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Rights + Justice

‘Residential School Perverted Everything that Was Beautiful’

Gina Laing lives a truth for survivors. Healing, never complete, is a process of myriad small acts of rebellion.

Meghan Mast 19 Jul

Meghan Mast is a Winnipeg-based multimedia journalist who has covered agriculture, politics, hydro, health and the climate crisis. Her work has appeared on the CBC and in the Winnipeg Free Press, the Globe and Mail and Megaphone magazine.

[Editor’s note: In June 2015, journalist Meghan Mast introduced Tyee readers to Gina Laing and Dennis Bob, two residential school survivors who had testified about their experiences to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They shared at the time how they managed to live with the trauma they’d endured. Recently, Mast reconnected with Laing and Bob, and we publish an updated version of the two-part series starting today.]

For years, Gina Laing followed her grandmothers up the river behind the cannery to bathe. They’d walk along a little creek to a waterfall that poured into a clear green pond. A canopy of trees and ferns shaded the women as they slipped, fully clothed, into the water. How noble and then comical they looked when they emerged again — arms in a V, hands turned upwards, clothes plastered to their skin, their long black braids dripping.

Both grandmothers were gone now. And that memory seemed far away as Laing, at 17, pushed her way through the trees. She had returned from residential school a year earlier. Stepping over the stones, she walked closer to the rushing water. She sat down on a large rock and studied the gun in her lap. Her last living grandmother had just died. The only person who loved her “without conditions.” Slowly, she lifted the heavy, metal object to her mouth.

Just then she heard a noise that made her look up. A blue heron hurtled through the sky, squawking wildly before belly flopping into the water, legs and wings splayed. Screeching and hollering, the bird climbed onto a rock and shook itself off. “I couldn’t help it. I started laughing,” she remembered. “I put the gun down. I started laughing. I started crying. I started laughing. I started crying. I figured, ‘Well if you can be so ugly and awkward and fall all over the place and pick yourself up, I can do the same.’”

Gina Laing is now 73. A gentle woman with a warm manner and a penchant for flower-print shirts, she’s a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. She watches Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar when she’s upset, or a Burt Lancaster movie where “the good guys always win.” She also likes horror movies because she needs “to believe that there are things more terrible than what happened.”

Laing, from the Uchucklesaht tribe, was one of an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children across Canada brought to residential schools between 1876 until the last federally run school closed in 1996. Children were taken from their parents, often forcibly, and banned from speaking their language. The schools were part of a federal assimilation policy to integrate Indigenous people into white society. The goal was to “kill the Indian” in the child.

In the 10 years she spent at Alberni Indian Residential School, Laing, like many former students, suffered repeated sexual and physical abuse. She was seven when she arrived. “Residential school perverted everything that was beautiful,” she said. Water had always been sacred to her family. But bath time at residential school remains a traumatic memory. Laing would sit in the recycled, cloudy bath water while staff scrubbed her until her skin was red and sore, calling her “a dirty little Indian.”

Over time, she has come to love the water again. She doesn’t have the strength to walk to the spot where her grandmothers bathed, but she uses her time in the shower to pray “to God.” Though, she stressed, “I don’t have to call him God if I don’t want to.” She reads the bible every night before bed. Something she learned from her mother, she said, not from residential school.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which gathered witness testimonies from 7,000 residential school survivors and their families beginning in 2009, issued its final report in December 2015. It included a section on “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.”

The commission held gatherings in small cities and several national events in major cities. Closing events in Ottawa featured a walk for reconciliation, traditional ceremonies, cultural performances and survivor sharing circles. The aim was to address the suffering of survivors but also educate the Canadian public about residential schools.

As the commission travelled across Canada, stories of abuse and neglect in the schools leaked into the public consciousness. But the commission did not necessarily represent the beginning of healing for those involved. It took the federal government over 100 years to close the schools, apologize and acknowledge the devastating effects on Indigenous communities.

Meanwhile, many survivors began their own healing long ago — slowly rebuilding their worlds, reclaiming their everyday existence through small acts of hope and resistance.

Violence and the everyday

Nine years ago, Gina Laing shared her story, both publicly and privately, at a TRC event. She showed some of the artwork she created in an art therapy workshop.

Many of those paintings were later featured at a gallery at the University of British Columbia. It was there I met Laing. She’d sat in front of her paintings — brightly coloured representations of her residential school experience — and shared the stories behind the angry black lines that streaked through the canvases and the omnipresent yellow eyes. “We were always being watched,” she said. Some of these paintings, along with several others she made during her time at Alberni Indian Residential School, are on display at the Canadian Museum of History and will be for the next couple decades.

Laing said she chose to testify at the TRC because she wanted people to know what had happened to her. She wanted to share the pain she’d endured. She wanted to educate people, but telling her story that day wasn’t central to her own healing.

As she spoke then, and over the subsequent conversations we had, it became clear to me that Laing’s personal reconciliation had begun a long time ago. Decades of counselling have helped her regain her life. But equally important is the small ways she re-experiences and rebels against what happened to her at residential school.

Ethnographer Veena Das nicely articulates the importance of daily tasks. She spends long periods of time with people affected by traumatic events and lived for several years with urban Punjabi families who had lived through the violent riots of the Partition in 1947. Through intimate, in-depth research, she studies how traumatic events affect everyday life for individual people. In her book, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, she writes that when a traumatic event occurs, that experience “attaches itself with its tentacles into everyday life and folds itself into the recesses of the ordinary.”

She writes that daily tasks are crucial to combatting unspeakable horrors, because the answer to relieving social suffering lies not in transcendental experiences.

Rather, the answer lies in the mundane rhythms of life.

The ‘wild west’

When I first met Gina Laing, she was living much of the time in her family home in Hilthatis, a small Uchucklesaht tribe reserve village near Port Alberni. Back then, the family was commuting between Port Alberni and their village every Friday so that Laing’s granddaughter Erika could attend school in town.

Laing invited me to visit, so one day in Port Alberni I climbed with Laing and Erika into the back of the family’s black Ford pickup; its cab was packed with red gasoline tanks, boxes of groceries and tuna sandwiches. The Laings drove pothole-filled logging roads with no guardrails for a couple hours, braving narrow roads hoping they wouldn’t meet a logging truck along the way.

“That’s where I used to go to school,” Laing pointed to barely visible roof peaks at the top of a steep hill. “Do you want to see it?”

The Alberni Indian Residential School, shown here in the 1960s, was opened under the Presbyterian church in 1890, burned down in 1917 and in 1920 reopened under the United Church. It officially closed in 1973 and most of the buildings were torn down in 2009 when the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe repossessed the land. Photo: Indian Residential School and Dialogue Centre.

Gravel crunched under the weight of the truck as we pulled up the hill towards the former site of Alberni Indian Residential School. Expecting big, dark, decrepit structures, I was surprised to see several well-kept buildings, a pastel mural and an active parking lot. Laing told me most of the old school was torn down when the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe repossessed the land. Former students helped pull apart the old structures in 2009, smashing windows and wrenching wood from nails. We looped around, passing each building before heading back down the hill. It occurred to me Laing passes this site every time she travelled to and from home.

Back on the road, her granddaughter tried to figure me out.

“What’s your favourite colour?”

“What’s your favourite food?”

“What’s your favourite band?”

“What’s your favourite food again? I forgot,” she blushed.

After a long drive, with several stops to admire the view and forage for mushrooms, we arrived at a small dock. A chainsaw screamed from the nearby logging camp, and pop music played from a neighbouring boom box. We moved the boxes down the ramp to the dock while Laing’s husband called a friend, from a walkie-talkie, to pick us up.

Laing says her childhood years on the reserve were sometimes very difficult. Families were deeply broken by cycles of abuse. Mostly everyone had attended residential school. Laing said the abuse didn’t stop once she left school. Her father wasn’t around during the summers, when she returned from school, but he was around during the year. He would often fly into unpredictable rages. She’d sleep under the bed behind boxes, when he was home, so he couldn’t find her.

Her father had attended the same residential school and Laing believes he was abused by the same man she was. “I remember [the supervisor] hauled a picture of a little boy and showed it to me. He said, ‘This is your father. Look how blond he is. Just like you.’” She mimed the way he’d stroked her as he spoke.

But her father was often away from home for work. And home brought some freedoms that residential school hadn’t. She could stay up as late as she wanted to, watch as much television as she wanted to, and eat as much as she wanted to, whenever she wanted to. She did not have to eat pasta. The strange, slippery strands in the school cafeteria looked like larger versions of the worms that infected the salmon at the end of the fish season. “I always wondered how they managed to cut all the heads off,” she said.

As the boat neared the reserve, the clear ocean water lapped against the shore. The sun warmed the sand. “Coming home is like medicine,” Laing said.

‘Just me and the spiders’

“The building is huge with long, white empty hallways. A child walks softly, the echo runs ahead of her. The smell of Lysol and floor wax overwhelms the memory of wood smoke and dirt floors,” read the lines from a poem called “Residential School Bus” from Louise Bernice Halfe’s book, Bear Bones & Feathers. The poem describes a scene reminiscent of the time Gina Laing spent a few days alone in Alberni Indian Residential School.

She had been so afraid — knowing her abuser would soon come for her because there was no one else to choose from. As we sat on the porch at her home in Hilthatis, she faced the ocean as she spoke. She said she feels safe now. Her husband prepared ham sandwiches inside for lunch. Erika, Laing’s granddaughter, watched Into the Wild. Telling these stories is important to Laing. But the telling is painful. She closed her eyes, tilted her chin up towards the sun and began her story.

All the other kids had left for the summer and her parents were late picking her up. Huddling near the railing, she would look through to the dorm supervisor’s room. When the curtains moved she’d know he was on his way up and she’d softly pad across the floor, down the back stairs to the linen closet at the end of a hallway that ran between the dormitories. Climbing into the back, over an edge where there was about a foot of space, she’d push past the cobwebs and squeeze into the small space. It was the best hiding spot. “Just me and the spiders,” she laughed. “I’m scared to death of spiders. I used to feel like if they could tap their little feet and tell on me, they would.”

The memory of the residential school is “always there. It’s always on the edge of things.” Though she said the memory is fainter than it once was. That she can sit on the porch and face the ocean is significant. She used to sit facing the door because that was where the danger came from. Laing was quiet and then straightened in her chair. “This stuff gets to you after a while,” she said, excusing herself to go inside to watch the movie.

A new home

About a year after my visit, Laing received some hard news. She was at her daughter’s house in Nanaimo when her brother phoned and asked if she was sitting down. She immediately worried he was calling about one of her kids. “I said, ‘Yeah I’m sitting down.’” Laing’s house in Hilthatis had burned to the ground, her brother told her. No one was hurt, thankfully.

The lawn mower was found flipped over, and the cap on the gas tank was missing. The cap to the gas tank on the ATV was also off, and lying on the ground next to it. The police were suspicious of the fire. It seemed to have started from the outside.

Laing went to see for herself, finding everything in ashes except what was metal. She walked through the rubble and found a few tools on the back porch. One of the RCMP officers salvaged a frying pan for her.

Laing told herself she would rebuild. “I thought I would be there until the day I died,” she said. “Then they would pack me out. Because that’s home.”

851px version of HilthatisView.jpg
The view near Gina Laing’s old home in Hilthatis, a small reserve village near Port Alberni. Photo by Meghan Mast.

She missed the parts of her house that held memories, particularly her porch with the big flowered Martha Stewart umbrella. But she did not want to be defined by the loss. She began living in Port Alberni, and found that afforded her opportunities she may not have gotten if she was still living in Hilthatis. She has spoken to students at different schools on Vancouver Island about her experience at residential school. Her artwork was featured in an exhibit in Port Alberni, northern Ontario and the University of Victoria.

She’d always thought of her home in Hilthatis as a healing place, but said she been forced to look after herself now. “It’s a part of my life I have to tuck away. I can’t stay stagnant and stale,” she said.

Survival mode

With long black hair, a cautious smile and soft arms, April Martin looks a lot like Laing, her mom. We arranged to meet soon after my trip to Hilthatis. She greeted me at the front door of her apartment in Nanaimo before leading me through the beige hallways, up the stairs into her suite. She sat at the table in front of a bowl of frozen peaches on a table cluttered with Halloween makeup, school notebooks and a roll of toilet paper she occasionally reached for to blow her nose. Her arm crossed her body, settling into the nook of her other elbow.

She talked about what she and her siblings called survival mode. Even though her mother did not talk about residential school until much later, the experience was always present — saturating Martin’s childhood memories. She remembered wearing clothes and shoes to bed. Her mother hung a bag of food and emergency supplies on both the front and back door. This was so that they’d be ready to go if Laing’s partner at the time came home drunk. But it was also, Laing had said earlier, because she lived in fear that “they would take my children away like they took me from my mom.”

Even outside their home, the family was on alert. “When we’d go to a restaurant we’d plan a path of escape,” Martin said. She still plans an escape route when she’s in a public place. And she’ll often point out the exit to her daughters.

These rituals echo the intergenerational “lived memories” of the past that anthropologist Carol Kidron’s describes. Though Martin’s mother did not tell her about it until much later, the residential school experience was very present in Martin’s childhood. Kidron works with the children of Holocaust survivors. During one study, where she conducted in-depth interviews with children of survivors, she found that trauma became visible through the ways survivors conducted their daily tasks. “The non-verbal and partially verbal traces of the Holocaust [were] interwoven in everyday life. These traces form a vital experiential matrix of Holocaust presence in the private domain,” she writes in her article, “Towards an ethnography of silence.”

Memories of trauma can attach themselves to ordinary objects. Kidron talks about how one woman’s mother keeps the spoon she ate soup with in Auschwitz. She doesn’t keep it memorialized in a separate case, but instead keeps it in the utensil drawer and uses it to feed her children oatmeal every morning. This might go unnoticed by most. But small acts of rebellion like this are crucial to reclaiming life after trauma. Every morning this mother uses the spoon, she gives the Nazis her proverbial middle finger. Not only has she survived, now she uses the spoon to nourish her children — furthering the bloodline the Nazis failed to eliminate. Kidron writes that “if the spoon from Auschwitz holds one’s morning oatmeal, then one cannot disentangle the mundane life-world as one knows it from the interwoven co-presence of the Holocaust past.”

Eating with the spoon confirms this mother’s strength and ability to survive, embedding this belief about herself in her daily life.

Laing, who left residential school in 1964, hardly spoke until the late 1980s. Not only did she not talk about what happened to her at the Alberni Indian Residential School, she could not even order a hamburger. The waitress would ask her what she wanted and she’d look down at her plate until her husband ordered for her. “I thought I would be ignored or laughed at,” she said. When I asked Laing how the server responded the first time she ordered for herself, she laughed. “They got the burger and brought it to me.”

Gina making the bed at her home in Hilthatis before the fire. Photo by Meghan Mast.

On my last day visiting Laing’s home in Hilthatis, a year before the fire burned it to the ground, I followed her into her room as she cleaned. She tossed the blanket to the side and then lifted the top sheet in the air. It parachuted and settled. At residential school she was required every day to make the bed just so. “We had to pull the sheets so tight that they could bounce a coin off of them,” she said. If the coin didn’t bounce she wasn’t allowed to watch television on Sunday nights — the one privilege. Once she left the school she stopped making the bed. For 50 years.

This silent rebellion had gone unnoticed even by her children. Her husband, however, began complaining that the sheets were always getting twisted. So Laing, who had waited until she was in her 40s to speak, decided in her 60s that she was ready to revisit the old chore. Now Laing tucks the sheets in loosely and doesn’t worry about smoothing out the wrinkles. She chuckled as she moved around the bed, recalling her long resistance. Mismatched pillows created a lopsided landscape. She makes the bed almost every day now, but she does so on her terms.

Gina Laing today lives in Port Alberni with her daughter April. I recently reached her on the phone and learned she has been navigating grief since her husband died in May. She still watches Liar Liar when she’s having a particularly difficult time. Her home in Hilthatis has been rebuilt since the fire. She still hopes to move back one day.

Tomorrow: Dennis Bob also suffered abuse and trauma at the Alberni Indian Residential School. After he mustered the courage to tell his story to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he says, "I cried so hard I almost got rid of the pain."  [Tyee]

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