Memories of 'pain and suffering': Chief wants Lower Post mission school demolished

Hundreds of children were sent to the Catholic mission school at Lower Post, B.C. It was notorious for the levels of physical and sexual abuse students there endured.

Daylu Dena Council says Ottawa has 'responsibility' to act, after government's apology

Part of the old Lower Post residential school still stands, and serves as the offices of the Daylu Dena Council. The First Nation wants new offices. (Daylu Dena Council)

The chief of the Daylu Dena Council is hopeful the First Nation will soon be able to tear down what remains of the former Lower Post residential school in northern B.C.

Generations of Indigenous children endured mental, physical and sexual abuse at the school, which was operated for nearly 40 years by the Catholic Church.

The school was closed in 1975 and most of it was demolished. One of the supervisors at the school, George Macyznski, was later convicted of 28 counts of sexual abuse. 

Part of the building remains standing and now serves as the offices of the Daylu Dena Council.

The First Nation has been asking Ottawa for years to help tear down what's left of the school. Chief Walter Carlick says simply walking into the building is traumatic for people.

"It is difficult for a lot of our people. There's a lot of our First Nations people who won't even come into the building. There's a lot of pain and suffering and memories about what went on in years past at the former residential school," he said. 

Carlick says the federal government is tentatively committing to help, by establishing a new office for the First Nation.

"We have a partial commitment, meaning that it's not a complete building. We're right now in the process of finalizing the plans, the blueprints, so it can go out for bid. We still do not have a complete building as yet."

'He would drink a little, then cry all the time'   

Some parents, such as Kaska elder Mida Donnessey, remembered watching helplessly as their children were taken away to be sent to the Lower Post school.

In a 1999 interview, she recalled that the Indian agent had warned her she had no choice.

Mida Donnessey, seen here in 2016, remembered being forced to send her children to the Lower Post school. She says her sons were always reluctant to talk about what happened to them at the school. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"They tell me, 'if you never send your kids to school, they gonna send me to jail, me and my husband, Raymond Donnessey. Three boys go down that school, and three girls. They stay in the school, they said they get spanking, they get treated bad. They come back [home] they don't want to go back." Donnessey said.

She said her children cried when the family was forced to send their kids back. 

"They tell us they put us in jail for that, if our kids never go back to school."

Donnessey said the children had also talked about a German shepherd dog that Maczynski would sic on students who tried to run away. And she says her sons in particular were reluctant to talk about what happened to them at the school. 

"They never told me everything," she recalled. "They were ashamed to tell me, 'cause I'm their mom. They said they didn't want to go back. They hide away. What that old man [Maczynski] did to them, I don't know."

Donnessey said a group of boys at the school wanted to tell someone what Maczynski had been doing, but they were afraid they would get beaten. 

"They said he was a mean guy, that old man George." 

Donnessey said her son John talked of suicide a lot, long after he was an adult.

"He said he wanted to die, he wanted to die. I think back lots. He always talked about that. He would drink a little bit, then cry all the time. He's dead now — a truck accident."

Step towards reconciliation

Chief Carlick says tearing down the remnants of the school would be a strong step toward reconciliation.

Chief Walter Carlick says tearing down the remnants of the school would be a strong step towards reconciliation. (CBC)

"Given the apology that was given by the prime minister in 2008, we think that Canada has a responsibility to First Nations people to do something about it," Carlick said.

"What we're asking is, destroy that old building and build us a new building, as a sign of building a new relationship with First Nations people."

Carlick says to make matters worse, the old building has a strong smell of sewage, although the First Nation has put in two new septic fields in the last few years. 

"We think it's contaminated, but we have no choice but to use it as an office building because we have no other place to go."

A 'trauma-informed' approach

Carlick hopes to eventually open a new building, and when that happens, he wants to invite all former students to come back and help tear down the old one.

Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett agrees that demolishing the old building is the right thing to do. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

He's also inviting Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.

Bennett, for her part, agrees that demolishing the old building is the right thing to do. She welcomed Carlick's invitation.

 "I think the chief and his community know what they need for healing. These symbolic gestures can be very, very important to a community being able to turn a page," she said.

"We have to be able to understand what a 'trauma-informed' approach means — [that] these people were hurt, and that we have to be with them on their journey to healing."