British Columbia·Photos

'Reconciliation tour' reveals dark history of Mission, B.C. school

A 'reconciliation tour' of St. Mary's school in Mission, B.C., took people deep into the troubled past that generations of Indigenous children were forced to live through.

St. Mary's school was once filled with Indigenous children taken from their homes and families

All photos by Rafferty Baker

Joe Ginger (left) and Cyril Pierre stand in the chapel at St. Mary's school in Mission. Both men suffered abuse as children at St. Mary's. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Cyril Pierre, 68, whacks a picnic table with a heavy leather strap. The sharp noise startles the dozens of teachers, youth workers and local politicians gathered before him. 

The group is taking part in a tour of St. Mary's Indian Residential School in Mission, B.C., built in 1863.

Pierre holds the strap in the air, looking at it for a moment. He seems to be digging deep into the recesses of his memory. What he comes up with isn't pleasant.

"The horrendous feeling that was put in my mind with regard to fear from being strapped, or watching the strap go on with little kids every day, that never ever left my mind," said Pierre. "That, in the old school, seemed to be rampant daily, watching little kids be strapped for things that were uncontrollable by them, like wetting the bed."

"It was horrific to watch daily. Not only one kid, but many, or people that go caught stealing, or run away from school to home. They would suffer the consequences of the strap and it was horrifying to watch your fellow schoolmates go through this daily."

Joseph Heslip, Principal of Aboriginal Education for Mission School District #75, is the event organizer. He invited the participants, including Mission RCMP Insp. Ted De Jager to learn about the school's dark history and the pain Pierre and fellow residential school survivor Joe Ginger suffered. 

"Given my role as Aboriginal district principal, I feel it's a duty to ensure that all of our staff have the truth, because this is part of our collective history," said Heslip.

"As Justice Murray Sinclair said in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 'It was education that got us into this, and it must be education that gets us out of this,'" he said.

Little is left of the old St. Mary's Indian Residential School, which was replaced by a new St. Mary's a short walk away in 1961. The buildings were torn down in 1965.

The tour group was led past the overgrown, crumbling foundations, the old church bell, and the cemetery. 

According to Pierre, the old school is a reminder of the physical abuse he and his classmates suffered.

But the new school, he said, is where the sexual abuse ran rampant.

"It got seriously worse and the trust that we had in this school — the new school — never ever happened, with the sexual abuse that not only happened to me, but my schoolmates, my teammates, the young ladies that I walked with in these halls."

Ginger also describes a horrendous experience in the residential school system. He was plucked from his family on Vancouver Island and spent his early years at Christie Indian Residential School on Meares Island near Tofino. He joined Pierre at St. Mary's shortly after the new school was built.

"I got the strap — well not any more than anyone else — but it only takes a couple of times and you never forget. If you get strapped 25 times on each hand, even five times, you end up with marks on your hand, on your body," Ginger recalled.

"You're blue. You couldn't touch it. You try to soak it under cold water and hot water, just to numb the pain. ... You got strapped for foolish things, like being loud, being slow to get in line, maybe just being a kid, just being a child."

"We got sentenced to life, the predators got away with a couple, or a few years. They call that justice? Nah, not by a long shot," said Pierre inside the chapel at the end of the tour.

"I've lost a life, a big time life, until I got into the legal system, and now I'm trying to get the word out, teach people how to prepare and not become victims. We can't say it's not there. It's happened in many organizations already, not only sexual abuse, but physical abuse. It's still there."

Ginger told the group that he got physically ill the first time he returned to St. Mary's.

"You always had this feeling of doom in September when you had to go to school," he said. "September meant you wouldn't be back — hopefully you would be back for Christmas, and if not you wouldn't be back until June. So for 10 months out of that year, you were away from home."

"I never understood what they were doing, trying to kill the culture. I thought they were trying to kill the child," said Ginger.

"It's violent — the strappings, beatings, kickings, slappings. And the emotional part of it is just getting verbally abused," he said. "That was the piece-of-cake part of it, but to take that to bed every night with the smack up on the head for years, it starts to add up. You start to think about yourself poorly."

"It doesn't just impact one person, it impacts families, my brothers, my sisters, everybody."

Pierre and Ginger hoped that those who listened to the accounts of children treated abhorrently left with a better sense of the history of Indigenous people in Mission and across Canada.

"I'd like thank the people who came forward to listen to our words of hurt and anger and shame. But we still have pride and honour and respect for the people that did show up and open their ears to listen to us from our hearts to go to their hearts and learn and help us with reconciliation to prepare to teach the history of our people," said Pierre.

Roger Ekman, a community outreach with Child and Youth Mental Health, left the tour saying that he already knew the history, but hearing the first-hand accounts anew left him angry.

"To be honest, it's something that's so horrifying, so horrible. It just makes me so angry just hearing these stories more than anything. I know different people had different reactions, some people are deeply saddened, some people are disappointed," he said.

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