Larry Loyie on the history of residential school and his personal story as a survivor
[reading list follows]
In my early childhood, I lived a traditional Cree life. I grew up in northern Alberta surrounded by forest. One of my teachers was my grandfather Edward Twin, my mother's father. He did nothing special, he was simply a good person. He encouraged me to live the same way. He also gently warned me, "It's not easy being good."
As children, we listened to storytellers who taught about a good way of life. Every story had an underlying purpose, to teach people how to get along with each other and how to survive the environment. In the stories, greed and selfishness were frowned upon. Sharing was encouraged.
At the age of nine, I was taken to residential school and lost a beautiful way of life. These schools were created by the Canadian government and run by various churches. The goal of the Canadian government was to wipe out Aboriginal cultures, languages and traditions. The irony is that during the 300 years of the fur trade in Canada, Aboriginal people were central to survival and the European economy as hunters, trappers, guides and labourers. Once the fur trade was replaced by settlement, we were in the way. The residential school system was part of the plan to blend us into the mainstream European way of life. They thought that we would not care about our Aboriginal cultures anymore. How wrong they were!
Although the numbers are approximate, I estimate that upwards of 200,000 children attended residential schools between the late 1800s and the closing of the last school in 1984. If our parents tried to stop the government officials from taking us away, they could be put in jail.
I went to St. Bernard Mission residential school in northern Alberta, about 150 kilometres from my home on Rabbit Hill near the town of Slave Lake. My first memories of the school include the long ride in an open-air grain truck, then the school buildings looming over me, dull and unfriendly.
The teachers and staff were harsh and often cruel with physical punishment being an everyday occurrence. I did have one kind and well-trained teacher, Sister Theresa. She encouraged me to read and travel the world when I grew up. Sadly, she was only at the school for a few months before being transferred.
My mother died while I was in residential school. It was very confusing and sad as I was so far away. I was never comforted or had a chance to talk about my loss. Although I knew she had died, I prayed it wasn't true. With so much hurt inside, I ran away twice. When I was caught, I was punished. I was even punched in the side after running away as punishment. I wrote about this in my book Goodbye Buffalo Bay
Finally I quit school at 13 years of age and began my working life picking rocks on a farm, fighting fires and working in a logging camp. I went on to work at many jobs over the next 40 or so years. When I was in my 50s, I went back to school to fulfill my dream of becoming a writer. I am proud to say I have accomplished my dream. I continue to write because there is so much I want to share about being a proud Aboriginal person.
On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people on behalf of Canada for a century of residential schools. For school survivors and their families, it was an emotional day. Finally our personal histories and those of thousands of Aboriginal children could be told without fear of denial or reprisal.
The Prime Minister’s apology has made it possible to share this long-hidden aspect of Aboriginal and Canadian history. I no longer worry that people who read my books or hear me speak about residential school will ask, “Is it true? Was it that bad in the school?”
Although the residential school scheme destroyed many families and took many lives, I am proud to say it did not destroy our cultures. Our cultures are stronger than ever today.
As a children's book author, I've visited many schools across Canada in the past ten years. I am impressed with the programs and curriculum now being introduced to teach the positive aspects of the Aboriginal way of life. The truth is out, and I am hopeful about the future. The children are being remembered and honoured at last.
See Larry's website: www.firstnationswriter.com for background and study material.
Larry Loyie's books to read about residential school:
As Long as the Rivers Flow
(Groundwood, a multi-award winner)
Goodbye Buffalo Bay
(sequel to As Long as the Rivers Flow, from Theytus)
Larry Loyie's books to read about traditional Aboriginal life:
The Moon Speaks Cree (a winter adventure, a new book coming out in September 2011 from Theytus)
When the Spirits Dance (set in the Second World War, from Theytus)
As Long as the Rivers Flow (Groundwood)
Goodbye Buffalo Bay (Theytus)
Larry Loyie's book about HIV awareness and prevention:
The Gathering Tree (a bestselling illustrated children's book from Theytus)
For more information on Theytus Books, go to: www.theytus.com