At the age of 10, Alvin Dixon was removed from his home and family and sent more than 500 kilometres south to the Alberni Residential Indian School on Vancouver Island. Two hours after arriving, he was beaten with a strap. His crime: speaking the only language he knew, which was not English.
Many more beatings were to be endured in the following years. The boarding school operated by the United Church would be revealed later to have been a stalking ground for sadists and at least one predatory pedophile, their quarry the helpless children snatched away in the name of civilization.
What young Alvin and the other children suffered is shocking for its callousness and cruelty. Even the mundane seemed puzzling; he was expected to fill out a form detailing what he had eaten after every meal, an odd bureaucratic task considering the boys all ate from the same shared pot. Only last year it was revealed the children had been the unwitting subjects of experiments conducted by the federal government and the Canadian Red Cross to determine how little nutrition they needed to survive. Alvin Dixon, a malnourished boy, had been a human guinea pig.
Mr. Dixon, who has died at 77, survived the school, earned a university degree, and later counselled fellow residential school survivors. Later still, as a respected Heiltsuk First Nation elder, he became an eloquent and sometimes angry voice for those wronged.
He also found comfort in the Christianity he learned at the school, becoming an activist within the United Church, guiding it to an apology and becoming a driving force behind the demand for a public inquiry into conditions at the residential schools, which led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Tart of tongue – he once used a vulgar exclamation during a national radio interview – Mr. Dixon had a no-nonsense manner, whether being interviewed or conducting a counselling session, said Robert Joseph, a long-time friend and a hereditary chief of Gwawaenuk First Nation.
“Alvin was no different than most of the kids who had been to the residential schools. He went through the same horrific experience of physical and sexual abuse,” Mr. Joseph said.
“He was forthright. He was straight to the point. He told them to be brave about their past experience, to confront it, to talk about it and to move forward.”
Alvin William Dixon, who was born on June 10, 1937, grew up in and near Bella Bella, also known as Waglisla, on the eastern side of Campbell Island along the central British Columbia coast. He was raised by a grandmother who lived off the land in the traditional way. She took him fishing and berry picking by rowboat along the inlets framed by mountains leading to Bella Coola and Kimsquit. They peeled bark, dug clams and caught, cleaned and canned salmon, sleeping rough on a beach before rowing farther the next morning.
Years later, he told a story to a gathering of fellow United Church congregants about his grandmother explaining his native name, which means “mountain goat” in Hailhzaqvla, his first language. She spotted a white creature on a precarious perch high above them. “That’s you,” she told the boy. “You see where that mountain goat is? That means you can go anywhere you want. Nothing can stop you. Just like that mountain goat.”
His name must have seemed a mocking reminder of what little freedom he had after arriving at the Port Alberni school in 1947. That first day, he learned a terrible lesson after being overheard speaking his native language.
“A supervisor heard me, took me to the playroom in the basement, leaned me over the bench and walloped me over and over with a strap,” he told the Vancouver Province last year.
The young boy made a decision: “I had to abandon my language in order to survive there.”
It was a lonely time. The six Dixon children were split up – sent to institutions in Albert Bay, the Fraser Valley and Edmonton. “When we got together in the summer,” he once said, “it was really strange.”