Black spot on the hearts of survivors revealed.
The Tseshaht First Nation had the unfortunate experience of having a residential school operate on its territory for many years.
Alberni Indian Residential School was one of the most notorious in the country and is the place from which grew today's Indian Residential School Settlements Agreement, the indirect result of a handful of AIRS survivors who banded together to take government and the churches to court to hold them accountable for the abuses that were perpetrated in the facility.
So when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission visited the Alberni Valley to hold statement gathering hearings on March 12 and 13, Tseshaht Chief Councillor Les Sam took the opportunity to speak directly to the survivors of AIRs in attendance. He told them the Tseshaht people were behind them 100 per cent, supporting them and giving them strength.
Tseshaht Elder Willard Gallic agreed. "We don't want our homeland to be a black spot in your heart," he said.
For many former students, coming into the valley rekindled painful memories, so the message from Tseshaht was welcome.
One survivor said through her tears "I'm terrified to be here, because I was so tormented here." She told Commissioner Marie Wilson she had three abusers at the school.
"There is a building on this ground that terrifies me," said a middle-aged George August. "One of the supervisors used to take us in there, put us in the tub and sexually abuse us. He would make us do things to himO I can still see, smell [and] taste it."
One after another, survivors of the residential schools on Vancouver Island and even from those on the mainland, stepped forward to describe their treatment at the hands of their tormentors, either those in the employ of the schools, or other children that were used to keep order in the ranks.
Cliff Atleo, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, described the cuff on the side of his head that made his ear ring for months and that caused permanent hearing loss. He remembered when he was 10 how his brother would plead with him to use more English to help young Clifford avoid punishment.
Ben Nookemis of Huu-ay-aht described how supervisors would wash the children's mouths out with soap for speaking their native languages. Another survivor spoke of being forced to eat a whole bar of soap.
"The supervisors, the abusers, they scolded us so much, strapping, whipping," said Nookemis. He described the sexual abuse of young girls in the schools that he witnessed and heard.
"We were always hungry. We were always stealing foodO We lined up once a day and they would give us dry breadO We saw some horrible things," Nookemis said.
Tim Sutherland talked about a beating his brother had received, which prompted him to run away from the residential school. His face was so badly swollen from the beating, Tim said, that his parents didn't recognize him, but Tim's brother was in good cheer because he had found his way back to his home.
Then Sutherland described the sexual humiliation that he endured from a group of boys that attacked him one day. His grades slipped from all "A's" to "D's" and "E's" in response, and when he was made to repeat a grade, he just couldn't take school anymore and quit altogether with his mother's blessing.
He had brought to the TRC hearings the last papers he received from court denying any claim to compensation for the abuse. He burned the legal papers in the longhouse sacred fire after his testimony. He said he was done with it. He didn't want to carry the burden of residential school around with him anymore.
Sutherland was angry that the court, in essence, had called him a liar.
"I want to get my point across to Canada ... to those who think '1 don't think it happened.' We are not liars. We know what happened," Sutherland said.
Another survivor talked about being "kidnapped" from his home when he was just five years old by the RCMP. They threatened to throw his parents in jail if they didn't allow their children to be taken to residential school. There were many stories told of feeling abandoned by mothers and fathers; survivors' spoke of the resentment they felt that lasted a lifetime. That's when the alcohol and drug abuse would set in, said some. When moms and dads couldn't protect their children, and found themselves alone in their villages with all the children gone.
"There is a silent rage among the Indians today," said George August. "People had to block their feelings because of what went on."
August said he also had to learn to fight at a very young age.
"Most of the time I didn't know what the fights were about. I've been in lots of fights. I've hurt people and I've been hurt myself ... I'm sick of people not understanding what we students had to go through," he said.
"I'm very angry and I'm afraid of the anger. I'm afraid I'm going to lash out and hurt someone and that's the last thing I want to do is hurt someone else."
Chuck August described the abuse he suffered at the hands of AIRS supervisor Arthur Henry Plint, a man convicted of abuse who has since died. August talked about being made to fellate Plint each morning.
"I used to get paid a candy from this prick, sending me back to the kitchen to go to work and to keep quiet."
August talked about the drugs and alcohol abuse that resulted from his experience in AIRS, the sexual confusion that he struggles with still today, the damage to the relationships with his family.
"When that guy died, that Plint, I was in jail when he died. When they told me, I didn't jump up and down or anything like that. I told people 'OK, that's fine. He isn't going to hurt anybody else ... He's gone. Our little ones are safe from him now."
There was no such relief for Gregory Wright who suffered physical and sexual abuse in AIRS during his time there from 1966 to 1973. As Wright provided his statement, his abuser was just days from being released from jail on March 22.
Richard Donald Olan, who was a teacher at a nearby public school, pled guilty in November 2009 at the age of 68 to five counts of gross indecency relating to the abuses of Wright and others who were shipped to AIRS from their homes in Hazelton, B.C. After eight years of effort pursuing charges and in the courts, on March 23, 2010 Olan received two years for every count to be served concurrently.
Wright took judo lessons from Olan "right up on that stage" he said pointing to the bleachers in the gym where the TRC hearings were being held. Olan would sign Wright out from the residential school for weekends and would take Wright to his home to abuse him.
"I was an innocent little boy," he said.
Wright broke down and wept uncontrollably during his statement, choking and vomiting from the emotion of remembering the beatings and rapes.
He described one violent supervisor who couldn't be named because no charges have been brought against him. A former football player who was over six feet tall grabbed Wright one day by the neck and "beat me like I was a man."
In the dorms he suffered other abuses nightly, and at one point was told to choose between sexual or physical abuse.
Wright also spoke of the first week in AIRS and of seeing a six-year-old boy hanging by his neck by a towel secured to the rafters. He wondered how the young boy, whose name was Michael, could have got himself up so high.
After his testimony, TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson took Wright by the hand and comforted him with words about the courage he demonstrated that day.
The hearings were attended by large groups of non-Aboriginal people. Many wept openly, shaking their heads in shock and disgust at the abuses being described. One former school employee seemed astounded with the extent of the abuse, worried that it occurred during her time at the school. Now an old woman, she looked hurt and confused, head in hands, having to re-evaluate what she thought she knew about her time working in the school.
"We didn't know," said the Reverend Minnie Hornidge, current minister of the local United Church, about the abuse. The United Church operated AIRS all those years.
Survivor Pat Charleson spoke about the fear associated with residential schools.
"My older brother ... he was attacked by a cougar when we were three and four years old. I felt that fear again when my older sister and brother were dragged down to the boats. I was hiding under the bed. I always relate the cougar attack with my experience with residential school."
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings in Port Hardy, Campbell River, Port Alberni and Duncan at the end of February and throughout March, leading up to a regional event to take place in Victoria April 13 and 14. There is a national event scheduled for Saskatchewan in June, and in Vancouver the following year.
The TRC hearings in Port Alberni set records for those watching via live webcast around the world, and also for the number of people lined up to give public statements, going late into the night on both days. There were also private statements taken that will become part of the official record of the residential school experience in Canada.
By Lee Codlin Windspeaker Contributor
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|Date:||Apr 1, 2012|
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