean and wouldn't go into a smelly barn, let alone drive a team of horses or milk a cow, or shovel and scrape dung. No, sir, he always had to be immaculately dressed and really preferred to have all the privacy he could get. All of the boys who knew him can say the same, that we never saw him lifting a block of wood or anything from the warehouses.
Sometimes Sister St. Mercy, whom I will write a lot about, would send some young student upstairs to the principal, assuming the Father would take care of him one way or another. But instead, Father Pommier would ask the boy why she sent him to see the principal.
"Oh, well, I was laughing a little too loud in the washroom during lineup time."
Then he would start laughing himself and say, "Is that all you came to tell me? Just a waste of my time and yours. Next time just laugh kimoc [in English, "quietly"]. That is all I have to say. Now go back down to your classroom." More laughter from Father Pommier, "I'll talk to Sister Mercy later."
No one can ever say anything bad about this principal, Father Bernard Pommier. He was a far cry from the principal who took over two years after I left the school, Rev. Father L. Lazzardo. I will write about him later.
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BUT BACK TO my story. Yes, in the fall of 1935, at the tender age of five years plus eight months, my father made arrangements with the principal, Father Aquinas Merton, to allow me to start schooling even though I was not of school age. I would be six in January 1936. Due to the distance from the residential school and the need to travel in winter by dog team in extremely cold weather, it would be very hard on a six-year-old child just to take him to St. Therese School. And that winter my father and family had decided to go way up north to trap. So they took me to school at the end of the summer when I was still five years old.
It was that fall that I first laid eyes on the one human I would dislike for the rest of my school term, if not for the rest of my life: Brer Lepeigne (pronounced "Le Pain"), who was there from before I arrived and stayed at St. Therese until 1939 or 1940. But I will not talk about him now. I want to keep talking about the nice ones.
I want to talk about my first class teacher for grade one. Her name was Sister St. Alphonse. Well, she was one of the kindest and most loving persons in that institution. She was also our boys' keeper in our playroom and joined us in playing Hide and Seek the Marble and other games we enjoyed. Once in a while, when some boy was extremely disobedient and wouldn't do what he was told to do, she would use the small ruler we kept at our desks and tap him on the palm of his hand very lightly, and we could see that both of her eyes were shedding tears, which she wiped with her white kerchief. It didn't happen too often. Since she taught in grades one and two, I was in her classroom for two school years. She never changed in her loving and kindly ways, and I'm sure she still is that way. I met her ten years ago in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, and she kissed me hard, bless her.
Well, I'll continue with this memory of all the sisters who showed kindness and genuine care for us kids, good or bad, and as I said aforehand, you did not have to do anything gross to be punished for bad behaviour at St. Therese Residential School.
Sister St. Famille was our baker at the school and also one very kind and loving individual, and every day or every other day, three or four boys were taken from the classrooms and told to help Sister St. Famille, who required a lot of manual labour when baking for about 120 people. She knew only a few words of the English language, so we had some difficulty communicating with her. Some words she always used when some kid got smart or noisy. With a half-smile she would raise her arm and wave her forefinger to and fro, and say, "Look boys no smarrrt, no bread."
The boy would not get her specialty that she called "La Galett," small round bannocks, which were really special to us, as we never were served bannock in our meals. It was always the same, bone-dry bread that raised heck with our gums and teeth. The Fathers, Sisters, and Brothers enjoyed beautiful white bread served by Sister St. Virginia Rose, who was their special cook. I swear, those people of this school administration would not even look at our bread or our food. To them it was puke.
Now, Sister St. Bonhomme ran the sewing room with help from six or seven girls. They did all the mending and made slippers and linings for our shoes in winter, and for our mitts, which, by the way, were made from old canvas and old, grey, horse blankets. Sister St. Bonhomme was also our keeper in the playrooms and the refectory (dining room). She was not too mean, except when we got too noisy and didn't heed her clapping. Whenever our keepers wanted to get our attention, they had what we called a clapper, a wooden two-piece item joined by hinges on one end and banged together with both hands, making a noise like a large woodpecker. Once in a while, though, Sister St. Bonhomme used a strap when she deemed it necessary. I still say she was one of the kinder nuns.
Then I'll talk about Sister St. Ange de Cachot, who was our nurse. There were two Sisters St. Ange de Cachot, but this first one looked after the sick children and whoever got hurt at school. I can only say she was exceptionally kind and sympathetic. She really wanted to do whatever she could to ease the pain of whatever the problem laid. She once looked after us when the regular keepers were away.
There was Sister St. d'Amitié, who was mostly the girls' keeper but many times our keeper. She played with us and really enjoyed her time at our playroom. She loved doing us favours, like carrying love letters back and forth from our playroom to the girls' playroom. She knew full well she would get some kind of a reprimand if she ever got caught with what she was doing, but she never got caught. (Only one other nun did those letter deliveries, and that was Sister St. Doucette, my junior high school teacher, originally from the United States.) Sister St. d'Amitié was a cook's helper and girls' keeper, and was never known to strike anyone in the school. The girls really enjoyed having her as keeper, especially when they got her to carry their love notes back to us guys.
I cannot remember the name of one of my second-grade teachers, who also taught the grade-four kids. I can only remember that we called her Old Bodo, because she looked so much like a guy who lived across the river here in Sturgeon Landing. She looked mean enough and she was very tall, and we had little chance of doing anything wrong, as she used the strap occasionally. It really made a kid cry, because she had a strong arm. But it did not happen very often once we got the story and saw what she could do with a strap. Otherwise, most of the time I can recall, she was a nice and kind old soul. Most of the time she was our refectory-room keeper. One can imagine the sound of 110 children all talking and laughing together. She didn't like to be called Old Bodo, but she was okay.
Sister St. de Mer was our Sister Superior from the time I entered St. Therese, and was there before I even arrived, until she was replaced by the other Sister St. Ange de Cachot. All I can say about both of those Sisters is that they were kind and loving in every way, and they never did anything to hurt anyone, never used the strap. That's all I can remember about these two Sisters. When they left sometime in the summer of 1942, and when we came back from the holidays, we sure missed them.
Here are some of the brothers who were good to us. Big Brother Beauville (we called him Big Beauville) is one of them. Brother Beauville was a good and jolly person. His work was mostly driving a team of horses and working inside the barn, which housed cattle and horses. He always smelled like cow and horse manure. He was a big overweight man, a kindly person who never said a mean word to any of the boys. He was always in a playful mood, but he never stopped working at a job he was ordered to do until it was done. On or about the winter of 1942, he was kicked in the face by one of the big horses that wore metal shoes on all four hooves, and one can only imagine what that could do to anyone. But Big Beauville was a big and tough individual. The blow could have killed a small person or crippled one for life. Brother Beauville, however, went to St. Anthony's Hospital in The Pas to have his battered face fixed and had to go back later to have it redone. He was absent for a total of two months. We missed him a lot, and we all prayed for him.
Now, there was also Brother Leopold, a tall, lanky, middle-aged, and very friendly man. He always carried a pouch of chewing tobacco. He drove a team of horses and, most of the time, a load of kids. He only stayed at the school for two school years, so I don't have much to say about him, except that he was a really kind person.
Then there was Brother Henri Jean, the engineer, who looked after the boiler room, making sure all the machines and the heating systems were in working order. He was one of the hardest working men at the school and a good engineer. About twenty of us boys worked with him every morning, filling the wood bins for the boilers. We also worked at taking the wood in for the kitchen and for the baking. Brother Henri Jean was at most times a kind and jolly old fellow. But occasionally, whenever us boys got disobedient or disrespectful, he would blow his baldheaded top and roar like a lion, throwing blocks of wood against the walls to make a lot of noise.
Brother Henri Jean was a stammerer. When he couldn't stand the horsing around, he would roar, "All right, you bastards, G-g-g-g-g-get out, all of you!" Otherwise, he was a very loving and kindly old soul when nothing bothered him. In all those years from 1927 to the time I got out in 1944, I have never heard of him breaking any rules or having a serious problem with the machinery he was supposed to maintain. I can only end up by saying, he was a great guy.CHAPTER 2
WE USED TO ENJOY GOING OUT MILES AWAY FROM the school, going on picnics, either to the beach or going fishing at the rapids north of the school. It felt so nice to get out of the enclosed playground. Most of the time, we were forced to stay within the yard, which was surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. It felt like getting out of prison. But I recall many times I was detained and was not able to join the crowd going to these good times if I was penalized for whispering during silence, or poking someone in the ribs, or swearing in Cree, as I did several times. I once wrote down "I will not whisper during silence" five hundred times while everyone was gone out of the school area.
I really can't recall just how many times I was made to pay for such minor offences. I was once made to walk about twenty miles in –40°F weather with a fellow student, Abner Joseph, back to where we walked the day before, across the big lake with a strong wind blowing. I imagine the wind chill factor was about –60°F. Just because we lost one mitten each. We were very nervous and scared all the way, as we were only about eleven or twelve years old at the time. And we saw some fresh wolf tracks about six miles out on the lake and kept our eyes busy looking every which way, expecting to see some wolves following us. And we were only carrying sticks three feet long and two inches around. Not much defence against an animal like a wolf. We came back without the lost mittens as the wind and snow had covered everything that could be lost. That was January 1941, and it was that meanest of all nuns, Sister St. Mercy, who had forced us to walk in that godawful weather, only to come back empty-handed. We, of course, got the strap, twenty strokes on both hands.
Also my left eye still waters and aches where I was hit a number of times by two Sisters who worked for four or five years as boys' keepers. Sister St. Mercy again and Sister St. Joy, who was Sister Mercy's disciple. Sister St. Mercy trained her well, at different times. They really enjoyed causing pain and other kinds of suffering as punishment for the smallest infractions. I think they were paranoid in the position they had, being masters of a lower race of creatures, Indians, as we were called.
"Indians from the bush, what can you expect?" was Sister Mercy's favourite phrase.
They wanted to show who was superior, and no rule or order was to be broken or spoken against. They wanted to impress upon us that all this was for our own good and the will of God, and that the order of nuns, brothers, and fathers of the Oblate Mary Immaculate (OMI ) were to some degree servants of God on Earth, and we must take any punishment without complaints. To be disobedient was a sin in the eyes of God.
In the springtime when the cattle were mating, and all the animals were in the open yards, if we laughed too much or too loud while the bulls were doing their thing, we used to get whipped on the butts with a hose three feet long. We were chased away to another part of the schoolyard so we could not watch what was going on with the mating bulls and cows.