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Residential Schools: The Pain that Keeps on Giving

Thursday June 12, 2014

The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently completed four years of public hearings recording story after story of appalling physical and sexual abuse, neglect and selective cultural genocide.

But there are some narratives coming out of this colonialist and racist residential school period that will never be heard. Stories from those who escaped the clutches of Indian agents and religious orders hell bent on saving their charges from it, but who were, nevertheless sideswiped by this terribly misguided policy.

Margaret Alice Agnes (not her real name) an 84 year-old Anishinabequay (Aboriginal Woman) from the north shore of Lake Superior is one of these stories. Born in 1930 in a north-of-Superior reserve community, Margaret, her parents and many siblings lived the hardscrabble but satisfactory life of the early 20th century Anishinabe – blending the best of Aboriginal culture with some of the material accoutrements of white society. In addition to reaping the resources of the land he so much honoured, Margaret’s father worked as a woodcutter and prospector. Margaret’s mother often worked alongside her father while working in the home tending to the growing family.

“We didn’t have a lot of things, but we were rich and happy in many other ways” Margaret Alice recalls of her childhood. “We had what we needed and what we didn’t have, we didn’t miss!”

Margaret Alice was able to attend the local community elementary school and was about to complete Grade 3 when her life changed dramatically. Her father Edward had witnessed Indian agents relocating community children to a residential school in Thunder Bay “for their own good and for a long time,” as Margaret Alice tells it. Knowing of the anguish this would cause both the children and he and his wife Alice, he knew instinctively this was wrong.

“I remember him coming home and telling my mom to pack up the kids and whatever we could carry. We were going into the bush and we would leave the very next day. I didn’t know what was going on and I was afraid,” Margaret Alice recollects.

She was to spend the next eight years of her life in the bush in a one room trapper’s cabin with her parents, siblings and nature as her only teachers, away from the clutches of the priests and ministers and government agents who would wish to civilize her by destroying her cultural identify and the language she used to express it.

“I remember my dad telling my mom that if anybody came around when he was not there that she should not sign any papers for anything and that the kids were not going anywhere.”

We may be too quick to conclude that Margaret Alice escaped the worst of the residential school debacle. Perhaps she did, but when she came out of the bush at 17 and went directly to work in the lumber bush camps, she did so with but a 3rd grade education.

“I taught myself how to read, to write and to count – I was to old to go back to school” she says.

Who would argue that she too is not a victim of the residential school policy? As a single parent, she struggled all her life with low paying jobs and often had to rely, reluctantly, on social assistance to raise her children. Even though she “survived” the residential school period, she was still denied a birthright enjoyed by every other Canadian – the right to a basic education in her own community.

Beverly Sabourin, who recently retired as the Vice-Provost of Aboriginal Initiatives at Lakehead University, is a member of the Pic Mobert Ojibwe. Peter Globensky is a former senior policy advisor on Aboriginal Affairs in the Office of the Prime Minister and recently retired as CEO of the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. They invite your comments at

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