Residential school survivors told their stories in a variety of venues, including this sharing circle, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event, March 27 to 30.


Residential school survivors told their stories in a variety of venues, including this sharing circle, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event, March 27 to 30.

April 14, 2014

Ethel Lamothe of Fort Simpson still remembers being taken away in a boat with other children to the residential school at Fort Providence, N.W.T., when she was five years old.

"All of us children, we all started crying. Our people, way over there, were getting smaller and smaller, and were crying. It was really, really difficult."

During her first 10 months at the school, Ethel only saw one adult family member – her father – once.

She spent 11 years at residential school and told the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission March 28 that she saw girls physically beaten and sexually assaulted during those years.

The low point in her family's experience with residential schools came when her 12-year-old younger brother, Michael Antoine, was beaten so badly that he had to be airlifted to the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton where he died of his injuries.

Ethel Lamothe has found healing through aboriginal spiritual practices.


Ethel Lamothe has found healing through aboriginal spiritual practices.

After Michael's funeral, their mother went on an extended drunk. It lasted for two years until she went to a treatment program and began to participate in traditional aboriginal sweetgrass ceremonies. Native spirituality helped her become sober, and Ethel said most of her family is sober today.

At residential school, she became Catholic even though "I didn't know what the heck that was."

She followed Catholic spirituality "because I didn't know any way better," and worked hard for the Catholic Church. Being Catholic meant fearing God, fearing the devil and fearing damnation to hell.

"I knew it was not fulfilling me spiritually. There was something missing," she said. "I was empty inside, and I wanted something better."

An Oblate, Father Camille Piche, urged her to attend a workshop on native spirituality which she did reluctantly.

Lamothe has abandoned Catholicism – "I have nothing to do with that Church. Now, I follow our traditional spiritual way and I feel fulfilled."

Her testimony was one of more than 100 testimonies given by residential school survivors and their descendants at various venues at the Shaw Conference Centre over the four days of the TRC national event in Edmonton, March 27 to 30.

In many ways, Lamothe's story was typical. Survivors spoke of blessedly happy childhoods on their reserves until they were taken to residential schools which they almost unanimously spoke of in highly negative terms.

At the schools, their hair was cut off, they were forbidden to speak their language, and many suffered sexual and severe physical abuse. After leaving the schools, they invariably fell into lives of alcohol or drug abuse, a downward spiral that was broken, in most cases, by aboriginal spirituality or, in a few cases, by participation in sports.

The Edmonton "national event" was the last of seven held across Canada over the past four years as the TRC attempts to document the effects of Church-run residential schools. The commission was established as part of an out-of-court settlement with thousands of residential school survivors who were suing the federal government and the four churches that ran the schools. It expects to issue a final report in about a year.


Lorna Jean Standingready of the Peguis Reserve in Manitoba described herself as "just a little old lady" as she began her talk March 29.

Her childhood in "the big bush" on the reserve "was a beautiful life. My education was the world and stars and Mother Earth and the old people talking about how we don't laugh too hard because tomorrow we might cry too long."

That idyllic life came to an end when she was taken away to a residential school.

When Lorna Jean asked why a little girl had been put in a dog cage and was forced to eat out of dog bowls, she was slapped across the head. Again she asked and was told the girl, who had no teeth, was being punished for slurping her food.

Later, she cried because she wanted to go home and was whacked across the head. "That's the end of your crying," she was told. "So I learned to cry quietly."

A few years later, at a United Church school in Portage la Prairie, she was raped. Along with the physical and emotional trauma, she felt all alone. "Who's going to believe me?" she asked herself.

Jerry Wood, an Edmonton elder, said life on the reserve at Saddle Lake was a happy time because of his close relations with his family.

All his siblings went to residential school. "When it was time, I was very excited." His mom prepared him a bag with his Pluto, some bannock, clothes and other favourite possessions.

Janet Quaw came from northern British Columbia to tell her story of abuse and violence.


Janet Quaw came from northern British Columbia to tell her story of abuse and violence.

"My excitement was dissipated in a heck of a hurry." As soon as he arrived at the Blue Quills Residential School near St. Paul his possessions were all taken away. His braids were cut off and his head washed with kerosene "to get rid of the so-called lice."

Children were beaten, the food was terrible and when children threw up their food, they were forced to eat their own vomit, Jerry said.

"As a six-year-old, I was sure I was going to hell. I was told all my relatives, that's where they were going because they went to traditional ceremonies."

A few years later, he was hurt deeply when he told a priest of his desire to become a priest himself and the priest burst out laughing.

When he left school, he resorted to alcohol to take away the pain. As he always had a good job, he kept a good stock of all kinds of liquor.

In desperation, he planned to kill himself, put two shells in a shotgun and put the gun in his mouth. Then, he started thinking of his wife, his children growing up without a father and his eventual grandchildren who would only know that he had committed suicide.

"That's when I put the rifle down."

Eventually, he went to the Henwood Treatment Centre to deal with his addiction. By Day Two, he knew why he drank. "It was because of the experiences of the residential school; I was trying to drown them."

Wood was still attending church, "but church wasn't providing what I needed."

He began going to sweetgrass ceremonies and taking part in aboriginal spirituality. Today, he is the keeper of the pipe. "The sun dance is the main thing in my life."

He also dedicates himself to speaking with youth and helping them build lives that have a future.


Judge Murray Sinclair, chief commissioner of the TRC, ended the day of hearings on March 29, saying the three commissioners are aware of the difficulties faced by survivors of the schools.

"We know that they themselves are not aware of all the impacts the schools have had on their lives. But I hope they can recognize that their effect on our lives here today was enormous, was significant," Sinclair said.

"We are now better people for the fact that they shared this with us, that they have allowed us to hear their stories."

One of the most horrific stories was told by Janet Quaw of the Carrier Nation near Burns Lake, B.C.

Quaw told of her first day at the residential school in Lejac when all the girls had showers, but were told to stand and not to go to bed until their hair was bone dry. One by one, the girls fell asleep on their feet and collapsed to the floor. Then, workers at the school would cut their hair and put them to bed.

"I was the last one standing," she said. "I didn't want to fall down because I didn't want them to cut my hair."

Then, the workers made her put her hands out and they began whipping them. "They kept whipping and whipping and whipping."

Janet said she did not feel any pain, but eventually looked down and saw her hands bleeding and blood on the floor. The whipping continued until she finally managed to cry. She was allowed to go to bed, and her hair was not cut until later.

Jerry Wood devotes much of his time to visiting schools and talking with youth.


Jerry Wood devotes much of his time to visiting schools and talking with youth.

"Later that night, I experienced sexual abuse from the priest after everybody went to bed."

Janet said she suffered physical abuse on a daily basis and sexual abuse two or three times a week. "After everything the residential school put me through, I despised any religion, especially Catholics."


At home, there was "extreme physical abuse." When her dad came home, he would get out his rifle and start shooting at the children. They would jump out the windows without shoes or jackets and hide in the ditch to avoid the bullets.

Once, her dad followed the school bus home and when she and her brother got off the bus, he tried to run them down with his skidoo.

Quaw said she "witnessed my first murder" when she was seven years old and tried to commit suicide many times.

"For me, the crying never ends."

Recently, however, she has gone bungee jumping and skydiving and bought herself a Harley-Davidson. She is also training to go into a 10-km race in Kamloops.

Reconciliation, she said, will come when the government signs the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Some witnesses told of the intergenerational harm that affects them even though they never attended residential schools themselves.

Kim Quinney of Saddle Lake said that when she was seven a family member who had attended a residential school began to sexually abuse her. He himself had suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the school.

Her life was filled with anger, guilt, shame, blame and a lot of pain, she said.


As an adult, Quinney became addicted to crack cocaine. Living in a motel in Edmonton, she sent her two daughters to school on a bus. One day, one of the girls refused to take the bus because other children made fun of her for living in a motel.

Kim Quinney suffered because of a family member who attended a residential school.


Kim Quinney suffered because of a family member who attended a residential school.

Quinney walked her daughter the 16 blocks to the school where a native elder said he needed to talk with her. There were spirits around her that were guiding her, he said.

That day, Quinney decided to stop doing drugs. Every day, she walked her children to and from school and eventually went to a drug treatment program in Cardston.

Since then, she has learned to forgive others, she said. "When you forgive, you grow, you heal, but most of all you free yourself of anger, grief, blame, shame, guilt. Anger is a spiritual sickness. But when you forgive, you actually live."

Doris Calliou told of her experiences at the Ermineskin Residential School at Maskwacis (formerly Hobbema).

"I couldn't stand to see other people hurt," Calliou recalled. When she saw other children being beaten, she would argue with the nuns. "Consequently, I was always in trouble."

The sisters punished her first by strapping her, then by locking her in a dark closet and finally by sending her to the church to pray for her soul. At first, she resented being sent to pray, but then she began to find some peace.


Later, Doris ran away from the school several times. However, on her return, she found some consolation from a priest who invited her into his office to talk. "I thanked God that the priests were so good."

As an adult, she became a social worker, but burned out and had a small heart attack from overwork. Her sister took her to a workshop on finding your inner child where, for the first time in her life, she was able to cry.

After that, she began attending aboriginal ceremonies and fasts. Calliou still finds solace in the Church, but said she cannot find any connection between Catholicism and her aboriginal spirituality.