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Most of us have taken at least one memorable road trip in our lifetime. I have certainly done my share. But the one I remember most is the last trip I took with my mom to her residential school in Dauphin, Man.
During our life together, Mom and I spoke about many things that only mothers and daughters can share with each other. I knew residential schools existed because my parents spoke about theirs – but often at a very superficial level. Even though I thankfully never attended one, I was most certainly affected by its rippling impact. But for two days in April, 2015, I travelled back in time and saw and felt what it might have been like as a residential-school student. My mom shared openly, honestly and unfiltered. I learned so much about her in those 48 hours. It was one of the saddest, yet most poignant road trips that I have ever taken.
I was only 6 or 7 the last time I’d visited Dauphin Residential School with my parents, but then I was too young to really understand. This time, it looked much smaller than what I remembered, but aside from the size, the school looked exactly the same – light brown stones, big windows, steel-grey front doors and a three-storey student dormitory.
Mom parked her car and we walked up to the front doors. The daylight was quickly turning into twilight, casting a soft glow on the school, the grounds and an era thankfully gone, but one that should never be forgotten.
“Behind these doors is the chapel,” she said. “Let’s go down the ramp to the side, I remember there being another door there.” Just as she said that, Mom pulled on the handle and to our surprise it swung open.
As we began to walk along the old linoleum flooring, I watched my mom transform from a 70-year-old woman to a 10-year-old girl. The first story she told was the day she arrived. It is a story that I heard a million times, but I never got tired of listening; it was also the day my parents met.
She arrived in a rickety old yellow school bus after surviving a year from hell at Brandon Residential School. She remembers getting off the bus and scanning her new home. Little did she know that a 12-year-old Cree boy took notice of the new student arriving. He turned to his friend and said “That’s the girl I am going to marry.” The Cree boy was my dad.
We climbed a set of stairs to visit the chapel that was behind the old steel doors. But the chapel was gone and in its place was a gym. Mom walked in, looked around, and described where the pews were and the altar, and how every Sunday she and the other students were forced to go to church. She explained that she eventually decided that God could not possibly exist given what she and her siblings had suffered at the hands of the nuns, priests and teachers. If God was indeed merciful and loving, he did not show any mercy or love to her or her family. For her, this was simply a statement of fact. I did not judge or question as it was my turn to listen to her truth.
We walked through the gym and down a set of dingy old stairs. Mom moved effortlessly throughout the maze of the basement, and we ended up the cafeteria. The kitchen and pantry, Mom said, remained exactly the same. It was almost as if we had moved back in time, and I half expected the kids to burst through the cafeteria doors for dinner.
The children, she said, served the food to other students, but only after the teachers and staff were served first. A break in this regimen occurred only on Christmas Day when the teachers would serve the children. My heart ached when I thought about all those children having to wake up Christmas morning in this dreary institutional prison. Worse yet, if my mom knew about the holiday change in routine, she was one of them.
Mom and I woke up early the next day and, coffee in hand, we drove around the little city of Dauphin, as Mom shared her memories. Since Dauphin Residential School ended at Grade 9, children either left school or they were billeted with white families to attend the local high school. Placing Indigenous kids with white families was supposed to be a way to prepare them for living in the city, as well as ensuring they would never return to their reserves or families. “It was,” Mom said, “an attempt to turn us white, but as hard as they tried they failed. You can never turn an Indian into a white person. Never.”
My mom was billeted at age 15. She went from one cold and unfriendly environment to another as the woman she lived with was mean and abusive. One day, Mom sat down to watch television when her host came running out of the kitchen with a towel and told her to get off the couch. Mom watched as the woman covered the back of the sofa with the towel. She told Mom that she didn’t want her clean sofa to get dirty from greasy Indian hair.
Our final stop on this road trip was her old high school. The red brick, collegiate Gothic building still stands, and is now in use as a middle school. I hope today that relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are respectful and understanding, because they weren’t always so. Mom explained how she felt she was an animal on display to be gawked at, spat on and judged by the non-Indigenous students and teachers.
She had always been studious and received A’s, but her grades suffered in high school. At least at residential school, she said, she was with her Indigenous peers and siblings. At the local high school she was alone. It broke my heart listening to the hardships and the blatant discrimination she encountered. Yet, she and countless other residential-school students had the strength and resiliency to survive a system that was designed to kill them.
I distinctly remember many things from that road trip: the smell of Tim Hortons coffee, the taste of homemade egg-salad sandwiches – which Mom always made for long drives – and the many stories she told. It would be the last trip we took; she died two years later.
It is important to keep sharing the stories of residential-school survivors, important to never forget our past and honour those students who never made it home. The road trip of reconciliation is a hard yet necessary journey that each Canadian must take.
Deborah G. Young lives in Ottawa.