Arthur Bear Chief on the devastating experience of writing about being a residential school student

At 74, Arthur Bear Chief is bringing his pain to the page. In his book My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell, Bear Chief chronicles his time in residential school, writing candidly about the sexual abuse he suffered and the long lasting ramifications of that trauma.

Below, Bear Chief takes us through the process of writing this honest and devastating memoir.


Brutal questions
I had no intention of writing a book until 2002, when I went for my first examination for discovery. And because of the brutal questions from the government lawyer, I had to relive my whole experience in residential school. During one of my many breaks, I sat with this court reporter and said, "I think I should write a book about it." She turned to me and she said, "Why don't you?"

I didn't know what I was going to write. I had absolutely no idea how to write a book. So I just simply started with when I went into residential school.

It was very emotional. It was just like going back in time; you are revisiting areas that you actually had forgotten and suppressed and that you didn't want to think about. It was emotional for me from the beginning. I broke down many times because I was reliving the life that I chose to forget, but which affected me tremendously both physically and emotionally.

Writer's block
When I started writing, I really didn't have a set time or a schedule. There were times I was thinking about my residential school experience and all these things came into my head, and I'd go downstairs to my computer and start writing. Once I finished, I would shut her off and would leave it, and it could be a week before I would go back.

When I got writer's block and couldn't think of anything else to say, I had to bounce ideas off my wife to help me refocus. At times, I'd get frustrated with it. I just felt incompetent. I do have low self-esteem as a result of my years in the residential school. It was 10 years when I left in 1959, at 17, a young man. Carried so much garbage; I didn't know that years later it would start affecting me.

Greater purpose
My main reason for writing this book was that I wanted people to hear about residential schools from an individual who actually went to one. I was talking for those I went to residential school with who did not survive; those who met their early demise in some way, mostly alcohol.

I felt that with my voice, they had a voice too. As if their spirits were talking to me and saying, "Write it. Write it. People want to hear."

Writing was also part of my healing process, to try and regain what I lost. I was trying to cleanse myself of the demons that I have inside of me. I had done many different things to try to cleanse me of the demons, but unfortunately those sons of bitches, they're tough. They stay inside of you and they don't want to leave and, today, I am still fighting.

I needed to tell my story. I needed for the public to know, to understand that it's not all about financial compensation. It's about the damage that they did to the community. Now we're looking into the intergenerational effects of residential schools. I don't think that First Nation communities across Canada will ever cleanse themselves of that. Way after I'm gone, maybe they will do that.

Arthur Bear Chief's comments have been edited and condensed.

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