Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Buried memories: My family and residential schools in Labrador

Tyler Mugford writes about the experience of his grandmothers, saying it's important to reflect as well as celebrate.

On National Indigenous Peoples Day, Tyler Mugford writes about his grandmothers

Mary Mugford with her grandson Tyler Mugford in Cartwright. She never told her family what she experienced at the Yale School in North West River. (Submitted)

This National Indigenous Peoples Day, I'm thinking about my grandmothers and what they endured as small children. While there's much to celebrate today, it's also a day to remember the legacy of residential school.

My grandmother Mary Mugford, who I called Nan, was born in 1921 in John's Point, near Rigolet and passed away in 2008. She was a quiet woman. Sometimes we'd sit on the couch and watch TV for hours without saying a word.

Mary Mugford loved her dog, Whiskey.

I was too young to understand what she went through and even now I still can't imagine it.

Nan Mugford went to Yale School in North West River, from around 1928 to the early 1930s.

Conditions were rough and Nan didn't talk to anyone about her experiences, not even her closest friends or family.

Family tragedy

Back home in John's Point, when Nan Mugford was only six years old, tragedy struck. Her two brothers were out on the ice fishing when the ice cracked and the boys were submerged.

My great-grandmother and a family friend jumped in a boat and tried to save the drowning boys, only to find themselves in danger. All four drowned that day.

Mary Mugford works on a crocheting project. She loved crafts and did grasswork. (Submitted)

No one truly knows what Nan went through. She was only a little girl when she lost her mom and her brothers; on top of that, she spent years in a strange place, far away from home.

I think because Nan went through so much trauma at such a young age, she buried her experiences and didn't want to go back to such painful memories.

If Nan was alive today would she tell me about residential school? I honestly don't know.

Nan Noseworthy speaks up

My other grandmother, Ann Noseworthy, was born in 1949 in Porcupine Bay. She knows what hard work looks like and despite everything she's been through, she's still able to laugh.

Ann Noseworthy, right, with her sister Florence Holwell (Facebook)

Nan Noseworthy went to the Lockwood School in Cartwright when she was seven years old and stayed there for seven years.

Like Nan Mugford, Nan Noseworthy didn't want to remember what she went through; she buried her memories.

But when residential school survivors took the federal government to court in 2015, Nan finally spoke out, summing up her experience at the Lockwood School by saying, "It was a nightmare to stay there." 

Ann Noseworthy, back row, right with classmates at Lockwood School in Cartwright, Labrador. She was at the school for 7 years and called it a 'nightmare.' (Submitted)

On a typical day, she had to be up before 8 a.m. for room inspection and breakfast, but if her bed and her clothes weren't tidy she might not get breakfast at all. 

It wasn't unusual to find insects in her porridge. That meant picking out the bugs or going hungry.

Nan had many chores to do around the school like washing the dishes, maintaining the kitchen, and cleaning up her room. If she didn't do her chores, she could be sent to bed without food or spanked with a leather belt.

​The Lockwood School, which operated from 1949 to 1964, sits abandoned in Cartwright, Labrador (Bailey White)

I remember the story Nan told me her about younger brother. He was once tasked with cleaning the stairs with a toothbrush, Nan says two teachers walked by and kicked him in the face.

They cracked a tooth.

"Each one of us was abused," Nan said. "We weren't sexually abused, but we were mentally abused."

Legacy lives on

The residential school system affected five generations of Indigenous people. It began in 1870 and ended in 1996. That's only 22 years ago.

I'm proud to be Indigenous and I'm proud to be a Labradorian and it's scary to think that if I had been sent to residential school, I might have lost that pride.

A classroom at Lockwood School. Ann Noseworthy is the second child from the right. (Submitted)

We live in the most free and most accepting time in Canada's history, but even though we've moved past residential schools we cannot forget about their legacy.      

Or about what happened to Ann and to Mary.

We have to share the stories of our family and our ancestors, we have to understand that even though they're a thing of the past, residential schools still have an impact on young people like me.

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Tyler Mugford

Journalist

Tyler Mugford is a journalist working with CBC in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.