Survivors of Canada's residential schools recall 'shoebox babies,' horrific abuse

Canada, those responsible must be held accountable for physical, mental and sexual abuse at residential schools, say survivors.

Survivors of Canada's residential schools recall 'shoebox babies,' horrific abuse

It was 1971 when Geraldine Lee Shingoose, a survivor from Canada's controversial Muscowequan residential school, decided she was not going back after experiencing horrific abuses.

While the UN began to mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9 every year since 1982, Shingoose remembers the trauma suffered at the residential school like it was yesterday.

Set up by the Canadian government beginning in the 1820s, 150,000 Indigenous children attended the schools, where a large number of students were subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse and many contracted diseases. It is estimated that as many as 6,000 died.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency via video link, Shingoose said: "It was hard for me especially the first few years because what I only understood, was Saulteaux (her mother tongue) and that's all I spoke, that's how I communicated. We were punished for speaking our language, like multiple times."

Shingoose attended the school for nine years from 1962 until 1971.

She belongs to the Bear clan and hails from Tootinaowaziibeeng First Nation, Treaty 4 Territory in Manitoba province.

Recalling that her school years were "really hard," she said the students were not allowed to leave the premises during breaks or weekends.

"It really damaged my spirit," she said, adding that the priests and the nuns at the schools gave "demeaning, degrading messages" to native children such as claiming they were "stupid, sinners" and that they were going "to hell."

"So I came out of there with really low self-esteem... and I came out of there like a really shy, broken girl," Shingoose said.

Holding back her tears, she narrated the physical abuse she suffered at the school.

"I experienced a lot of trauma to the head from our grade 3 teacher. He would walk up and down the aisles and have his hand in his jacket and randomly he would back-hand us or punch us in the head, mostly in the ear section," she said.

She said she would scream in pain but that only resulted in repeated beatings.

"I came to learn to be quiet after he would back-hand me or punch me or slap me," she said, adding that she suffers hearing loss and uses a hearing aid.

"Of course, there was sexual abuse too ... the night times were the hardest.

"You didn't know if you were going to be the one picked that night. They would come in and get us like the brother, the nuns... But I don't share too much about the sexual abuse because it's very hard."

Being taken away from her family was the hardest part, she said, because the sacred bond of Indigenous people between a parent and a child was broken.

"Also they force their religion on ours, (they) could never recognize that we had our own way of life. It took many years after for me to reconnect with my identity," she added.

After a long healing process and with the support of her father, Shingoose, who is now a great grand-mother, said she was able to re-connect with her Indigenous culture.

Pope failed to 'acknowledge sexual abuse'

"It's really important for people to listen to survivors and our stories and hearing it firsthand is more meaningful," she said.

Those responsible for the tragic incidents must "be held responsible and justice needs to be served," she added.

Citing Pope Francis' "penitential pilgrimage" made to Canada recently, she said she attended the Pope's meeting with the Indigenous people at Maskwacis, near Edmonton, with an "open-heart, open-mind."

Describing his message "very meaningful," she said many survivors, herself included, broke into tears.

However, she said, the Pope failed to "acknowledge sexual abuse."

She also criticized the Pope for using English, a language the Indigenous people were forced to learn, to deliver his address.

"It was only two words he had to say, 'I'm sorry'. But he chose to say it in his language. So the apology didn't mean anything to me. I left there broken, they opened me up and I felt retraumatized, broken," she said.

Noting that the Pope did not apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church, Shingoose stressed "the federal government of Canada, the Catholic Church, and RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), all three of them are responsible for that genocide .''

More survivors

Gertie Pierre is another survivor from St. Mary Mission Residential School in British Columbia.

In the 10 years she spent there, Pierre said they had to pray and attend masses every day multiple times.

"I remember they used to give us oatmeal... A lot of us would be throwing it up because there was maggots in the oatmeal," she said, speaking to Anadolu Agency via video link.

Many children would throw up at the dining table but "the brother or the sister would be feeding it back into them."

The nights were terrible, she recalled, saying she was only four beds away from the dreaded door from which a man would enter and in the presence of a nun "pick up the girl by the door and she'd be whimpering away crying."

"Later on in years, I heard about all the sexual abuse that was going on," she said.

Her four brothers and older sister -- who also attended residential schools -- experienced sexual abuse, she said.

Additionally to sexual abuse, Pierre also talked about the physical, mental and emotional abuse at the controversial schools.

"You were always punished," she said, adding that she does not remember how many times she got slapped.

After grade 10, she told her family that she will not return to school.

Later, Pierre said her mother got a job for her at a residential school where she met her husband.

"If I had a bad time in residential school, his was worse. He went to Kuper Island and they called that Alcatraz because it was in the middle of the water and kids were drowned trying to escape from that residential school," she said, talking about her husband's experience.

Following a long and difficult journey of healing, Pierre said she learned to forgive and no longer blamed her parents for being the way they were.

"My mom saw a little girl being killed at residential school and she held that in all her life. She never talked about it, because in residential school, the nuns would tell you 'whatever you see, whatever you hear, whatever is spoken, you never talk about it'," she said.

Her mom held that secret until she was on her deathbed, dying of cancer.

Pierre eventually graduated from the University of British Columbia at age 65 with a Bachelor's degree in social work.

'Shoebox babies'

Bruce Allan is another survivor who attended the Lejac Indian Residential School in British Columbia (BC) from 1967 to 1976.

Hailing from the Stellat'en First Nations, Allan said the intention of the residential schools was "genocide."

"They wouldn't openly admit that, they say cultural genocide but the intention was to get rid of us," he said, also speaking to Anadolu Agency via video link.

He said the discovery of mass graves in the school compounds and the Pope's recent visit has triggered many survivors and some are just now sharing their story.

"For years and years survivors have been saying there are unmarked graves. They have witnessed the murders of children. They have witnessed the burning of children in furnaces, they have witnessed the priests and nuns burying babies. They call them the shoebox babies because they would fit in the shoe box and they would be buried under school ground and unmarked graves," he said.

"A lot of that trauma has been passed down through the generations," he said, adding that the journey to healing would take time.

"Canada needs to be held accountable" and that the Pope needs to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery -- a contentious 15th Century papal edict that allowed explorers to take land from non-Christian countries with impunity.