Pain to the page: Alberta residential school survivor chronicles his 'lifetime of hell'

For Arthur Bear Chief, as a young boy in Old Sun residential school, the night brought unspeakable horrors.

'The changes within me are slow, but they're coming'

Arthur Bear Chief spent 10 years of his childhood at the Old Sun Residential School in southern Alberta. (Arthur Bear Chief)

When Arthur Bear Chief was a young boy in residential school, the night brought unspeakable horrors.

"He comes into the dorm like a devil, like an evil something he comes in, and you can see he picks one child out and they go into his bedroom," Bear Chief said Friday in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"You close your ears, cover them with a pillow, but you can hear the cries and you couldn't do nothing. You couldn't do nothing to stop it."

Chief suffered years of sexual, physical and psychological abuse during his time at the Old Sun residential school near Gleichen on the Siksika reserve in southern Alberta.

'I'm still fighting my demons'

Bear Chief remembers shivering with fear — night after night — as his dormitory master entered the room to pick his next victim from the boys who were asleep in heir beds.

"I couldn't figure out why, when we went to bed, he would turn off all the lights," Bear Chief said.

"If we turned the lights on we would be punished,.

"Those negative experiences created a lot of issues for me emotionally and phobias, that today, I'm still fighting. I'm still fighting my demons."

Now, at 74 years old, Bear Chief is bringing his pain to the page. His new book My Decade at Old Sun, My Lifetime of Hell, is a gut-wrenching chronicle of his time at the institution and the life-long ramifications of the trauma he suffered.

The memoir is the first book being profiled in a new Edmonton project that honours the work of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and documents survivor stories.
Arthur Bear Chief's new memoir delves into the abuse he suffered as a boy in a southern Alberta residential school. (Athabasca University Press)

The Reconciliation In Solidarity Edmonton Book Club will be reading and discussing survivor stories monthly. Bear Chief was there to share his story this week during the group's first meeting.

Bear Chief was seven years old in the fall of 1949 when he was taken away from his family and forcibly enrolled in the school.

The abuse began that first night when he couldn't stop crying for his mother.

The indignities were unrelenting through the years he was separated from his family, but the sexual abuse began when he was 11.

'I wanted to heal' 

He wouldn't utter a word of the abuse until decades later. As a child, he had made a pact with Nelson Wolf Leg, who also attended the school, that neither of them would talk about the sexual abuse until one of them had died.

Bear Chief suffered in silence for years. He became a "cold and uncaring SOB" who lashed out at his loved ones and relied on alcohol to numb the pain.

"By the time I filed a complaint, [Wolf Leg] was gone, long gone ... but it's extremely difficult to talk about that sexual abuse because you're going back to those nights where the guy who is supposed to be looking after you, takes advantage of you.

"I did not even want to think about it."

Bear Chief returned to Gleichen late in life, to the home left to him by his mother, and it was there that he began to reconnect with Blackfoot language and culture and to write his story. It was a gruelling process, but one that allowed him to begin facing his demons.

Bear Chief hopes his story will show the public the human face of a dark chapter in Canada's history. He also hopes it will help him begin healing from the pain.

"My book, the reason why I wrote it is because I wanted to heal," he said. "It also helped me to understand myself and understand that it wasn't my fault because for years, I thought it was.

"The changes within me are slow, but they're coming."

With files from Mark Harvey