Trudging through mud so thick that it threatens to suck the shoes right off my feet, I make my way across a bustling construction site on the shores of Pelican Lake near Sioux Lookout, Ont. A cluster of small houses is surrounded by heavy Caterpillar machinery that lurches to and fro while workmen shout instructions to one another. As the labour continues, teenagers shuffle through the frosty autumn air toward a bleak series of low, portable structures wedged together to form a blue-and-white building not much larger than a basketball court. This is Pelican Falls First Nations High School.
According to Frank Beardy, executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council and the man who heads up construction, there is an underlying beauty here that I may not see.
The powerfully built Native elder assures me that this is a healing project in full swing. “Apologies are a very small step along the journey we are starting today,” says Beardy, bouncing his old Ford pickup truck across the construction site while explaining that he still speaks the Oji-Cree dialect fluently despite the severe remonstrations of his former teachers. “There was a lot of pain and suffering in there.” But, Beardy insists, the new school will be a grand replacement for the misery-inducing residential school that once dominated this spot.
Faced with an abusive environment, some children tried to run away. No one made the dash for freedom more often than Beardy. “I set the record for the most attempts at running away in a month. I took off 10 times,” he says proudly. Beardy was always rounded up, brought back to school and strapped. Others did not fare so well. At least two boys who ran away from the school some 50 years ago have never been found. The families are still searching. “It’s a very sad chapter, and one of the reasons we had a hard time deciding to build on this site,” says Beardy.
The legacy of such religious outposts is a painful one, but these days many victims and abusers are struggling to come to terms with the past, build in the present, and prepare for the future. “I felt, and still feel, that I have good reason for rebelling. But I also think this site is a place of healing for me and my family,” says Beardy, whose son graduated from the high school in 1997. “When I think of that old school and what went on there, it saddens me, angers me and gives me a feeling of being weak,” he adds. “I want to set my life and my children’s lives back on track. I want to feel empowered.” — D.N.