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Stories From Canada's Indigenous Residential School Survivors

(Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images)
(Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images)

At first, John Jones’ childhood wasn’t very different from other kids.

“The only important thing to a child is to play and be loved,” Jones says. “That’s what my life was like before residential school.”

But when he was just 7, Jones was sent to the Alberni Residential School in Canada.

“The physical abuse was every day,” he says. “And being assaulted verbally — if I didn’t do things the way that they wanted me to do, I was called a dirty, stupid Indian that would be good for nothing.”

Set up in the 19th century, Canada’s residential schools were used to force assimilation of First Nations children. Thousands died there. Hundreds buried in recently discovered unmarked graves.

Today, On Point: Survivors of Canada’s residential schools.

Guests

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, Chair on Truth and Reconciliation for Lakehead University. Governing Circle Chair of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. (@cynthiawesley)

Regis Pecos, Co-director of the Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School. Former governor of Cochiti Pueblo.

Also Featured

John Jones, member of the Nanoose First Nation and survivor of the Alberni Residential School.

Interview Highlights: John Jones

JOHN JONES: When we walked into the door, there were supervisors there. My sisters went in one direction, and I followed my older brothers. And this supervisor asked me to follow him to the third floor. The hallways were long and dark. The dorms — it was one great big room. It was cold, really cold. It was really uncomfortable during the day and the night.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: It’s as if he’s back there. John Jones remembers the dark corridors of the Alberni Residential School, a boarding school on the West Bank of the Somass River on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The place Jones was sent almost six decades ago when he was just 7 years old.

JOHN JONES: The supervisor handed me a brown bag and clothes that they issued and proceeded to walk me into the shower room where I was told to get undressed. And a whole bunch of white powder was put on my head and all over my body. And I was asked to shower and then told to change into the clothes.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Jones is a member of the Nanoose First Nation, a small community of Coast Salish First Nation people in British Columbia. From Canada’s birth as a sovereign nation in 1867, all the way through the late 1990s, Canadian churches and later the government operated indigenous residential schools like Alberni.

More than 150,000 indigenous children passed through the system, a system later exposed as rife with neglect, abuse and death. In fact, the residential schools had one primary purpose, cultural genocide, according to a 2015 report from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They cite Duncan Campbell Scott, former deputy minister of Indian Affairs. Scott ran the residential school system from 1913 to 1932.

And in 1920, he said, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think, as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are unable to stand alone. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”

JOHN JONES: A friend told me not to speak my language or talk about tradition because if you do, you will get punished.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: John Jones remembers one of the first lessons he learned at the Alberni Residential School in 1962.

JOHN JONES: I could understand my traditional language, but I couldn’t speak it at the time. And one of the things that we had to do was watch the supervisor strap our friends with a strap that was made out of a fire hose. And it would not just be on the hands, so we had to watch him. And to this day, I can’t speak our traditional language, and I think it’s because of watching my friends getting strapped for speaking their language.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: When seeking models for its residential schools, the Canadian government looked south. The U.S. government had established a series of missionary run indigenous boarding schools decades earlier. The church’s work received a major boost from the 1819 Civilization Fund Act. And by 1823, the American government was funding more than 30 boarding schools across the U.S.

In Canada, the residential schools were administered by the Catholic, United Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Staff were frequently poorly trained and had limited supervision. The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation report found that, “child neglect was institutionalized.” Students were prey to physical and sexual abusers — something John Jones experienced again and again.

JOHN JONES: Boys sometimes peed their bed, and the counselor would make us form two lines facing each other with our belt in our hands. And as each of the person that was being punished for peeing the bed [passed], we would have to whip them with our belt as they passed to the lines. I chose not to with my friends, and as a result, I had to go through that line and get whipped myself. And each time their punishment took place, I chose not to whip them, but to get punished with them.

I’d seen one of my friends with a chocolate bar, and I asked him where he got it. And he said he got it from a male supervisor called Mr. Plint. You know, so I went and asked him if I could have a chocolate bar. And he said he hasn’t got one, but if I go back while everybody’s asleep, he’d give me one. So I waited for everybody to fall asleep. And I went to him, went to his office. And he showed me into his bedroom that was attached to the office. That’s where the sexual abuse stopped.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: In 1995, Arthur Plint pleaded guilty to abusing 18 children at sentencing, Judge D.A. Hogarth described the abuses as the worst he’d seen in his 45 years on the bench, calling Plint a “sexual terrorist.”

JOHN JONES: I don’t know how long that lasted, but I know I threw the chocolate bar in the  garbage, and I took baths three or four times a day to feel clean, and it didn’t help.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Though almost 60 years have passed, John Jones still remembers the searing loneliness, the pain that came with being separated from his family. His parents had had no choice. For nearly seven generations, almost every indigenous child in Canada was forced to live in the residential schools.

JOHN JONES: I learned as an adult that if my parents didn’t send us that they would be possibly looking at a jail sentence.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Jones often wrote home — some happy letters, some sad letters. As a child, it confused him greatly why his mother never asked about the sad ones.

JOHN JONES: I thought she didn’t love me anymore. As an adult, I learned that they screened our letters, all our letters, and my sad letters didn’t make it home to my mom. But I think my stepfather knew what I was going through. He had a talk with me one day, and he started telling me about his experience at Port Alberni Indian Residential School.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The same school.

JOHN JONES: And I started crying, and he reached his hand over to me. He said, it’s all right for human beings to cry and show their pain. He just held my hand a long time.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The Alberni Residential School closed in 1973. There had been five residential schools on Vancouver Island, and earlier this year, at the site of one of those schools, First Nations investigators found the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves. Weeks later, 751 more unmarked graves were unearthed at a former residential school in Saskatchewan.

The discovery is tragic, but not a surprise. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that more than 3,200 children died at the schools. Ken Watts, a First Nations’ elected chief told the Times Colonist newspaper that: “People knew that a lot of children didn’t make it home … but these aren’t just stories anymore. This is real. This is solid evidence that the horror stories they say are true.”

So slowly that truth is being unearthed, but what about reconciliation?

Well, John Jones is 65 now. He’s a father, a grandfather and a great grandfather. He was also involved in the first civil lawsuit against the residential schools that was launched back in 1997. The Canadian government and several churches, with the exception of the Catholic Church, have since issued apologies. But Jones says reconciliation truly begins not with a statement, but with an action.

JOHN JONES: One of the things I asked for was for a representative from the government or the church to come to our place of ceremony where our life is, our traditional teachings, and made an apology. I think I would be able to accept that a bit more. That’s how I was taught traditionally on how to make things right so that we can move on in life.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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