Thursday, 06 October 2016 03:35

Métis elder speaks about residential schools on Orange Shirt Day

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Students and staff at Maverick School in Swift Current received a personal account of the impact of residential schools on families during Orange Shirt Day.


Local resident and Métis elder Cecile Blanke, who is a recipient of the Order of the Métis Nation, was the guest speaker at the school’s class meeting, Sept. 30.
She has previously visited the school to speak to students about her life, but this was her first visit to the school’s modern new premises on the city’s south side.
“When you hear about the residential school, you will know how to appreciate this place, because in the years gone by, students didn’t have very much,” she said.
Activities in support of Orange Shirt Day took place in communities across Canada on Sept. 30. This day to recognize the harm of the residential school system was first launched in 2013.
It was inspired by the story of Phyllis Jack Webstad, who as a six-year-old child went to a residential school in William’s Lake, B.C. Upon arrival at the school she had to take off all her own clothing, including a new orange shirt, which she never saw again.
Orange Shirt Day takes place at the end of September, because it was usually the time of year when children were taken from their homes to residential schools.
Blanke spoke about the Qu’Appelle Industrial School at Lebret, which was operated by the Roman Catholic School from 1884 to 1969. There was a mixed farming operation at the school with cows, pigs and a huge vegetable garden.
“The students milked the cows and churned butter, which the priest and nuns would eat and sell to Fort Qu’Appelle, but the students never got any of it,” she said. “They got gruel, dry bread and tea.”
The boys were taught carpentry, farming, blacksmithing, and they made their own shoes. The girls made their own clothes, performed household duties, and made butter. There was a dress code and the students wore uniforms.
“They all had the same haircuts and if the girls had long hair, it had to be braided,” she said. “So you couldn’t very well tell who was who. They all looked alike and they all had to do the same thing.”
Blanke agrees with the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the residential schools were basically an attempt at cultural genocide.
“The purpose of these schools was to kill the Indian in the child,” she said. “The purpose was to make them white and be a Christian. So they took away everything from them, of their culture.”
Her dad went to the Qu’Appelle Industrial School for four years. The Métis people who settled in Lac Pelletier valley had large families, but there were no schools yet for the children.
“When this residential school was formed, they didn’t have enough Indian kids to fill the quota,” she said. “So the priest said ‘Well, we’ll go round up the Métis kids.’ So they came from Swift Current in a big wagon and they rounded up all the kids from Lac Pelletier that were seven years old and up, and my dad was one of them. I would say about 20 to 30 kids came from Lac Pelletier and went to that school.”
There was strict discipline at the school and students were not allowed to speak their mother tongue, which in the case of the Métis children was Michif.
“If you were caught speaking your language to another student or it might be your sister or brother, they would put a needle in your tongue and leave it there,” she said. “If you wet the bed — a lot of times kids at seven years old still wet the bed — then they would tie a sheet around, the wet sheet, and you have to walk around the school all day in this wet, smelly sheet, and they strapped (you)for any little thing.”
She spoke about the impact the residential school system had on families for generations to come. Children who returned home had difficulty to relate to their parents.
“They couldn’t understand what their parents were all about, because their parents were still doing the traditional way of life,” she said. “So when they got home, they felt like they were misplaced and they didn’t feel comfortable there.”
Métis and First Nation young men who joined the army in the First World War were often in residential schools as children.
“They joined the army, because when they got home, they didn’t fit in,” she said. “My great uncle went to the residential school, and he was in both world wars. So that’s what they did to make them feel they were part of something, be in the war.”
The abuse experienced by Métis children from Lac Pelletier valley in the residential school at Lebret later resulted in broken marriages and substance abuse.
“So when you think about this thing that happened to them, it just didn’t stay in that one area,” she said. “It carried on right until today. That’s why a lot of First Nations and Métis are now in trouble to stay in school, and broken homes, alcohol and drugs.”
Blanke feels the presence of Métis children in residential schools are still under-reported and she is hoping it will change in the future.
“I’m 82, and I hope that someday I can see our Métis names somewhere,” she said. “It’s like Canada is not even acknowledging that we were part of this.”

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Matthew Liebenberg

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