Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

'This Is How They Tortured Me'

Grim tales of residential school abuse compiled by Tofino author.

By Christine McLaren 6 Jul 2009 |

Christine McLaren reports for The Tyee.

image atom
Jacqueline Windh: gathered voices.
  • First Nations and the Pacific Northwest: Change and Tradition
  • Jacqueline Windh and Alfred Hendricks
  • Westfalisches Museum fur Naturkunde, Muenster (2005)

Most of us know there was a time in Canada when aboriginal children where taken from their homes, their families and communities, and forced to attend residential schools.

There, we have been told, children were beaten for speaking their own language, and many were physically and sexually abused by the priests and nuns that ran the schools.

Most of us know that the lasting effects in many First Nations communities have manifested themselves as poverty, addiction and abuse.

Canadians learned at least that much from Stephan Harper's apology one year ago to the survivors of those schools.

But very few of us have looked into the eyes of one of those children now grown up, many of them now parents or grandparents, and heard them tell their stories -- the raw details of what really happened behind the doors of those schools.

That is why Jacqueline Windh fought hard for her book, First Nations and the Pacific Northwest: Change and Tradition, to be released this month in Canada.

The volume was originally published in Germany to accompany a gallery exhibit in Westfalian Museum of Natural History in Muenster. The first part of the book, by museum director Prof. Alfred Hendricks, explains historical facts about the First Nations of North America for the exhibition. The second part of the book, by Windh, delves into the deeply personal and disturbing stories of 16 residential school survivors from Vancouver Island, told in their own words. For some, it was the first time in their lives they'd talked about their experiences.

The stories force the reader to imagine what it would be like to learn about suicide for the first time when a 10-year-old boy hangs himself in the basement of your school. Or for nuns to come into your room at night to rape you, or to strangle you and the other kids until you black out, just for entertainment.

The stories force the reader to reflect upon how it would feel now, decades later, to see those same nuns in the grocery store of your tiny community. And then to go home to your family only to beat them and pass on the abuse you learned as a child, because it's the only thing you knew growing up.

'They were trained not to talk'

Windh grew up in Ontario, and did not lay eyes on a First Nations person until she was an adult. Not until she was in her 30s, after having moved to Tofino, British Columbia, did Windh really get to know an Aboriginal person. She had known only vaguely about the residential schools and what went on there. Slowly, she developed friendships in the First Nations community, eventually dating a First Nations man, and began to learn about the dark history that shrouded the families she was meeting.

It was years before she earned the trust and respect in the community necessary in order for people to open up and tell her their stories. Now, she says, many residential school victims are realizing it is time that people hear those stories so they can begin to understand the horror that lies in Canada's past, and how it has shaped the present.

"People can have more empathy if they know the truth. If you're walking in downtown Vancouver and you see a drunken Indian passed out on the side of the road, instead of just thinking, 'Why don't they get a job?' you can have a little more empathy about the whole history that brought that person to that situation."

While she originally set out to educate non-natives about the horrors of the residential school system through telling the stories, she quickly learned that many aboriginal people themselves, especially youth, were starved for information as well. What happened in the schools is rarely talked about, even in the family.

"Their parents and grandparents who went to the residential schools were so severely abused that it's a thing they don't talk about. And they were also trained there not to talk. They were really trained not to talk about stuff, so they've been raised in this culture of not talking," says Windh.

'I just want a better life'

The stories in the book are accompanied by portraits photographed by Windh. The last thing Canada needs, she believes, is another faceless Indian.

One of these photos shows a man, Brian Lucas, not older than 50. He stands on a porch overlooking Tofino's shoreline and mountains, twisting a blue towel around his neck:

"We were tortured by the Brothers, getting hit by a big stick four feet long and two inches wide. Thirty whacks on my bare ass, I couldn't even sit down, but I was still forced to sit down. Then I had to get another ten more because I smiled at my friend. I got my ear twisted because they said I wasn't listening. I had my hair pulled by the Sisters, four of them. They tortured me by putting a towel around my neck. This is how they tortured me, they made me black out.

"I want my picture taken of me with a towel around my neck, to show what they put me through. It did something to my brain, that's why I'm always this way."

Brian was five or six when he entered Christie Residential School in Kakawis on Vancouver Island. He has six children of his own now who, though not attending residential school themselves, live with the consequences while their father still fights to move on.

"Nine of those Brothers and Sisters abused me -- physical, emotional, the works. Sexual, I seen them doing it right in front of me. It affected me, and made me say "Hey, that's all right for me to do too." I'm not ashamed to say it, that's where I learnt it from.

"It is hard to live with. I have to see them still, in Tofino. Some of the Brothers and Sisters still live there. Right away I get scared when I see them, I feel "I want to do the same thing to you guys." But I know that's not going to help me.

"Now I hear myself saying those same things to my own kids, 'You're stupid, you're never gonna learn anything.'

"It's a tough life. There are triggers every day, right in front of me. It's hard to get away from it. I'm trying to teach my kids now, so they don't do the same things I did. I feel from my heart, trying to do the right thing so I don't hurt anybody. But I'm teaching them the same things I learnt at residential school, and now they are living it too.

"I just want a better life. It's hard to live a good life when you have this inside of you."

Time for healing running out

Since October 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a formal inquiry intended to give voice to and document the experiences of residential school survivors, has lay in shambles after the commissioners resigned over internal disputes. Earlier this month, however, the government welcomed new commissioners, promising the commission will be up and running soon.

If done properly, Windh says, obeying the strict cultural rules she learned herself about communication within the First Nations community, the commission could begin on a large scale the healing that Change and Tradition has helped bring to one small community. But it needs to happen fast.

"People are dying. Of the 16 people I interviewed, two of them have died already, and one of them is not doing very well at all and might not be with us much longer." She says the victims deserve to be heard.

"Every Canadian should hear these to find out, I guess, the horror or what happened... There are so many things these days for us to think about being focused on, and we get so overloaded by information. But I think sometimes it's easier to understand something on the emotional level."

"It's a way of honouring them, to just hear them. And for native people that's a really important thing. Just to be listened to."