Breaking the silence on residential schools with schools

Keely Dakin
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Tom Roberts and Tanner Cook made their fourth presentation about life in residential schools to a library full of children at Red Wing School in Buckland on Friday.
Roberts spent 10 years of his life in a residential school, from six to 16. Cook’s father and grandmother also went through them.

This is the first time a team has taken on the task educating students this way in Saskatchewan.

“We are just introducing a new equation into an education system,” Cook said.

A recommendation to go to schools and do presentations about residential schools came out of the Truth and Reconciliation forums held throughout the country this spring.

The need to educate became even clearer to Roberts and Cook when they spoke to children in reserve schools and realized that it wasn’t only the non-Native children who didn’t understand what had happened in Canada for more than 100 years.

 “The ones who’s parents went to residential schools, they had questions about residential schools,” Cook said.

“It’s amazing … we went to the reserve (Lac La Ronge) twice and they have questions, they couldn’t believe, they couldn’t understand,” Roberts said.

“Some of the stories we were telling, they were like, ‘no way,’” Roberts said.

 “That’s the insidiousness about residential school, eh. It’s that people that went there don’t want to tell their children,” Tanner said.

“Me and his (Cook’s) dad went to residential school together, but never brought it up at home and you know, it was just recently this Truth and Reconciliation, it’s starting to be talked about,” Roberts said.

“It wasn’t talked about,” Roberts added.

Roberts spoke in an informal manner, seated on a small chair and table in front of more than 100 children.

He spoke of being taken from his parents when he was six. He spoke of how he was strapped whenever he spoke Cree.

He told them how he was not allowed to even talk to his own siblings while living at the school. How his siblings and his parents became strangers after 10 months of no contact with for 10 years. How he wanted to write home but could not because letters were read by the supervisor.

He told them about how his long black hair was cut with sheers and then doused with a foul smelling lice-killer. How he was handed a number when he first arrived and for the next 10 years every piece of residential-school clothing had that number on it.

“Except for the socks,” he said.

A child asked if there were any positive things about being there.

“The education. That was great,” Roberts said.

Roberts used it and pursued it further, eventually working with CBC for 25 years.

He said he is glad he got the education and learned to be punctual and to finish projects. He is grateful that he knows and understands two cultures.

“It’s the way it was done. Being snatched by your parents at the age of 5, 6, 7 years old and never seeing your parents for ten months -- you come back, you don’t really know your parents,” he said.

The gains did not lessen the damage that was done. He spoke frankly about the alcohol and anger in many Native people’s lives.

“The loss of our culture, our language, our identity. So we’re mixed up … and then we’re angry, and in order to drown that anger, drown the past, we drink. We drink and drink and drink and drink and then suicide. ‘I don’t wanna deal with the past no more,’” Roberts explained.

“It’s the way it was done. Being snatched by your parents at the age of 5, 6, 7 years old and never seeing your parents for ten months -- you come back, you don’t really know your parents,” Roberts said.

“Well we have generations of people in Saskatchewan with that,” he said.

“I often look at my grandchildren, they’re 5,6,7 and 8 years old … that chill that you talk about going ... up my spine. I think of that, every time I look at them, cause at that age … That’s how young we were when we were taken away. And mom and dad couldn’t do anything cause they were threatened. That’s kidnapping! … There was a kid that mentioned that. And that’s basically what happened,” Roberts said.

The children seemed to enjoy the presentation, all of them gathering together for a group photo afterwards.

“It informed us a lot,” said Natasha Loedtke, 11, Grade 6.

“I didn’t really know a lot about it. I knew it happened but I didn’t know really what happened. And it was nice to learn about it,” said Mallory Norfield, 11, Grade 6.

“Before I always thought, like, there is lots of Natives that drink, I never thought that it was because of this though,” John Kalmakoff, 11, Grade 6, said.

While the subject matter was not happy, Roberts’ and Cook’s demeanor was light and friendly. The used humour and the children laughed repeatedly, becoming more willing to raise their hands and ask questions as the presentation went on.

Most of all Roberts encouraged understanding of all peoples and acceptance of people for who they are, Native and non-Native. He suggested they go learn about different First Nation cultures but also about all cultures that now inhabit this land.  Go to a powwow, go to a square dance, go learn about Ukrainians. Don’t worry if you’re not from that culture. Go learn, he said.

Understanding is why they are doing these presentations.

“So it’s about the acknowledgment and where we go from here,” Cook said.

“The importance of voicing the residential schools is that it’s an action. Sometimes people don’t like to talk about the bad things, the negative things. But that doesn’t negate the fact that it happened … acknowledging that it happened, it has an effect,” he said.

“We can actually take control of our own lives as a people. Not just as Native people but as a people of the land of both Native and non-Native people.”

The residential schools began officially in 1883 when John A. MacDonald, then prime minister and minister of Indian Affairs, founded three of them. Two of those were built in what is now Saskatchewan. However the government had been funding missionaries to board Native children in a similar fashion since 1830. The last residential school was not closed until 1996.



Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Canada, Lac La Ronge

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • Bronwyn
    December 01, 2012 - 16:47

    Yes! This needs to happen in all schools in Canada (and the US & Austraila).

  • Bronwyn
    December 01, 2012 - 16:41

    Yes! This needs to happen in all schools in Canada (and the Us & Austraila).