'I can't escape': Life as a non-Indigenous student at the notorious St. Anne's residential school
Ron Gosbee says he witnessed physical abuse and lived in fear like his fellow students
Ron Gosbee was five and wearing his "Sunday best" when he got in a freighter canoe bound for St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, on the coast of James Bay in northern Ontario.
His mother warned him not to get mud on his shoes.
It was September 1958 and as the son of the local Hudson's Bay Company post manager, he was headed along the Albany River toward a world few white children in Canada ever glimpsed — the world inside a residential school.
Decades later, St. Anne's would be exposed as one of the most notorious of the institutions created to assimilate Indigenous children by stripping them of their language and culture.
It was the subject of a sprawling Ontario Provincial Police investigation in the 1990s that found widespread evidence of physical and sexual abuse. School staff used a homemade electric chair for sport and punishment, survivors said.
- What police found when they investigated a notorious residential school that built its own electric chair
"I don't think I remember anything where I was happy," Gosbee, now 65, said of his three years at St. Anne's.
"I felt that I had to button down anything personal into my mind, lock it away, because it doesn't apply here and you survive, you've got to survive."
Gosbee attended St. Anne's along with his two sisters because the school was the only one in the area. His mother had befriended some of the nuns at St. Anne's and believed her children would get a good education there.
"People say, 'But you have white skin and they treated you different because you had white skin,'" said Gosbee, who lives in Millbrook, Ont., and works as an information technology consultant.
"I didn't know that. I am a five-, six-, seven-year-old kid ... and if your friends, the little ones beside you, are afraid, you are afraid, too."
He experienced the school's violence on his first day, after the freighter canoe trip with his siblings and parents.
They were met by a "friendly" nun who took him into a playroom with old toys and a "scratched and tired" rocking horse.
The time for his parents to leave came suddenly. "There were a lot of tears and pulling at my parents and breaking handholds," he said.
After his parents and younger sister left, a different, much sterner nun arrived to take him to the boys dormitory.
Gosbee said he remembers resisting.
"She grabbed me by my left ear and wrenched me," he said. "I fought her by digging in my heels and she stopped and gave me two hard whacks on my bottom that took the feet out from under me."
He was half-dragged into the dormitory, a large room full of metal-framed beds with white blankets. He was led to a bed near the centre and there he sat and lay for what seemed like the whole morning and afternoon.
"And then the boys started to come in and they were all First Nations and they were looking at me and I remember not being sure how I would be accepted," he said. "There were snickers and pointing but no physical aggression. Some of them just say, 'Oh, hi.'"
It's unknown how many non-Indigenous children attended residential schools because Ottawa never kept track of the data.
The Crown-Indigenous Relations Department said former students who attended a recognized residential school received compensation for each year they were there. The compensation was called a common experience payment. The application form included a section where applicants could indicate whether they were status Indian, non-status or Inuit.
"As the inclusion of this information was voluntary it is not a reliable source of data and has not been tabulated," the department said in a statement.
Gosbee qualified for $16,000 in common experience payments under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which was finalized in 2006.
Ry Moran, director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, said he has met a few non-Indigenous residential school survivors.
"Typically, they were children of staff," Moran said. "In some cases, it was poor kids that had no other place to go or there was no other school available."
Life at school
Throughout his three years at the school, Gosbee never faced racism from any of the students.
He made friends with some of the boys his age. They watched each other's back and learned the art of communicating with looks and quick hand gestures to avoid drawing the attention of the older boys or the lay brothers, whom Gosbee found terrifying.
He said he was never whipped, beaten or sexually abused at the school. He once witnessed a nun tie a student's hands around a pillar and whip him for failing to make his bed properly. It was the only time he saw that type of abuse, he said.
Gosbee also remembers the electric chair. He said it seemed to be made out of wood wrapped with wires. He never sat on it or touched it.
He said he remembers the chair would be put in the recreation room and older children challenged each other to see who could withstand the current the longest.
"I'm with my little friends, you know we're pretty small, so we're looking through the crowd trying to see this thing," he said.
At some point, he doesn't remember when, the chair disappeared. Gosbee suspects it was taken away for use behind closed doors.
OPP detectives who investigated St. Anne's in the 1990s heard from witnesses who said the chair was used to threaten and punish students.
The police records indicate one former student said she was put in the chair and shocked until she passed out. Another said he was told he had to sit in the chair if he wanted to speak to his mother.
Nobody to 'hug you'
Ruth Gosbee, now 67, said she had a different experience at St. Anne's than her younger brother. That was partly because she had previously spent two difficult years living with their grandparents in Fort Frances, Ont., where she often went hungry.
She was eight when she arrived at St. Anne's.
"It was almost a safer place for me," she said. "In the playroom we had music. We played games."
She remembers three Cree girls, sisters, who played guitar along with 45 rpm records, learning the words and following the chords.
"I know a lot of kids had horrible experiences. I can't find the horribleness," said Ruth, who now lives in northeastern British Columbia.
Still, Ruth said she would rather have been home with her parents.
"There wasn't anybody to hold you and hug you, to tell you a bedtime story," she said.
One memory remains particularly vivid for her. Two children found frozen to death were brought back to the school on toboggans.
"We were playing out in the front," she said. "They came out of the bush ... That was a very sad time."
Her brother remembers, too.
"We were all assembled on the front yard, just like a prisoner of war camp," he said. "And there were kids crying ... and the nuns were saying to be quiet, keep quiet."
All these years later, neither Ron nor Ruth remembers what led to the children's deaths. They figure they may have been runaways.
Ron and Ruth actually tried to make their own escape from St. Anne's together.
Each sibling's memory of the event is different, but they know their motivation was the same: They just wanted to be home.
Ron remembers the winter escape as a night run, sneaking out shortly after everyone went to bed, and moving through dark woods with loaves of bread stolen from the bakery near the school.
"My coat was hanging along the wall. I got my coat on, my boots on and my sister is there and we are about five miles away [from home]," he said. "We start walking and there is the sound of dogs howling ... maybe they are wolves howling."
Ruth remembers it happened in the early evening.
"It was frightening," she said. "We had done the path a few times with our parents. We knew how to get to the school and across the big expanse of the [frozen] Albany River and we just ran and we made it."
A brother in his robes, a nun and the mother superior riding in a swamp buggy, along with the justice of the peace riding a snowmobile, came to retrieve them the next morning from their house while they ate breakfast.
Ron said his parents turned them over to go back to school, believing the runaway episode was just a case of children acting up.
Ruth remembers that some students also participated in the retrieval mission.
Both agree on one detail — they were told polar bear footprints had been found following their trail home.
Ron said the failed escape shattered him and he began to try a different way out.
He said he felt a sense of constant oppression at the school, like he was a prisoner.
The nights brought fear, with the sounds of banging doors and muffled shouts. He said he could barely stomach the food — the porridge at breakfast, which he described as slop, and rancid fish chowder for supper.
He was living a nightmare.
"I thought, 'Well, there's no hope. I can't escape,'" he said. "And that's when I started banging my head on the wall to end it all."
He said he would do it by a stairwell and other spots away from other students.
"One time, when it got pretty bad, they kept me in the dormitory all day and this man appeared," he said. "And he came and he just stood and watched."
He said he also tried stuffing rags up his nose to stop his breathing and lying in the snow without a jacket hoping he would freeze to death.
"I tried to kill myself a few ways."
2 grades behind
When the family moved to Montreal in 1961, Ron was completely unprepared for life in the South.
"I didn't even know the difference between a quarter and a nickel. I didn't even know what bicycles were for," he said. "I always had this feeling of always trying to catch up with what is going on down here."
School also proved difficult. He was placed in Grade 1 when he should have been in Grade 3.
"I think I was in shock. When I was asked to write the word 'cat,' I would write the word 'dog,'" he said.
"I sat at a desk and put my hands around my head and the teacher would say, 'Come out of there.' But I would hide under my hands and of course all the students would be snickering and laughing. That was a little traumatic."
Ruth said their time at residential school was never discussed by the family after they left the North. Her younger sister, Lou, also attended the school for a year.
Ruth only started speaking about the experience with Ron over the past few years.
"It marked each one of us in different ways," she said. "I'm proud to be a survivor."
Ruth said the experience left her constantly seeking a mother superior to follow.
"I traded one mother superior for another all my life and it took me until my early 60s to find that out," she said. "It had a profound influence in my life. You listen, you do as you are told and you never question and that is not always the best way."
Ron has been delving into his memories by writing a book about his family's years in the North and his time at St. Anne's. He said it's still difficult to speak about his experiences in public.
"There is a fear that if you say it to someone and they don't care, you suffer that hurt and that feeling all over again," he said. "I know I had that feeling: 'Will anybody care?'"
- What police found when they investigated a notorious residential school that built its own electric chair
He said he hopes his story can be a bridge to Canadians who still believe it's time to stop dwelling on the history of residential schools and who wonder aloud why survivors can't just get over it and move on.
"It's not like you can take a pill or push a button and it's gone. It's part of you."
He said sometimes people try to minimize the residential school experience by saying they also got the strap when they were in school.
He has a simple reply:
"You got to go home for milk and cookies afterwards. I didn't."
In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
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If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.