Large Banner Ad
Small Banner Ad

August 7, 2009

Educating natives – Canadian style

The Canadian Charger

Stella K.Although it's now nearly fifty years ago, Stella Koostanchin vividly remembers how lonely she felt when, in 1961, at the age of five, she was separated from her parents and taken to St. Ann's School – then a residential school used to “educate” First Nations' children. 

Built in 1953, at Fort Albany, Ontario, on the James Bay – Hudson Bay coast, St. Ann's School was run by The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (MOMI).

Today, The MOMI' s official website states: We are a Roman Catholic religious community of priests and brothers dedicated to spreading God's love in the world , through life in community, at the service of the poor, in collaboration with men and women of all faiths. 

However, this is not how Ms. Koostanchin remembers her time at St. Anne's School.

She says she was part of the “1960's scoop”, whereby the Canadian federal government, in conjunction with the provincial governments, pressured native parents to send their children to residential schools.

Although the schools were supposed to be offering the children an education to prepare them for mainstream Canadian society, Ms. Koostanchin said religion was the main focus of the curriculum.

Sitting in a restaurant at the corner of Yonge and Bloor, in downtown Toronto, Ms. Koostanchin struggled to tell her story, though the memories remain painful to this day.

“I was five and you must be six to start school in grade 1. There was no kindergarten. When the senior girls went to school, I was alone in the recreation hall. I used to sit on the steps and listen to the classes. That's how I learned my ABC's. 

I climbed the radiators and watched the horses bring supplies. I wasn't allowed to go outside. Later sister Catherine Tekakwitha - She changed her name. She took her name after the Mohawk Saint. She was with the Grey Nuns Sisters of Charity – told me to stay in the recreation hall. She would bring me milk and cookies ... I eagerly awaited the girls at lunch break.”

Ms. Koostanchin stressed that she's telling her story from her recollections and she's not speaking on behalf of any other students who attended the school.

“I'm recounting my residential school experience in brief: what I saw and my own particular experience. One Nun, Sister Jane, of all the missionaries who worked there, she was the meanest. She committed atrocious acts against the students.

In my case, at age five, as an example, she used to line us up to go to the bathroom and with strict orders: we were not to have accidents while waiting to go to the bathroom. As each child went in to use the toilet, she gave them two pieces of toilet paper. It was very thin. We learned how to fold. Before my turn, I had an accident in line. She sniffed the air and asked who did that.

Happily, I put up my hand and said: “I did,” not expecting anything. She removed my underwear and told me to turn and face the other kids. Then she rubbed the soiled underwear on top of my head. I started to cry. I felt embarrassed, much to the shock of the other children.  Later she told the older girls to clean me up. After my bath, she gave me cookies, cake and apples and told me not to tell anyone.”

Ms. Koostachin recalled that later that same year, Sister Jane caught her and several other students scratching their wrists with needles.

Ms. Koostachin said Sister Jane was very angry because the scratches left visible marks that the students' parents could see, on home visits on weekends and holidays.

Sister Jane smashed a pale over Ms. Koostachin's head, so hard that the two sections of the pail where the handle is joined to the pail left bleeding wounds on Ms. Koostachin's shoulders. Unbeknownst to the still five-year old student, however, this treatment was but a sample of what was to come. 

The next year, as a six-year-old, grade 1 student, Ms. Koostachin's cousin, the late Margaret Kesho, was pushing her around in a wheelbarrow, on the school playground, when one of the wheels hit a soft patch of mud, causing the wheelbarrel to tip and Ms. Koostachin to fall out.

“I fell and a truck ran over my right leg. The kids were screaming and Sister Jane came running out. Without checking me out, she yanked me out of the mud and the older girls carried me to an isolate room in the younger girls' residence. I don't recall exactly what took place because I was in shock. I was in bed and alone in the room and my leg was aching so badly and shaking, and I wanted so badly for my parents to be there with me.

As I laid there sobbing into my pillow, Sister Jane walked in with a tray of food and as she placed the tray in front of me she said: 'Don't tell anybody about this. This is our secret.' She grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me when she said that, then she was nice and gently coaxed me to eat. I ate between my sobs. By then my leg was throbbing; I was in great pain. I received no medical attention and I had no visitors except Jane, who cleaned and fed me.”

Her ordeal ended when the other girls told sister Catherine what had happened and she got Ms. Koostachin's aunt, who was a Nun working as a seamstress at the school, and the two of them rushed to Ms. Koostachin's room.

Ms. Koostachin said Sister Jane happened to be in the room, knitting. She tried to act as if nothing had happened, but before she could answer the other two women's questions, Sister Catherine lifted up the bedsheet and saw the young girl's back and blue right leg.

She was carried on a stretcher to the hospital, across the creek from the school. Ms. Koostachin said she was in the hospital for a few days, where, fortunately, x-rays revealed no broken bones, but she added that she still has pain and a lack of flexibility in her right leg.

Moreover, she recounted a couple of assaults other students suffered at the hands of Sister Sarah. “I remember in the younger girls' residence, seeing Sister Jane grab my cousin Madeline Koostachan and smashing her face on the concrete just for arriving late from visiting her parents over the weekend. She did that twice. Her mouth was bleeding and her eye swelled up. She was screaming and crying.”

Ms. Koostachin witnessed Sister Jane smashing the heads of her cousin Shirley Gagnon and another student, Rita Mark, in similar fashion, for little or no reason.

It's not surprising that young children growing up surrounded by violence, would themselves resort to violence; and Ms. Koostachin said she violent fights between the students were common. She said they also heard similar stories from the boys.

Although Ms. Koostachin said that in time she forgot about all these incidents, the effects remained.

“After high school many of us began to drink or do solvent sniffing in an effort to while away our time. Many young people became alcoholics and died in three-wheeler accidents. A few committed suicide ... Others became drug addicts, sexual abusers and spouse beaters.”

Although it was years after the fact and the damage was done, Ms. Koostachin said Sister Jane did have her day in court, after some students charged her, for the abuse they suffered; and the OPP collected stories from former students about their residential school years.

Ms. Koostachin is now trying to focus on the present and the future, although she doesn't want the past to ever be forgotten.

“On June 11 (2008) when Prime Minister Harper finally gave the official apology to the Aboriginal Community, I found that to be satisfactory. But the next stage is to plan a tribunal and initiate a fact finding of these atrocities, similar to the steps taken in Africa for reasons of Apartheid.”

  • Think green before you print
  • Respond to the editor
  • Email
  • Delicious
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • StumbleUpon
Subscribe to the E-bulletin

M. Elmasry

Subscribe to our YouTube Channel