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.”
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.
Asked how he had been so successful when others had not, his friend Mr. Joseph, the hereditary chief, said, “The trauma that he experienced didn’t consume him.”
Mr. Dixon did regret his own behaviour at home as an adult, blaming his youthful experiences for causing him to be an “emotional terrorist” to his two wives and his children.
For all his achievements, he found that everyday instances of discrimination could sting.
He recounted being ignored by sales staff in stores and by waitresses in restaurants. He raised his family in White Rock, a comfortable suburb south of Vancouver, noting the tension that his children caused among his white neighbours when they began dating in high school.
Over the years, he insisted the dark story of the residential schools be taught in school to all Canadians, because no one could appreciate the circumstance of aboriginal people without understanding the ugliness inflicted on them.
The poverty and the dysfunction associated with First Nations people was a direct result of families such as his own torn apart by a misbegotten policy.
In the end, he felt too many ignored the story he was asked to tell again and again.
“The federal government and most Canadians don’t give a shit what happens with us First Nations people,” he told As It Happens. “They’re on our stolen lands, our holy lands and they’re not going to be happy until they have it all. They were trying to eliminate us.”
Mr. Dixon died of cancer on July 20 in Vancouver. He leaves two sons, two daughters, six grandchildren, two sisters and a brother.
One of his lifelong regrets was in losing his native language, which he wished to have taught to his children and grandchildren. As he once told the Vancouver Sun, “An apology doesn’t return that language to me.”
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