In this, the final installment of “Ungodly Alliance”, we talk with Rev. Dr. Wendy Fletcher, who served as the Anglican Church’s, Huron Diocese historian and researcher before taking the job as Dean and Principal of the Vancouver School of Theology. Several pleas by government-appointed doctors who were given the task of assessing the health of residential school students called for much closer attention to be paid to the health and welfare of children within the system, but they all fell on deaf ears.
One communication which is found within the Anglican Archives and dated Sunday, January 27, 1907, between lawyer S.H. Blake and Frank Oliver, Minister of the Interior, warns Oliver of possible liability for the frightening situation regarding the number and frequency of deaths of Native children in Canada’s Indian schools. The letter states, “doing nothing to obviate the preventable causes of death … it was in the unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.”
The total of money being spent for healthcare on the entire Native student population within Canada was only one-third of that being spent on the citizens of Ottawa alone. This was despite clear knowledge of the health concerns and death rates within the residential schools system.
Secretary of the Indian Department, J.D. McLean, received a letter from J. Woodsworth, Principal of the Red Deer Industrial School, in which he calls the conditions at his school, “nothing less than criminal … We have no isolation ward and no hospital equipment of any kind.” He reports that “the dead, the dying, the sick and the convalescent, were all together” in the same unventilated dorms.
The same practice seemed to be entrenched as policy in all residential schools across Canada, including the Mohawk Institute. He pleaded with the department to do something as soon as possible since, “at present, it is a disgrace.” Even in death, there was no dignity offered the victims of the system.
Woodsworth told McLean that, to conserve costs, the dead children were being buried two to a grave. There is a chilling letter in the Canadian archives from a young Indian boy, which was intercepted and forwarded to Minister of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott.
The child, only known as Edward B, wrote his parents saying, “We are going to tell you how we are treated. I am always hungry. We only get two slices of bread and one plate of porridge. Seven children ran away because they’re hungry. I am not sick. I hope you are the same too. I am going to hit the teacher if she is cruel to me again. We are treated like pigs, some of the boys eat cats and wheat. I never ask anyone to give me anything to eat. Some of the boys cried because they are hungry. Once I cry too because I was very hungry.” The cold-hearted Scott dismissed the letter ordering it not to be published because he considered it to be libelous.
Sexual abuse was always close by at all residential schools right up to the closure of the last school in the late 1980s.
Children were used for pleasure not only by some of the Principals and teachers but also by the support staffers and even financial donors. Forced sex was an all too normal form of punishment as well.
Two British Columbia girls wrote of experiences they had with their Principal in a letter they gathered the courage to send directly to the B.C office of the Department of Indian Affairs. “He called me to his room. He says he’d strap me. He went into another room to get the strap. He told me to take off my jeans and my panty. Instead, I pulled it down to the knees. He tells me to kneel down. So I do. He gave me thirteen straps. He also waits a little moment every time I had the strap…. He puts his feet or I should say I had my body between his legs. That was kneeling down. Then he lets me go. He waits a little after giving me the strap.”
The second girl added her complaint to the page. “The first thing Father wanted me to go to his office so I did. He asks me a few questions. And then he brought me to the other office. He told me to kneel and then he pulled my skirt up and then pulled my pants down. He put my head between his legs and he started to give me the strap. I had the strap at 9:00 pm I had around 10 straps.”
The letters seemed to disappear into a sea of denial and nothing was ever done.
There were many other similar letters written over the years from schools across the country as well, but as late as 1990, the official response from the Department was, “We didn’t know.”
In the case of Brantford’s Judge Hardy, who went on to become Ontario’s first Premier, the use of older, high school-aged Native girls by Brantford’s society families as part-time housekeepers, many times resulted in unwanted pregnancies.
There is also testimonial evidence that indicates Mohawk Institute Principal Zimmerman often took a few of the older, prettier, girls with him when he attended some of his “gentleman’s club” meetings. Some believe that is how Judge Hardy made initial contact with the Mohawk girl he admitted to impregnating. The resulting offspring were born at the Mush Hole, named Sarah Hardy, and lived almost her entire life there, first as a student, later as a teacher, all paid for by the good Judge Hardy.
There are many reported cases of sexual abuse at the Mush Hole, and many of those victims are still alive today. But it doesn’t stop there. The fact is, the accumulated result of abuse in all of its forms, has seriously damaged a second, and in some cases, even a third generation of Six Nations families.
“The legacy of the residential schools is something that should be known by all Canadians and should no longer be hidden from history,” says Six Nations’ Leona Moses, who helped Dr. Fletcher for a time in her research.
Bud Whiteye, a former columnist for the Brantford Expositor, who was also a resident at the Brantford school as a child, wrote a short but powerful book about his experiences at the “Mush Hole” including being abused by the school’s janitor in the furnace room.
In one of his last columns published in the Expositor before the paper was sold to the Sun Media Group, he wrote about how he and the other kids learned not to make eye contact with their abusers out of fear, or with their fellow students, out of shame.
Whiteye is an Ojibwa from Walpole Island but was sent to the Mohawk Institute. This practice became a concern for one Walpole Island Principal who admitted in 1959 he had “qualms of conscience” about sending Walpole Island children to “the Mohawk” which by this time had become more of a welfare shelter for children who had no proper home life and for troubled children rather than an institution of education. He worried about the effect on Walpole Island children mixing with” those children”, who “through no fault of their own, are a different type”. He feared they would be damaged by the troubled students at the Mohawk Institute, which, rightfully or not, had a bad reputation, even amongst other residential schools, as a catch-all for unwanted, mentally and emotionally disturbed kids.
There is also on record a pamphlet distributed at a Residential School Principal’s Workshop held in Elliott Lake in 1966. A copy, which exists in the Anglican archives, describes the conditions at the Mush Hole where “90 percent of the children suffered from diet deficiency and this was evident in the number of boils, warts, and general malaise that existed within the school population.”
The writer of the pamphlet was a former student at the school who later became a broadcaster and federal civil servant. He describes “children at the M.I. eating from the swill barrel, picking out soggy bits of food that were intended for the pigs.”
He said heads were routinely shaved because of lice. He also told of, what he called, “unusual beatings.” “I have seen Indian children having their faces rubbed in human excrement,” he wrote. “The normal punishment for bedwetters was to have your face rubbed in your own urine. Recaptured runaways were forced to run the gauntlet when they were struck with anything that was at hand.” He said he had “seen boys crying in the most abject misery and pain with not a soul to care.”
Leona Moses, who was fortunate enough not to attend a residential school herself, but knows and has known many who have, talks about a large table with a floor-length table cloth on it where sexual abuses against young students took place regularly.
According to stories told to Moses over the years, to deflect the horror of what was happening to them, many of the children would write their names on the bottom of the table, sometimes while being abused. The table is still in use in the library of what is now the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, and those names are still visible today if one were to look under it. One day, Moses noticed that a corner had been cut off the one end of the table to make it fit in its new location. She was appalled. “That table should be removed from the library and put in the museum, upside down with a sheet of glass or something to protect it, and where people can read the names,” says Moses.
With the advent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Dr. Wendy Fletcher is encouraged by the fact that the new chair of the Commission is John Milloy, who is the author of the book, “A National Crime”, which Fletcher calls “the quintessential book on the residential school’s system in Canada.” But at the same time, she is concerned about whether the church and/or the government will allow the whole truth to be presented and recorded as a part of Canadian history.
“The idea which lies behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission holds the wisdom that assumes if we can confront the truth, speak the truth, and own the truth, then social and personal reconciliation and healing just might become possible,” says Fletcher. “But for reconciliation to be possible, the truth must be spoken and it must be heard. It must be received and acknowledged.
The success or failure of the TRC will be realized in this movement: will those who have been harmed speak the truth, and will those who inherit the responsibility for having caused harm receive it, acknowledge it, let it stand as the record of history – our history as a nation.” She believes the revelations that could come from open and unabashed discussion and the release of documents she and others have collected from several sources on behalf of the Anglican Church’s Huron Diocese will pave the way to true reconciliation between residential school survivors and the government, as well as a healing of the church itself.
“This, then, is the challenge for Canadian society,” she says. “Even in cases where we do not understand, are we willing to hear and acknowledge the truth of the other, such that we as a society may begin to move beyond what we have done, beyond what has happened, beyond where we are?”
Fletcher had tried to encourage her church to reveal the findings of her research much earlier than now but without success. That frustration led, in part, to her decision to quit the research team, leave the Huron Diocese, and move to the west coast. She says that she could never understand why her former Bishop was so reluctant to reveal the truth.
The current Bishop, Bishop Bennett, has very recently authorized the Diocese’s full cooperation with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has promised to release the documents gathered by Fletcher’s team. “To be rendered mute in the face of the legacy of colonization is one, perhaps, enticing option for those of us who have lived on the domination side of social discourse,” she says. “However, the world continues to suffer and the idea that we might heal continues to summon us beyond the deathscapes of our own making. To remain mute, for fear of causing further harm is to create new genres of harm. There is a medieval play entitled, ‘The Life of Any Man.’
In this play, Satan is the central character. Unlike the Hollywood version, Satan in this play is an ordinary man. He wanders through every scene of 14th-century life saying only one line. As he encounters the various faces of human suffering in that time of the “black death”, of poverty, famine, and war Satan has only one line. He approaches those who suffer and sadly he says, ‘There is nothing to be done; nothing to be done.’”
Dr. Fletcher is a strong believer in the power of the truth, even when the truth is hard to face, or maybe even more powerful when it’s hard to face. “The lessons of history and the wisdom of our healing traditions encourage us to see that passivity in the face of despair is perhaps the greatest threat of all,” she says. “As Canadians, we must face the future keenly aware that the experience of some, in this case those harmed by earlier renditions of social and political power, pushes us to remake our sight. What Canada will we become? Time will tell and our capacity to speak truly and hear openly will be the criteria by which this nation’s future is determined.”
A note from the author: My journalistic journey into the hell that was the Mush Hole has impacted me greatly. As a non-Native who grew up only a few blocks from the Mohawk Institute, I am even more aghast at what was happening in the name of education right under my nose and the noses of almost everyone else in Brantford. I can only imagine the depth of the scars of those who went through it. I am also aware that not every student suffered as badly as others, but even if it was just one student treated in the way former residential school survivors described to me, and I have read testimonies of, it was one too many. As a Christian, flawed as I am, I am appalled at the things done in the name of Christ. And as a Canadian, I am angry and disappointed by the things done by my government, in my name, and I will not be quiet about it. Many thanks to Leona Moses and Dr. Wendy Fletcher for breaking the silence and trusting me to tell their story. For more on the subject, read John Milloy’s book, “A National Crime” or go to www.hiddenfromhistory.org. Other important books on the subject include; “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” by Ward Churchill; “Finding my Talk; How fourteen Canadian Native women reclaimed their lives after Residential School” by Agnes Grant; “Behind Closed Doors” by Jack Agnes; “Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools” by J.R. Miller; “Victims of Benevolence” by Elizabeth Furniss: or “Broken Circle” by Theodore Fontaine.