This is a continuation from part one…
“My grandmother brought me to the school, it was 1957. We pulled up in a horse and buggy, my brother and sister were already here which helped a little.”
I’m standing with Gordie at the bottom of the steps that lead to the imposing door of the St. Eugene Mission, once a Residential School. It is easy to imagine the foreboding, the instinctive fear that young Native children like Gordie felt when they entered the school for their first ten month term.
“I was frightened and remember the feeling of resentment towards my grandma. She had helped raise me. It wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t have a choice but to let me go.”
Gordie is tall and lean, his long greying hair topped by a baseball cap. It’s the tradition of many First Nations to keep their hair long, it’s an extension of their spiritual self.
Having offered to give me a tour and talk about his time at the school, Gordie greets me warmly this cool autumn morning. He’s just finished his shift as the night-time superintendent of the St Eugene Mission Resort. As a student, Gordie lived and breathed this school, his memories are deeply etched. He now walks through it with some measure of peace and acceptance.
From 1912 to 1970, more than 5000 First Nation children were removed from their families to comply with the government assimilation program and brought to this school, one of eighty former schools across Canada. However, its perfect postcard setting in the interior of British Columbia is deceptive.
“I suppose I was lucky, I was dropped off by a family member. Some kids were left here by Indian Agents, whisked away before their families even knew they were gone.”
Gordie explains the cruel truth that Agents were often paid to ‘round up’ ‘Indian’ children, especially in remote areas. The children were sometimes taken when they ran to a plane that had landed, then spirited away with the promise of a ‘ride’.
“They were given a number, with no consideration of their name, then placed in a Residential School.”
Gordie will tell you that this was by no means the worst of the Residential Schools. The entrance of the former St . Eugene Mission School is now a hotel lobby. It has a welcoming and dignified atmosphere, vastly different than it once was. Solid in their longevity, the red brick walls are invisibly marred with strife and untold hurts. People like Gordie are now willing to tell their story.
“Our hair was chopped off, and from that moment the school did its best to eradicate our language and culture. This is where you waited to be taken away by the nuns to the dormitories.”
‘Indian Hall’, I believe Gordie called it as we begin a tour and conversation that lasts five hours, but felt like just a few. He points to a black and white photo near the front desk. The image shows a group of older girls gathered in front of the school, smiling proudly astride their horses.
“Do you know anything about horses?” Gordie asks, pointing to their bridles and saddles. “Does this look like we were poor or wanting? No we had a culture, a life, it was taken away.”
I’m instinctively drawn to the collection of photos in the nearby corridor that I had been so taken with the previous day. Gordie reveals parts of his story through them, bringing the images to life with his narrative.
A seemingly typical school is portrayed; a hockey team, the school band, a choir, children in uniforms seated at their desks.
“It looks like you were involved in a lot of activities?”
“We were. Saturday was hockey, we also had a baseball field,” Gordie tells me.
“Are you in any of these?” I ask as my finger scans over children positioned in front of the school steps. Standing behind the children are a number of priests and nuns, some dressed in black habits, others in white.
“No I usually had some kind of injury when it was time for photos. One time I had a bruise on my eye from a hockey puck so couldn’t be in the photo. It might have looked like I had been hit by one of the staff…”
Gordie is referring to the now well-documented mental, physical and sexual abuse, even death, that students suffered at the hands of the priests and nuns who came from afar to work in these schools.
“I didn’t have as many issues as some. I was from one of the more respected Native families so was usually safe from the abuse of the staff and other students. My dad held some sway.”
Gordie Sebastian comes from a long line of prominent Ktunaxa who owned and bred horses. He points to a photo of a group of men, four sit on their horses. One of them wears a blanket, tucked-in at the waist.
“That’s my great-grandfather, Sabas, Joseph Sebastian. He was a medicine man.”
A medicine man was a highly respected member of an Indian tribe. They were healers or ‘shaman’ who did not believe in bloodshed.
Gordie explains that Sabas and the tribal head at the time, Chief Isadore, believed that no man had the right to erect fences on the Ktunaxa land. This held fast until European and Canadian settlers usurped their ancestral land following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1887. This treaty confined the First Nations peoples to Reserves, where many of the Ktunaxa stil live today.
Gordie gestures to the photo of St. Eugene Mission, the once cluster of tipis and houses around the church where his forebears would have gathered.
He shows me a detail that had escaped me. A house stands with the top of a tipi sticking out from its roof. Like most First Nations, the Ktunaxa people didn’t adapt well to the confines of a house.
“That’s Indian Pete’s house, set his tipi up in the middle of it.”
In another photo dated 1887, a man dressed in baggy trousers and a waist coat stands in front of the St. Eugene Church. He smiles widely, beside him is a priest. They seem to know each other.
“That’s Father Coccola and Indian Pete. They paid to have the church built. In fact Indian Pete paid our way into heaven,” Gordie says with a chuckle.
Gordie is open and candid as he explains the more serious and devastating impact the Residential Schools have had on generations of First Nations people.
“But I’ve also been told by some people that these were the best of days, away from poverty and their alcoholic parents on the Reserves.” Gordie explains that many parents weren’t well adapted to parenting as they only saw their children during the two-month summer break and perhaps for a few hours once every three weeks. Also many of them had been students themselves; their own wounds ever present.
“My father was a student here, he never told me but I think he had been sexually abused. He always checked us for signs.” Gordie says quietly.
We talk about the Priests and the Nuns whose frequent indifference to their students’ humanity exacted so much pain.
“Some of the priests weren’t that bad, but the nuns were battle-axes. Some of them could teach well enough but they had little or no compassion. Through their actions we were taught hate. It was drilled into our heads that we were useless…little more than savages.”
Perhaps because of Gordie’s influential family, he reports having pushed the envelope a little further than other students. By the time he was a young teenager, he railed against his situation.
“One time I argued with a nun over a basic fact that she was teaching,” Gordie confided. “Now you know that St. Eugene Mission sits between two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Purcells. Well she had the two ranges mixed up and I told her so. We argued back and forth, I wasn’t backing down. All of a sudden she hit me and I pushed back.”
Gordie was made to sit in the Priests’ office for the day as punishment. Once he told his side of the story, he wasn’t reprimanded further.
“Did she teach the correct mountain ranges after that,” I ask.
“Oh no, she kept telling us the wrong thing,” he says, making light of the story all these years later.
But not all punishment was that easy. Male students who ran away from the school were often found again by the Indian Agents and returned to the school. For the next two weeks they were forced to dress as girls. As shaming as this would have been, it pales into comparison of other punishments that Gordie leaves untold.
I’m particularly haunted by his accounts of the tuberculosis outbreaks. Nodding to a photo of a clearly ill student, his head bandaged, he precedes to tell me of the infectious conditions that existed in the school.
“That student had TB, he shouldn’t have been with other students,” Gordie says matter-of-factly. The rate of deaths in the schools from influenza and TB far exceeded that of elsewhere in Canada.
Unlike many Residential Schools, only one death occurred here.
“This is her,” Gordie says pointing to a young girl. “She died when snow fell onto her from the roof. It’s good that her relatives have been here. Her name was Anette.”
Late in the interview, Gordie and I have coffee in the former chapel. It’s being readied for a function and we sit at a long table that will soon be set with linen and fine china. I’m told that healing occurs at St. Eugene on a regular basis. As painful as it is, many former students and their families return to confront the hurts of the past.
“The tipi outside is there for a reason. Even as the school was being re-purposed, it was provided for prayers and counselling.”
We glance out towards the tall white canvas. I learn that the poles of a tipi represent the different spiritualities of all people, yet they are bound together as one.
“Facing the past is difficult, but it brings peace. Just as Elder Mary Paul gave us the permission to do so.”
Gordie had pointed out the painting of Elder Paul as we entered the lobby. It is with her blessing that the re-construction of this building was undertaken.
We make our way upstairs to the ‘inner sanctuary’ of the school. Now mostly hotel rooms, Gordie points out the areas which were once dormitories, kitchens and mess halls. The rooms of the nuns and priests were close by.
My sense of this building’s history is suddenly very real. I’m shown the place where Gordie’s bed had stood. We look toward the window and beyond, where the road lies.
“At least I was able to look out of the window and see my father or grandfather pass on the road once in a while. Many kids were far, far from home.”
I’m shown where a young boy stood on a precarious ledge while attempting to run away. I see the burn marks from two arson attempts on the school. I become emotional as I contemplate the daunting stairs that girls as young as four had to negotiate in the middle of the night to go to the washroom. I feel their loneliness, the longing for their home, the yearning for a mother’s touch.
“There are 68 stairs,” Gordie tells me. “I should know, it was my job to sweep and scrub them.”
He tells me it was here that a young student was kicked down the stairs by a priest, tumbling helplessly to the bottom. Thankfully he lived.
“One of the workers saw it happen and pinned the priest up against the wall by the throat. He warned him never to hurt a student again,” Gordie recounts. “The next day we noticed that all of the straps had been removed from the classrooms.”
As the students reached their mid teens, I imagine control must have become more difficult. By the time Gordie is this age, one of the ‘Fathers’ uses government money to fund a swimming pool and provide horses for the students. Gordie takes on the role of the ‘horse guy.’
“Finally on Sunday afternoons we were allowed to leave the school premises and ride free on our land.”
I agree with Gordie how important that must have been; that sense of independence and freedom. This also evolved naturally as the older students were sent to a local school to complete their education.
“It didn’t get much better for us. We weren’t Native anymore and we weren’t ‘white’, so we didn’t fit in. We were ‘apples’…white on the inside but red on the outside.”
Gordie was eventually asked to leave his new school over an incident that he didn’t explain. When his father found out, he was also told to leave the house. He was seventeen and on his own. Gordie went north to work in the logging industry.
I don’t hear the entire story of the years between then and now. But I know a number of family members passed away due to alcohol abuse. And I know Gordie is raising the young daughter of a relative who still battles with the trauma of Residential School.
I also know that Gordie is one of the good guys. Not only is he helping to heal his own family, but also many of those who walk through the doors of St. Eugene Mission. They seek solace and peace from the past.
I admire Gordie greatly.