Memories of abuse at Shubenacadie Residential School linger 50 years later

On Wednesday, survivors and their families marked the 50th anniversary of the school's closure by gathering at the Shubenacadie River to pray and honour survivors, their ancestors, Mother Earth and the water.

'I wasn’t used to being strapped, my ears being pulled, my hair being pulled,' says survivor Rose Prosper

The family of Shubenacadie Residential School survivor Frank Thomas buried his ashes near the site of the former school Wednesday. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Decades have passed but Rose Prosper still finds it difficult to speak about the abuse she suffered as a child at the Shubenacadie Residential School.

Immediately upon entering the school in the 1960, Prosper was stripped of her name. Like all the other children, she instead was assigned a number and a letter.

"It wasn't very good at first, when I first went there I wasn't used to being strapped, my ears being pulled, my hair being pulled — this is by the nuns," Prosper said in an interview Wednesday from We'koqma'q First Nation in Cape Breton.

Between 1923 and 1967, many Indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to the Shubenacadie school, where some were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The children were not allowed to speak their own language or practise their cultural traditions.

Students learning play the recorder at Shubenacadie Residential School. (Submitted )

On Wednesday in Shubenacadie, survivors and their families marked the 50th anniversary of the school's closure by gathering at the Shubenacadie River to pray and honour survivors, their ancestors, Mother Earth and the water.

Later in the day, near the site of the former school, the family of another survivor, Frank Thomas, released and buried his ashes. He died in April.

His obituary said he was a strong advocate of traditional Indigenous rights and was known across the country. He created the documentary Who Will Sing For Us, which spoke about traditional teachings.

Shubenacadie Residential School survivor Frank Thomas's ashes were buried Wednesday near the site of the former school. He died in April. (CBC)

School doors closed in 1967

Prosper, now 62, was one of the last students to leave the school when it closed its doors for good in June 1967. She was six years old when she was taken to the school and spent seven years there.

Prosper still has two sisters who live in Indian Brook. She said whenever she drives around the big turn in the community and looks up on the hill where the school once sat, she thanks God it's gone.

"I often wonder if my children would have been there or my grandchildren would have been there … and I just think to myself I'm glad that cycle is broken," she said. "I just hope that all us survivors find healing of some sort, I know I'm trying to find mine."

When the Indian agent came

Prosper recalled some of the nuns at the school being very cross.

"It wasn't very good but we adjusted to their way of living," she said. "Before I went there we were loved by our parents, by our community, by our families. And then when the Indian agent took us to the residential school it was a complete different environment."

Prosper said she was at her aunt's house in Millbrook with her mother and one of her younger sisters when the agent and a woman came to the house to take her away.

"I was wondering why they were making me so look, so pretty, to go on a trip and I didn't know where I was going or nothing," she said.

When they drove up to a big red building, Prosper thought was a hospital. A priest took her inside and a nun then took her to the girls' side of the school.

Not allowed to eat toast

"We had to line up for everything, whenever the bell rang we had to line up," she recalled. "It was strange for me.

"I mean we were all used to the strap, we were all used to meals that we ate every single day from week to week, we knew what we were having. Every day we had porridge, we weren't allowed to have toast."

There were 10 children in Prosper's family. But only one other sister and one brother attended the school.

After leaving, the three children never returned to their family. They were put into foster care.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley

Reporter

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca