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'We were innocent children ... separated by force from our homes": Residential school survivor

Survivor John Wabano, who attended St. Anne's Residential School for two years in the '60s, shares his story

John Wabano is sharing his experience at St. Anne's Residential School in Fort Albany. He was 11 years old when he first attended St. Anne's in 1961. He skipped a year at age 13 and returned when he was 14 years old. Wabano served as chief for Weenusk First Nation (Winisk) in the early '80s and was a band economic development officer with Weenusk. Today he lives in Fort Severn (Washaho Cree Nation), which is a neighbouring community to Peawanuck on the Hudson Bay coast. The following is his story, in his words.

There has been a lot of talk of residential schools lately by survivors that made it through these concentration camps and lived to tell about their experiences. Some have kept quiet while others have seemed to have been offended when survivors disclose information of what went on behind the grey walls of these institutions called residential schools. 

As a survivor myself, I have been impacted even before I was forced to go there. Some parents of Winisk went to meet their kids at Attawapiskat in the month of June due to ice still intact on the Hudson Bay and James Bay during that time. I guess the parents were given the privilege of getting their kids on their own. I remember travelling with another family one time. Our parents used to go upriver from Winisk to Shamattawa Lake and from there travelling on a small river and creek that leads to Ekwan. There was a lot of hard work, cutting logs to get through and at least two portages before Ekwan river. Lots of black flies, mosquitoes, horseflies and the heat was unbearable at times. But, our parents were hard workers and were determined to get to their destination. Any parent would work hard to see their children. Canoeing down Ekwan river was easier with long stretches of water from horizon to horizon with a strong current. The travel route inland is 500 plus miles return. In the fall, a sailing vessel was used to come and pick up school kids to Albany before floatplanes. 

It was one late summer day when a priest and two white guys came to our home to inform my parents that I would go to residential school in the fall. Prior to that, an RCMP was present and one other white guy accompanied by a priest as an interpreter. I was not allowed to listen but now, I have a very good idea of what they said to my parents. 

My older sisters and big brother were there many years and I knew what to expect once I got there. Like our parents that were threatened with jail terms, no monthly child allowances or government assistance if they refuse, we did not have much choice but to go. My older sister said that she used to help a nun who was the supervisor for the boys. One day a boy didn’t eat his food because he was sick, the nun, put away the food and said “you eat it when you feel like eating”. She did this for three days until my sister throws away the now spoiled food. The boy finally ate after three days without food. My big brother said, one evening they came for a boy whose bed was located beside his at the dorm and was gone for a few hours. He came back coughing and could see that he was terribly in pain. In the morning, he could see that the boy had vomited blood in his shoes and died soon afterwards.  My brother never mentioned where the burial took place. But the cemetery was not far from the residential school.

The day came when we were to be flown to Fort Albany. It was a beautiful day. I was given new clothes to wear after a good meal at home for the last time. My parents did not talk much that morning. They kept silent as someone had died. We were taken across the river to meet the plane and a canso, a plane capable of landing on an airstrip and water, landed soon to pick us up. Other kids were waiting and we were very excited to get on the plane for the first time, for some of us kids. As the plane taxied to the runway, we waved at our parents from the windows and they waved back at us. I could tell they weren’t very happy. Some mothers seemed to be crying. But they were strong and resilient people who survived and lived in a harsh environment all their lives. 

After a few hours of flight time, our little excitement was gone and everyone was quiet.  We were homesick already, but we knew we would be gone for 10 months. We finally landed at our destination and landed near the old townsite located at the island. A boat came to pick us up and we finally reached land, where a pick-up truck was waiting. By this time, it was getting dark. Realizing that we were a few hundred miles away from home, I felt loneliness as any child would, fear and wanting to go home.

I only went there for two years and skipped one year before I went there for the second time. My father who never went to school didn’t let me go. Growing up was rough. My mother went to residential school and was very strict and would argue at times while my father who never went to school was always quiet and kept pretty much to himself. Both were hard workers and they taught me how to survive on the land at an early age. They were good providers to us, siblings. 

The residential school at Fort Albany is said to be the worst one. However, it would be many years later that I learned what really went on behind those walls of the facility.  When I learned the horrible abuses and senseless punishment that were inflicted as experienced by the former residential students, I consider myself lucky as I only experienced physical, emotional and verbal abuse. I had already experienced those by adults, big boys, mostly former students back home. 

My observations at St Anne’s include electric chair used for entertainment on the children, children forced to eat their vomit, not permitted to talk and all of us were timed or scheduled when to use the washroom. When nature calls, some kids urinated and soiled their pants from bowel movements during our long walks. Those that were unfortunate were punished and were made to wash their pants in the dorm. The stench soon filled the room and that makes it hard to breathe for those that were close by.  Sometimes, there was too much salt on the food. At other times, no salt.  Salt or no salt, we ate our food. One evening, our supervisor went to church with the big boys at the village. That evening, we were thirsty from too much salt in our meal, one boy took a drink of water from the tap and another followed one by one until there were about 10 of us that drank water. 

It was during the night when I was awakened by somebody screaming. It was one of the boys that drank the water. He was forced to drink from the tap while being held. The nun said, “so you want to drink water? Drink! Luckily, only boy was forced to drink, but we were punished and forced to kneel with our arms stretched for half an hour. After a while, your arms were getting heavy and every time a boy’s arm goes down, he would get a slap in the face. Finally, after what seemed like forever, we were told to go back to bed. 

The boy that was forced to drink died a few years ago. He will have no more pain while the rest of us that survived the ordeal with less punishment will live the rest of our miserable lives. One incident I’ll never forget is when I was pushed from behind to a saw while cutting logs. This huge four-diameter saw is driven attached to a four-inch-wide belt and engine. It looked like a giant skill saw and a log is placed in front and pushed towards the moving plate to cut. I was pushed from behind while in the cutting position. The log I was holding saved me and I managed to push myself away with only an inch from the moving plate. 

The priest who lived many years at Winisk saw the whole thing. I guess he informed our supervisor about the incident and that evening the nun said to me “so you almost died today, shashtow!” She felt pity on me and I knew deep inside in her heart, even for a little bit, she cared about us. And why not, she was our supervisor and responsible for our safety. She was Cree (Omushkego).  She worked and lived in Moosonee for many years. The nuns never made me cry and I still had my pride as Omushkego while I was there. I used to talk to her, whenever we met, we laugh about things, tell some stories and she used to ask how my sisters were doing. But I know, she lived in fear for the rest of her life and felt sorry for her and I forgot what she did to me.

We looked forward to going home, usually by end of June. It was the happiest day when students get to go home. One morning we were taken to the floatplane landing to wait for the plane. After a while, we heard the plane coming from a long ways off. Then we saw the canso coming for a landing to pick us up. The plane landed at Attawapiskat to pick up passengers. We saw the boats coming to meet us and two passengers got on, one old priest and an elderly woman. I recognize my grandmother on my mother’s side.

That was the only time I got to have a plane ride with my grandmother and the only grandmother I knew. I don’t remember any of my grandfathers and my other grandmother from my father’s side. The old priest asked us who we were and if we were going home to Winisk. He spoke in Ojibway.  After about an hour’s flight, I went to ask my grandmother where she was going. She said “Winisk to visit my daughter Ashen” in Cree. I told her that’s my mother. “Keenah  Ehjigoo!” (It’s you!). I pointed at the river below. She said “Pitchenuck Ekwanickh” finally Ekwan. 

She named all the places she knew, rivers, lakes and the name of Sutton ridges. She didn’t need a map. Apparently, she walked, snow-shoed and canoed all over the place during her lifetime. When we were at Hawley Lake, she said, we are getting closer. Someone said she could see the hangar. This hangar was big enough to fit DC-3 and DC-4. The old priest saw the hangar as we got closer and asked “Payuckwan peko mundugkwan? (Only one house dwelling?) I said eh heh, payuckwan peko mundugkwan. I thought he would find out soon enough. I never knew the name of the old priest. They just call him kitchoo Ojibway. An elder who came from further inland (Oji Cree country) recognized this priest. He said he had seen this priest beat a boy to death at another residential school. However, in those days, it was best not to talk about such things for fear of INAC, priest, the government and the RCMP. Therefore, a lot of those stories have kept hidden until recently.

The discovery of 215 Indigenous children remains that were buried at the Kamloops residential school sparks grief and resulting in devastating and negative impacts to residential school survivals. It also sparks interest and renewal to carry out further investigation and to continue the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process that has been stalled by every means thought of by the government and its authorities in order for TRC not to succeed with its investigation. The Pope won’t apologize because he knows, Indigenous people will have their way if he does, not just in Canada but other countries as well.

Since the discovery of Turtle Island, the Pope issued Papal Bulls because the Catholic Church had the highest authority in the world to decide what to do with local inhabitants. We were not considered as human beings. Therefore, we were doomed from the beginning still to this day, it seems like. The word genocide means in simple terms extermination, assimilation or ending of a nation of people. 

The government and churches that run residential schools did just that by taking children by force, jail terms for parents if they don’t cooperate, beating children to death, torturing and burning newborn children alive. My elders told a story that happened not too long ago that a party comprised of RCMP, game warden and one native person came around the hunting and trapping camps to destroy food, pelts, fish and other game harvested from the land. This resulted for families and their children to experience hunger and sometimes at the verge of starvation. 

A thesis by David Finch, called It is only the beginningincludes part of this story provided by Fort Severn elders. They also talk about pressing pelts to height of a Musket or a muzzleloader before one could purchase a gun. These have to be included in order to continue with a TRC process. Our grandfathers didn’t lie and this is not a myth. This is Canada’s history and missing agenda that needs to be exposed to the general public and the world. A crime has been committed and needs a thorough investigation involving international and archaeological forensic criminal investigation. We cannot trust the RCMP, the government or the churches to investigate their own crimes. The UN has offered to provide technical assistance (correct me if I’m wrong). I stand with 215 children that were found, the former residential school students that have passed to the spirit world (the happy hunting ground) and the survivors.

Prior to European contact, we had our own laws and traditional beliefs and lived in harmony with nature. The Bible was used to convert our ancestors to European religions also as a means to have access to our lands and resources. Jim Sinclair of the Metis Nation used to say during negotiation talks in the ‘80s:  “When the white man came, they had the Bible and we had the land. Today we have the Bible and they have the land”, which pretty much sums it up. The Catholic Bible I have reads on the cover page: The Revised Standard Version. Apparently, the Bible has been revised not only once, but several times, the last one being in 1966. It also stated that it was translated to English from Hebrew and Greek.  This indicates that it was not even their Bible they used to access the rich resources of our homeland and to get rid of the Indian problem, as they say.  

Today there are several denominations that have also created division among our people. My father kept his ancestors’ traditional beliefs and traditional ecological knowledge. He also read his bible every Sunday when he was on the land. He and his hunting partner(s) used to offer tobacco before killing an animal. I do the same thing to this day, I like spending time on the land. 

Education can be disruptive to our way of life too. We need to blend traditional survival skills and language with the current education system. The Pope can keep his apology, but I don’t think St. Peter will let him past the pearly gates leading to paradise when his time comes. This ex-bouncer (if that is true) is bound to meet his maker someday. 

According to their teachings, in order to go to heaven when we die, we have to earn it while living on earth, through sacrifices, free of sin, being good citizens and be kind to one another. It’s not exactly what we experienced at residential school. 

There were about 125 boys the last time I was there.  Most of us that were there have used alcohol and drugs and other substances excessively. I myself used alcohol for about 35 years. I have worked hard throughout my younger days and did some trapping, hunting and fishing. Whenever I need to, I have used the land for healing doing some small game hunting and ice fishing. It works for me. 

Of the 125 boys that were there most of them have passed on to the spirit world. I sometimes wish that we could meet in one of the northern reserves before we are all gone. A residential school reunion. As I get old, sick and slowing down from harvesting activities, I realize now that I need to look for a place to retire for my last days, I am hopeful that our younger generation will carry the work initially started in terms of community economic development and make a better place to live for our future generations.  

They are better educated than we were during the residential days. I only went up to Grade 4 and I was not permitted to talk in the boys’ room and dining room for 10 months of the year. I am glad to know that my granddaughter Cedar Iahtail, in her second year of university, is interested in the history of her ancestors,  treaty and inherent rights in particular. There is a lot of work to be done. But if work is done in a unified approach, you will find strength and nothing is impossible.

This concludes my brief article about my experiences at the residential school and the lasting impacts of its damaging effects to this day. 

Because of the fact that there is so much damage that’s been done, I don’t accept the Prime Minister’s apology. I worked as an economic development officer for 20 years to know this. 

Our people who went through these institutions have kept their horrible experiences for many years have not been very supportive with various undertakings and training projects. They said only white people can do these things.  A consulting firm used the term “ethnos stress”. This hinders economic development and as a result, it acts as a stumbling block for our communities to move forward that would otherwise become self-sufficient and self-reliant from utilizing our wildlife, renewable and natural resources. However, this is what residential schools were intended for: to assimilate Indigenous people into the mainstream society so that they can have access to our lands and resources. 

They used everything they could think of: starvation, torture, infectious diseases and various forms of abuse.  This is not acceptable. Some call residential schools prison. I am wondering if inmates of prisons are forced to eat their vomit, scheduled when to use washrooms, allowed to drink water from the tap to hydrate themselves, or allowed to talk and have visitors, strapped on electric chair for entertainment, physically, mentally, emotionally and verbally abused. Maybe the prisoners have better living conditions and treatment than we did at residential schools. 

Thinking back to that day on a plane with my grandmother, I wish I had asked her to open the door and throw this old priest out in mid-air. If I did, I would probably have died long ago on the electric chair. 

With that said, I don’t blame religion for what happened back then, the missionaries that administer those residential schools were only humans, not saints. They were probably doing what they were assigned to do or mandated by the government.  

They called us pigs, savages from the bush. But as everyone knows, they (the missionaries) were more “savage” than we were. The horrible crimes that have been committed against innocent Indigenous children and our people need to be investigated. Only then we can live a little easier and the TRC can move forward to its final implementation phase of its mandate. 

I am sorry if I offended anyone but the truth has to be told and be made known to the public at large. We were innocent children and human beings, separated by force from our homes and under the loving care of our parents.

“If God intended me to be a white man, he would have made me so,” Chief Sitting Bull.

May God the Creator bless you and keep you in good health.

Take care and be safe.

John Wabano/RS Survivor

This story was originally posted on June 20, 2021, and shared again on Sept. 30 for the inaugural National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.

A 24-hour national residential school crisis line to support former students and their families can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.