Residential school survivor remembers the principal forcing him to run 80 km in a blizzard
This time, Charlie Bittern wasn't running from the cruelty of one man and the oppression of a brutal system.
This time, he was running to heal.
Bittern is a residential school victim and survivor. In the documentary Bimibatoo-win: Where I Ran, he recounts in vivid detail how, in November 1967, a residential school principal forced him to run 80 kilometres through a blizzard as punishment for boyish horseplay.
Lungs burning, legs weak, he eventually collapsed. He had been running for hours.
For more than 50 years, Bittern didn't tell anyone what happened that night.
In the summer of 2022, Bittern retraced his steps, surrounded by his family and friends, in an effort to heal from the experience and honour all the children who didn't make it home from residential schools.
"I have my children here — my grandchildren, my sons are here supporting me," Bittern says in Bimibatoo-win: Where I Ran. "They never really knew the depth of my story. I kept this for many years."
Growing emotional, he gestures to his heart. "I had it in here," he says.
Conditions in residential schools a 'national crime'
The first residential school opened in 1831, and more than 150,000 children were forced to attend such schools across Canada during their operation, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
In 1907, chief medical inspector Dr. P.H. Bryce from the Department of Indian Affairs wrote a report detailing the poor health conditions in residential schools. He went on to call them "a national crime." But by 1920, the Indian Act had made attendance mandatory for children between seven and 15 years old.
In 1958, Indian Affairs inspectors, again, took a critical view of residential schools, recommending they be abolished. They were not, and in 1964, Bittern's time came. A teenager from Berens River First Nation in Manitoba, he was required to attend Birtle Indian Residential School, almost 600 kilometres from home.
Bittern was athletic; he was a strong runner and worked on the school farm. With a younger boy, Bernell, Bittern helped raise a bull calf. The bull grew so healthy and strong that it was entered into fairs, including the 1967 Royal Winter Fair in Toronto.
After the fair, Bittern, Bernell and the residential school principal drove back to Birtle from the train station.
Bittern describes what happened to him that November night in Bimibatoo-win: Where I Ran.
'As I was running, I started to realize, hey, this guy is serious.'
The boys were joking around in the back seat when the principal lost his patience. To protect the younger boy, Bittern took the blame. The principal threw Bittern out of the car as a winter storm was raging outside. The principal told Bittern to run — they would drive home behind him.
"It was about seven o'clock in the evening when I started running," he says in the documentary.
"And as I was running, I started to realize, hey, this guy is serious. And during that time, I was battling the blizzard ... Sometimes I put my hand to my face because the snow was blowing, and the wind was so strong."
It was around two or three o'clock in the morning, Bittern says, when he fell on a snowdrift and was struck by the vehicle. His leg bleeding, he was allowed back into the car.
Bittern had lasted 80 kilometres in the blizzard, along the highway, in the middle of the night.
'There's a message on that tree'
When the principal threw him out of the car that night in November, Bittern fell to the ground by the side of the highway. He remembers looking up at a large tree.
The tree stayed in his memory all these decades, eventually becoming a symbol of resilience and healing for the countless Indigenous children taken from their families.
An elder helped him see the tree's significance, Bittern explains in the film: "He says to me, 'You go back there and look at that tree, and study it and read it … There's a message on that tree.'"
Last fall, Bittern visited the tree again and noticed how it branched in four directions — north, south, east and west — and to him that represented all the residential schools across the country, in every direction.
"The trunk of that tree represents us as First Nations people," Bittern says. "We are a strong nation. We are all united. Under that tree are the roots. Right at the base are our ancestors. And as the roots are spreading out, growing — the tip of those roots are small, tiny, but they're pushing their way through the ground. And those are our future children, our children today."
"There are unmarked graves right across our country called Canada. Unmarked graves are children that never made it home but died in residential schools. They were victims. But we are rooted down, they are rooted down, to the trunk of that tree."
Like the tree, Bittern says, his people are united and connected — so no matter what happened to them in the past: "We will never die out."
'We're here to honour all the children that didn't make it home'
In the summer of 2022, Bittern returned to that stretch of road on the way to Birtle. He was joined by family, friends and members of his community to walk a portion of his 1967 run.
"Today we honour Charlie, one of the school survivors here. One of many who was actually able to make it home," Christine Nelson, Bittern's granddaughter, says in the film.
"We're here to honour all the children that didn't make it home. We're here, and we're walking for them."