Manitoba Mé​tis honour their own residential, day school survivors

A garden of red paper hearts has been planted outside the Manitoba Mé​tis Federation to remind Winnipeggers of the suffering Mé​tis residential and day-school students endured.

'It was a living hell': Manitoba Mé​tis survivor recalls abuse at day school during commemoration ceremony

George Lavallee, 77, says he endured four years of abuse by nuns in the 1950s at a day school in St. Ambroise.

A garden of red paper hearts was planted outside the Manitoba Mé​tis Federation Tuesday to remind Winnipeggers of the suffering Mé​tis residential and day-school students endured.

The event was organized by the Mé​tis Child and Family Services Authority and held ahead of Wednesday's National Aboriginal Day. Chief executive officer Billie Schibler said she got the idea to plant a heart garden after seeing a similar event held at the closing ceremonies for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"I thought it was fitting that we did our own ceremony to acknowledge our own survivors," said Schibler, who recalled her experience working with Mé​tis survivors.

​"When I was a young woman, I would liken it to people that would come back from the war. It was not something they spoke about. There were a lot of painful memories for many of them and it was not something they could easily acknowledge and many of them had closed that chapter of that book in their life and they did not want to revisit it," Schibler said.

Forgotten survivors

A garden of red hearts was planted outside the Manitoba Metis Federation building on Henry St. in Winnipeg Tuesday. (CBC)
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a formal apology on behalf of the Government of Canada for residential schools. Mé​tis day school survivor George Lavallee was there, and said he didn't feel Mé​tis survivors got the recognition they deserved.

"I still believe today that we were only a 10-minute thing," said Lavallee. 

Lavallee, 77, said he attended day school in St. Ambroise in the 1950s. He said students weren't allowed to speak to their classmates, and were taught a different kind of French none of them understood.

"You know, it impact you so much what we went through, how our day lives were. We dreaded the next day coming," said Lavallee.

"We didn't want that next day to come. We felt that we would have been better off going to the good Lord and being with the good Lord than to live the way were living, the way we were brought up by the nuns." 

He said students were mentally, physically and sexually abused. They were also punished severely.

"In the wintertime we'd go out, they'd bring us outside, make us kneel on our fingers on frozen concrete for about an hour," said Lavallee. "It was a living hell, to tell you straight. We were totally different people at that time by going through what we went through."

No stats for Mé​tis day schools

Devin Parris and Liam Nikkel, both 8, planted red hearts in the garden to honour Mé​tis survivors of residential and day schools. (CBC)
According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, there were 15 Indian Residential Schools in Manitoba.

But there are no hard numbers on how many Mé​tis were affected, or how many day schools — schools which students were compelled to attend, but from which they returned home at night — there were in this province.

"Its likely safe to say that there were as many Mé​tis day schools as there were Indian day schools," said Manitoba lawyer Joan Jack, from Alghoul Law and Associates.

"If you take my home community, for example — Berens River — on the one side was the Indian reservation. On the other side of the river was the Mé​tis community, so the churches had both schools for the Indian registered Indians and schools for Mé​tis kids," said Jack.

Jack filed an class action lawsuit for day school survivors in 2009. At the time, she identified 11,500 survivors, many of whom were Mé​tis.

"Law firms have not expended the dollars that are required to run the numbers and do all the research. It's a huge amount of research," she said.

"With the Mé​tis people, the research is even more difficult because liability follows the money. And so who funded the Mé​tis day schools? Mostly the province, but the province also worked with the churches."


Caroline Barghout

Investigative Reporter, CBC Manitoba I-Team

Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: