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'They wanted to brainwash us'


11 June 2008 / BBC News

Susie Jones, 72, spent 12 years at the Shingwauk residential school in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, in eastern Canada. She is the president of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association.

 "I come from an Ojibwe community where about 550 children were sent to residential schools from 1873 to 1962.

I was sent to the Shingwauk residential school in 1940, at the age of four-and-a-half. The school was about 720km (450 miles) from my home.

The law was that children went at six, but the premise was to assimilate the children, to brainwash us into the European way, and the best way to do that was to get the children at an early age. They would fudge our age on the paperwork to make it look as though they were obeying the law.

I was taken there in a car with other children my age. We were taken into the school and stripped of clothing and doused with kerosene to kill lice, because they assumed we all had lice.

Every day was the same. We woke up to a bell. We did our chores and had breakfast, the same every day. The porridge had mouse droppings in it, and often they served it early and by the time we sat down it was cold. To this day I don't eat breakfast.

There wasn't a lot of money to run the school. Lunch and dinner was what we called a one-pot meal, and we rarely had meat. There was never any fruit except once a year at Christmas.

Emotional toll

Slapping and hitting on the head was common.

If one us did something wrong, we would all have to stand in line and get slapped on the hand. Kids who wet the bed were beaten with a strap. Some children were shut in a cupboard under the stairs for hours if they did something wrong.

I am not aware of there having been any sexual abuse at my school, but there was always psychological abuse, and the emotional abuse is often uncounted.

They would say things like, "If you don't do this you will go to Hell", and "Do you know that you are children of the devil?"

You had a fear put in you, it was part of the brain-washing. You learn to shut your feelings down.

We knew we couldn't talk to the staff because most of them didn't care about our personal being. Their main goal was to Christianise us. We were numbers - "This year, 120 children that are no longer uncivilised Indians."

I was kept at school over the summers until I was eight, when I was finally allowed home to see my mother.

When people ask what my relationship with her was like, I say there was none. She was like a total stranger to me.

My life is evidence that the system works. When I left I only spoke English, and I didn't even know what kind of Indian I was. I thought I was Cherokee.

When I left school I moved to the US but I continued to attend church. I met a man on a trip back home and we got married, had six children and have been together for 53 years.

Forced apology

I never stopped being an Indian, I just didn't know what it meant. We moved back to the reserve when I retired, and it's been a process since then.

I believe the aboriginal people of Canada were very spiritual. Their lives were centred on the creator. When we came into the white man's world, this world of greed, our spirituality was gone.

The system robbed me of kinship and community and everything that entails. Most people don't know what it means because they don't have it. I have no family to ask questions of, I never knew any of my grandparents.

My brother and I are only just connecting.

I've never felt anger, though. Anger is self-absorbed. Now I'm trying to build bridges, because there is a real lack of awareness about what happened. This isn't in the history books.

Someone once asked me, "Why don't natives trust the education system?" I said, "You're kidding me, right?" He hadn't heard of residential schools.

I think people think we are Canadian and we should be the ones to straighten up and fly right. I was speaking at a school, and I was asked what advice I would give the children. I said don't place your values on the people you are serving. That is what they did to us as a people.

As for the government's apology, it is a forced apology. We are being pacified. And an apology that stems from their perception of what they did to me has no value.

I would like to see some action to go along with the apology. I would like more funding for our traditional way of healing, and for our justice system.

I want our rules instead of their rules."

2008 Jun 11