An interview with Tsleil-Waututh elder Amy George
Pinched ears, arms and raps across the knuckles with a metal edged ruler for immediate reproach on whispering, not answering fast enough or correctly, at ‘day-dreaming’, or being too tired. Punishments included being made to kneel beside your bed or desk or anywhere you happened to be, for 10 min or an hour at a perceived infraction.
Children were often ‘made an example of’ or shamed by being made to wear a ‘dunce cap’ in class or having to ‘stand in the corner’ facing a wall in a classroom or hallway or dormitory if your work or chores or school work wasn’t ‘good enough’. Getting the ‘strap’, a long hard woven leather belt was common for major infractions like trying to run away from the school, or direct defiance or disobedience.
Students were given numbers and the number was often used instead of their names.
“I was Number 50,” George said.
I asked George if she suffered sexual abuse at the school. She gave me a piercing look. I waited for her answer. Tears collected in her eyes.
"Yes," she said.
"I wonder what kind of major sin I could have committed as a six-year-old to be so severely punished day in and day out.
“The Canadian government built those schools. They said those small pox blankets didn’t work, the alcoholism didn’t work. They said, ‘we’ll build these schools. We’ll take their children away. We’ll kill their language. Then their spirits. And they will die.’ That was the whole reason they built these schools. There was murder in them," George said.
“At the end, I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. They fed me a daily diet of ‘dumb Indians’ ‘thick-headed Indians’ ‘stinking Indians.’ They’d say, ‘you stink to high heaven.’ They never gave any instructions about moon time. It was harsh, harsh, harsh. There was no love in those schools. They said hell is where there is no God and no love and that’s exactly where I was.”
Once she left school, she immediately started drinking to dull the pain and to try and forget. For many years she continued drinking.
She said she left the residential school at age 15, then was transferred to another school called Notre Dame, where she was the only native student. There, too, she was treated "horribly", she says. Like many residential school survivors, George turned to drinking to forget her past trauma. But when her husband died, she became determined to stop.
"My husband died in 1986 and every time I would pick up a drink or a beer, in my drunken brain, I kept expecting to see him walk in and it was such a big horrible pain. I said 'I can’t do this anymore.' I kept expecting him to walk in. And he wasn't here anymore.
"He was in the worse school, Port Alberni's school was the worst in BC. All the abuses were rampant there. Sexual abuse. There was a treatment center on an island and the children would try to swim home and drown...
"This year when I got severely depressed I went into the sweat and I cried for two rounds steady. I couldn’t stop I couldn’t stop crying. When I came out, I felt a hundred percent lighter. I gave it to the rocks, I gave it to my ancestors, I gave it to the creator. I said, 'I’m too small and weak, help me.' I asked all my grandmothers and grandfathers, 'help me out, I’m suffering.'
"No matter where I went, I cried just as hard. We’re a people who are told everything about ourselves was wrong and there wasn’t one thing that white society said ‘this is valuable we'll take this from your society’. It was like everything we had was useless and now look at the world the way it is. Are we the last of the human beings that understand this tree is a living entity, that this insect going by is a living entity, that everything has a right to grow? Our earth, she can’t breath anymore and she’s not going to be able to provide food, because we’re overpopulated.
"All my life in residential school was were called dumb Indians. Even as a child I thought how can we be dumb when you don’t even know that tree is a living entity. And they pull everything out of the ocean, they pull sharks out and chop their heads off and throw them back to the water..."