One of the rituals at the school was a daily accounting of what had been eaten at communal meals. “We would be given these sheets of paper to fill out,” Mr. Dixon recounted to reporter Judith Lavoie. “There were 250 to 300 of us and we all ate from the same big pot, so no one was getting anything different. That’s why I thought it was strange.
“I thought, ‘Why the hell are they asking us about this?’ They knew exactly what they were putting on the table for us.”
The answer to his question was provided only last year by Ian Mosby, a food historian at the University of Guelph in Ontario, who revealed that he had uncovered records showing adults at reserves in northern Manitoba and children at six residential schools, including Alberni, were deliberately starved. Milk was withheld, while vitamins and supplements were denied to some to provide a base for the experiment.
As well, no dental services were provided, so as not to skew observations regarding the health of gums.
Mr. Dixon spoke of pilfering food from the school’s working farm to quell an unfilled belly.
“I remember all of us kids having to steal fruits, steal carrots and potatoes, so we could roast potatoes somewhere off-site on a fire and eat it, because we were never full when we left the dining room table,” he told Rick MacInnes-Rae of CBC Radio’s As It Happens. (Among those listening to the riveting interview was Mr. Mosby, who cried at the account.)
What food the children got from the staff was of poor quality. The reward at the end of a hard school day was two dry slices of bread. Although the boys milked cows every morning at the farm attached to the school, they were given only powdered milk to drink.
Mr. Dixon weighed only 128 pounds (58 kilograms) when he graduated Grade 12 at the age of 18. He quickly added more than 30 pounds (13.6 kg) once he was able to feed himself.
He enrolled at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, rejecting an offer of financial support from the federal government.
He was one of only six First Nations students at the university, where he majored in English and took teacher’s training. He paid for his degree by working summers as a fisherman.
He later became an independent gillnetter. He negotiated prices and wages with processing plants for the Central Native Fishermen’s Co-op, learning lessons in bargaining that would serve him well decades later as he represented Canada in international fisheries negotiations with Japan, Russia and the United States.
In a long career in which he contributed to the management of fisheries, he was executive director of the Native Fishing Association and served as chairman of the Pacific Fisheries Commission, responsible for salmon stock in the Fraser River.
Mr. Dixon’s activism included roles with the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia and, especially, within the United Church, where he served on the general executive council. He was one of the founders of the Native Ministries Consortium and the native ministries program at the Vancouver School of Theology.
He led a drive in which the United Church raised $1-million to help finance the legal case that resulted in this year’s landmark Delgamuukw case regarding aboriginal title to traditional lands. Mr. Dixon also got his church, within which he was a prominent figure, to apologize for its role in forcing children to attend residential schools, a campaign of reconciliation which led to his being called an “Uncle Tomahawk” by a rival aboriginal leader.
Unlike some survivors, however, Mr. Dixon welcomed the Christianity learned at residential school. “For me, it was a good experience, because it was spiritual,” he once said. “I never saw it as an onus. A lot of people hated it, but I grew up with very spiritual parents who taught me to appreciate worship, so I enjoyed participating, I enjoyed leading.”
For 15 years, he was an integral part of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, providing counselling and other services to those who had endured deprivations and degradations similar to his own.