The education of First Nations children in Canada has a dark history. Today, as Grand Chief Stan Beardy told ETFO’s annual meeting, inadequate funding means many students have to leave their families and communities to get an education. In the last century, they were forced to leave to attend residential schools. This had disastrous consequences. An estimated 80,000 former students of residential schools are still living today. The impact of the residential school experience has not faded away.
Bernice Greene is an Ojibwe woman living in Iskatewizaagegan #39 who currently works for the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board. She is a classroom teacher and has been a Native Language/Native Studies special assignment teacher, responsible for facilitating the development of curriculum resources, supporting teacher practice, acquiring resources, and co-ordinating and providing professional learning to both Ojibwe and Oji-Cree teachers.
Bernice attended the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, operated by the Presbyterian Church from 1900 until 1964, after which it was operated by the federal government. She shared her story with Darline Pomeroy.
I was born and raised in Iskatewizaagegan or Shoal Lake #39 Independent First Nation and I attended the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Kenora from 1967 to 1973. The old residential school built on our reserve in 1902 was closed in 1929. The school was moved to Kenora to accommodate students from surrounding communities. It closed in 1974.
My mom and dad and their parents attended the same residential school. My grandparents did not talk about it. They accepted that they had no choice. Parents always feared being jailed if they tried to keep their children from attending. Gradually, resistance grew toward the schools and there were some who tried to hide their children.
My mom spoke about her experiences at the residential school and they weren’t very good experiences at all. Students were encouraged to get involved in hockey, the school band, or dancing for local competitions. If they did not achieve well they were severely disciplined. My mom was a dancer and she was often hit across the shins if she or her partner missed a step. To this day, she remembers all of those dances; but what a way to learn, through harsh discipline! She said that the students attended classes for part of the day and then worked on the farm, or in the kitchen and laundry.
My mom must have thought it was the thing to do as we were sent to residential school as well. I would never have sent my kids.
I can clearly recall my first day at Cecilia Jeffrey and the long steps leading to the main doorway, people speaking only English, and then my mom leaving and my sister and I