Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Canada’s most-awarded
newsroom for a reason
Stay informed for a
lot less, cancel anytime
“Exemplary reporting on
COVID-19” – Herman L
per week
for 24 weeks
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Nancy Dyson is the co-author, with Dan Rubenstein, of St. Michael’s Residential School: Lament & Legacy, the royalties of which will be donated to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and other support groups.

Fifty years ago, my husband Dan Rubenstein and I were newcomers to Canada, having moved here from New York state. We had visited Expo ’67 and were impressed by the images of Canada as a multicultural and welcoming society. In 1970, we decided to live here until the polarization rampant in the United States subsided, and found jobs as child-care workers.

Our growing sense that Canada was a just and compassionate country was upended by what we witnessed in our workplace: St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, in Alert Bay, B.C.

Story continues below advertisement

On our first day, the matron led us to a subbasement where four children were delivered to her care by an Indian agent. The little children stood mute and trembling while the matron cut away their clothes and their hair and threw all of it into the blazing orange firebox in the boiler. Dan protested: “Is this necessary?” She answered, unflinchingly: “Lice.”

The Kamloops residential school’s unmarked graves: What we know about the children’s remains, and Canada’s reaction so far

Discovery of children’s remains at Kamloops residential school ‘stark example of violence’ inflicted upon Indigenous peoples

How the ground-penetrating technology used to locate unmarked graves is both amazing and complex

Every morning, Dan went to wake up the 25 boys in his care, children as young as five years of age. The dorm room, filled with rows of impersonal metal beds, reeked of urine as most of the boys, if not all of them, wet their beds. The children’s unhappiness about their harsh treatment was palpable. Older staff told us discipline and consistency were essential; there was no discussion about love or respect.

Our belief that cruelty begets cruelty was confirmed. We saw students hurt other students; two boys tried to hang our puppy. We tried to protest within the school, but we were told we were naive.

Eventually, we joined a community effort to petition Indian and Northern Affairs to send a delegation to Alert Bay; the federal government had assumed control of residential schools across Canada in 1969, just one year before our arrival at St. Michael’s. We felt the government should see first-hand what was happening. A delegation arrived at the end of the year, but when Dan told them that the school was an instrument of cultural genocide, he was fired by the school administrator.

Dan and I left Alert Bay and moved to a neighbouring island. From time to time, we saw the children from St. Michael’s at the public school. The administrator agreed to our offer of allowing two of the little boys to visit us in our cabin in the B.C. village of Sointula. But we stopped advocating for the children. When the school was closed a few years later, we thought the trauma was ending.

We lament our silence.

In 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) tabled its final report, memories of St. Michael’s resurfaced and I was overcome with emotion and guilt for not telling my story. By chance, Dan shared an elevator with Ry Moran, the founding director of the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and now the associate university librarian-reconciliation at the University of Victoria. He promised Mr. Moran that he would tell the story of what we had witnessed.

Story continues below advertisement

Friends and acquaintances challenged our views. “People did what they thought was right in their day,” they said. “It wasn’t all that bad. Look at British boarding schools.” Many insisted that the government and the churches had acted out of kindness and good intentions.

But I was there. I know better. The survivors stories’ speak the truth. We read the TRC reports in their entirety and learned that what we witnessed at St. Michael’s occurred across the country. Residential schools were an assault on Indigenous people and their families. Separating children from families led to the loss of identity, language, spirituality and culture. The residential schools were never about education. They were always about something more: The eradication of Indigenous people as a distinct, separate group.

The tragic discovery of the unmarked grave at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School happened to coincide with the publication of our story. For any Canadian who remains unconvinced that residential schools had tragic consequences for Indigenous children and their families that continue to this day, I urge them to read the accounts by survivors and those of us who found ourselves in a malevolent institution where love and kindness rarely survived.

I join people across Canada, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who grieve for the children buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. And I stand in awe of the survivors and intergenerational survivors who promote hope and love as they lead our country toward justice and reconciliation.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies