‘Each child was so alone’: Memoir details workers’ experience at former Anglican-run residential school

Nancy Dyson and children from St. Michael's Residential School watching preparations for the potlatch, Alert Bay, B.C., 1970. Photo: Dan Rubenstein
Published July 6, 2021

For nearly half a century, Nancy Dyson and Dan Rubenstein rarely spoke about their experience as childcare workers at the Alert Bay Student Residence, better known as St. Michael’s Indian Residential School.

The Anglican Church of Canada first established a day school at its mission in Alert Bay in 1878. In 1929 it opened a new residential school building on the site, St. Michael’s. In 1969, the federal government formally took control of all church-run residential schools across Canada. Many of the old staff members and culture remained—as did the policies that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has described as “cultural genocide.” Indigenous children sent to residential schools were forcibly removed from their parents, forbidden from speaking their own languages or practicing their own cultural traditions, and often subjected to emotional, physical, sexual and mental abuse.

In the summer of 1970, Nancy and Dan—who were originally from the United States and had gotten married in March of that year—arrived in Vancouver after a period of travel. “We decided to stay awhile in Canada,” Nancy recalls, “a country which seemed more benign and compassionate than the United States, which was then severely polarized by the Vietnam War.” They responded to an ad for childcare workers at the Alert Bay Student Residence and were quickly hired. For four months they worked at the school. The conditions they saw there left them deeply shaken.

In June, Nancy and Dan released a memoir of their experiences, St Michael’s Residential School: Lament and Legacy. The couple’s second published title and first non-fiction work, the book appeared as Canada was rocked by the discovery of vast numbers of unmarked graves at residential schools. While many—particularly residential school survivors—have said they are not surprised, other Canadians have reacted with shock and anger, prompting a wave of responses, including toppling statues, renaming streets and institutions, and calls for cancelling Canada Day. At the time of writing, more unmarked graves at former residential school sites continue to be discovered.

The Anglican Journal spoke with Nancy and Dan about their experience at St. Michael’s, the wider context of residential schools in Canada and prospects for reconciliation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In May, the remains of 215 children were found on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School established by the Roman Catholic Church. Since then many hundreds more unmarked graves have been found at other sites. What’s been going through your mind as you’ve heard about these stories in the news?

Nancy Dyson: The first thing that I thought about is the fact that it’s totally understandable, because there seemed to be little or no documentation about the children. In the school we were in, we saw no records—where the children came from, who their parents were, who their siblings were. There were rumours among the children actually that other children had been buried in the woods behind the school, and later on websites—things that weren’t proven, but certainly there were rumours to that effect. So it was tragic [news], but I wasn’t surprised.

Dan Rubenstein: My reaction … the sadness brought tears, because we’re just remembering all those vulnerable, lovely children that we knew. But the thing about this system, it made me think about the Indian residential school system and the fact that those children had no one to turn to, had no one that was providing oversight for them, nobody that was watching out for them. They were torn apart from their parents. They were totally on their own, and often there was violence between the children. Each child was so alone.

Then I also thought about the culture within the residential school that we saw, that they were very insular and the principal had a great deal of authority. There was no obvious oversight from anybody in Vancouver or elsewhere on any kind of regular basis. There had been little oversight by the diocese or the federal government. Each school operated in a high degree of isolation.

I appreciated the excerpts from the TRC’s final report that are scattered throughout the memoir. Experiences varied in different parts of the country and different schools, but it’s remarkable how you’ll describe an experience you had and then quote the TRC showing that people across Canada had similar experiences.

DR: I was struck with that. Before we signed on, I saw a report by Global News. They had a survivor of the Kamloops Residential School who was describing the military regime, the extreme discipline, the corporal punishment for any infraction. It sounded like what we observed.

ND: I was saddened because the unmarked graves were tragic, but also the children who survived the school experience and left had high rates of suicide and addictions. When we tried to trace the children we worked with, we were told by many Indigenous folks, “Those children are dead.” It was just such a stark thing. They were younger than we are, and many of them died. So the casualties were much greater.

How surprised were you to discover the poor conditions at St. Michael’s?

ND: It was shocking. We didn’t know about residential schools. We were new to Canada. We didn’t know much about the Indigenous history in Canada. From travelling through Canada, we thought Canada was just such a great, kind, compassionate, benign society. Then we were there and it was like, what planet have we arrived on? It was very, very distant from anything I had ever seen.

DR: It’s not like any other culture or any other place I’ve been in ever since. I’ve done quite a bit of travelling and volunteered in the developing world and been part of poverty; I’ve never seen anything like it. It was just this unique little subculture that wasn’t part of Canada, it wasn’t part of the Anglican Church, it wasn’t part of anything.

ND: In most places in the world, children are cherished. It’s almost a universal tendency to love and protect young ones. It was just absent [at St. Michael’s]. It was not there. In place of that was cruelty, and a great desire to control and discipline the children.

What was life for the children like?

ND: What we saw was children who were taken forcefully from their families, their communities, their culture, where their culture and their language were suppressed. The ratio of children to staff was horrendous. In a classroom you can have 25 children, perhaps. But the residence was where they lived. That was in lieu of a home.

The malnutrition was very serious. The lack of play equipment and lack of activities, all the emphasis on doing things correctly, the impersonal nature of those dormitories—I don’t know about you, as a kid I had my toys and my books and all of that, but I also had things that reminded me of home and I had rocks and shells and feathers and bits of moss. The children had nothing. They had one locker, which was kept locked. It wasn’t theirs, it belonged to the school.

Being stripped of everything—our first morning, when we saw those four children arrive and their hair was cut and their clothing was cut away and thrown into the fire in front of them, I still feel very emotional when I think of that scene. That was just dehumanizing. When we asked, “Is this necessary?” the matron said, “Lice.” She really didn’t understand the question.

DR: I just feel all these children with no voice, and if they’d been abused or if they saw another child who was no longer sleeping beside them, who could they tell? They were separated from their parents and there was just nobody to tell. They were all alone. Being that age and being in a dangerous environment—that’s my overriding impression.

ND: The sexual abuse we didn’t see, aside from some of the teenage girls prostituting on the docks. But it wasn’t on our radar. I think it’s partly our personal age—we were young—but also in society at that time, we didn’t talk a lot about sexual abuse and predation. But like the unmarked graves, it’s not surprising that it happened.

Occasionally you would talk to a staff member and ask, “Should you really be strapping the kids?” Every time, they would respond, “Well, they need discipline. All kids across Canada are strapped.” Nowadays we tend to have very different attitudes on corporal punishment. But the people who worked at these places convinced themselves that they were doing something good for the children.

ND: A pamphlet from the church [promoting residential schools] was at the Delta Hotel when the [TRC] reports were tabled, which was shocking. The pamphlet was written in 1933. It was part of the archival evidence, but there should have some sort of redaction. Maybe that was an oversight. But it clearly conveyed the idea that the Indigenous children were savage, primitive, heathen children, so they needed to be reformed and disciplined and turned into something else. I think that was underlying a lot of the harshness.

DR: I think it’s going to be very hard for some of your older readers—they went through the days when every Sunday in the church, they would read the reports about the residential schools. Melanie Delva [reconciliation animator for the Anglican Church of Canada] showed me some of the reports that would be sent out to the parishioners describing the school, and it was a very happy picture.  In the photos, students were chopping wood and they were farming and from 6 a.m. they were busy. They had a farm at one time at St. Michael’s. That’s what [Anglicans] believed in and they gave money to it. They donated and they thought that they were doing God’s work.

Then when the TRC finally came out and all this, it must have been just really devastating for these people, and very hard for them to accept what the TRC was saying, and frankly what we say in the book, too. And I acknowledge that.

ND: We were just shocked because we arrived there, we didn’t know anything, we didn’t have any preconceptions. But I think for people who contributed and believed it was doing good, it was a shock to read about the TRC and the conditions. I can accept that people didn’t know. But now they do, and I have a problem with those people who deny.

DR: Recently, the denial thing has become more prominent. Conrad Black produced two editorials in the National Post in March where he challenged the truth of the TRC findings and challenged the use of [the word] genocide. My response to that is that what he’s denying are the words of the survivors, and when it comes to the school, the survivors are the experts. They are the ones that know, and when you say that it didn’t happen, that is so hurtful to them.

Through our friendship with Chief [Robert] Joseph [ambassador for Reconciliation Canada and a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council], we’ve understood how shared understanding of the truth becomes part of reconciliation. When I first talked to Chief Joseph, calling his office, I started to weep and I was shocked. I’m an auditor; I’m a fairly hardboiled guy. When I was weeping and I talked about how sad it was—well, then we had a common basis for friendship and truth, because it was obvious that Nancy and I accepted what had happened to him, and then we could move on to a new future. I realized how important that was for his healing and his sense of reconciliation.

My point is, when people deny his suffering and what happened to him and the other survivors, then it just stops the train of reconciliation. It stops it dead.

ND: We joined an online vigil for the children in Kamloops and it was led by Reconciliation Canada, so Robert Joseph and two of his daughters were leading it along with Indigenous folks from across the country. One man—he’s Indigenous, he’s an intergenerational survivor—said, “I’m full of anger and rage, but I don’t want to go there. I’m not allowing myself that.” The others supported him and said, “Truth and love are our defiance, our resistance, our journey forward.”

I have been absolutely amazed at how forgiving people like Robert Joseph are, because he went through St. Michael’s. He was abused in all ways, and he said, “When you found the man lying in the grass drunk, that could have been me.” When he left the school, he said, he had to heal himself and then heal his family and all the bonds that were broken. His daughters talked about being intergenerational survivors and how they were impacted by their father’s experience. When children haven’t been loved, how can they show love to others?

The residential school system destroyed families and cultures. But also in the book, you talk about how “cruelty begets cruelty,” such as some children bullying others. Some residential school survivors describe being referred to by number rather than name. Was that the case at St. Michael’s?

ND: I think they were given Anglo names. The kids from more remote areas would have had other names and they would have been renamed.

DR: The point I wanted to make for your readers is that I was a former auditor, so the question of fairness and balance was paramount to me. In part two [of the book], I wanted to show the new face of your church, with Melanie Delva and with [National Indigenous] Archbishop Mark MacDonald. I wanted to show how open they were to discussing what happened. That’s a real achievement for your faith, and I wanted to be fair about that. If we talked about where they were in 1935, in fairness, you have to talk about where they are post-TRC.

Did you ever talk to Melanie Delva or Mark MacDonald about the pamphlet that you saw at the TRC closing ceremony and why that was not redacted?

DR: Melanie frankly called it “church propaganda.” She was the one who gave me the materials, because she was an archivist. She knew the things that were handed out. She was always quite forthright about it.

ND: I think the survivors want recognition of the harm, and they want people to join them in speaking to truth, hearing the truth, and moving forward in good faith. None of us can undo the history.  Obviously there are many different points of view among Indigenous peoples as there are in any other group.

The first time I heard the phrase “cultural genocide” was when the TRC released its final report. The Anglican Church of Canada has also spoken often about the Doctrine of Discovery in recent years and produced a documentary about it. However, in the book, you describe hearing in 1970 about a professor, Morris Opler, who had been looking at residential schools in the United States and called it “cultural genocide” and spoke about the Doctrine of Discovery. All these same concepts were known at the time.

ND: We were lucky. Dan’s mother [Erica] was an art historian, had a PhD from Radcliffe, Harvard, [was] avid about history and research, and Dan’s father was an artist, happened to have this friend Morris Opler who was researching the impact of residential schools in the U.S. Erica loved to do research, so we said, “What’s happening in the States?” And she got on it.  Morrie introduced us to the term “cultural genocide.”

But we really do lament the fact that when we left the school, we didn’t keep advocating. We didn’t keep protesting or trying to better the lives of the children, and felt, wrongly, that the trauma had ended, the abuse had ended, and things would be OK when the school closed in 1974.

DR: It could have been meaningful, because we left in ’70. The last school closed in ’96. The children were still languishing. What’s so tragic about this thing, the government desperately wanted to get out of this business. If there’d been more protests, if there’d been any kind of civic action, they would have left sooner, I’m sure. Empirically, when the churches were out of it in 1969, the government began to close the system down,  largely because of the economics of it.

Boys from St. Michael’s take a boat ride. Photo: Contributed

From 1940—and we talk about this in the book—the government wanted to pull out and the churches wouldn’t. All of them wouldn’t allow for it. What the government wanted to do was to switch to day schools. They could have moved schools to these remote areas where our children came from—not our children, but the children in the school came from. Then they wouldn’t have been in the residential schools, and that would have made such a huge difference if they’d been able to switch policy.

ND: I noticed Dan just slipped and used the phrase “our children.” When we wrote one of the early drafts of the book, I wrote it as “my girls” or “Dan’s boys,” and our adult children called us on it and said, “They were never your children.” Then we rewrote the book very carefully. Of course they weren’t our children.

You describe an astonishing moment when the principal, “Mr. Roberts” [not his real name], says, “I wish the Indians would just understand that their children are ours, not theirs.”

DR: Legally, he was right. Morally he wasn’t. But we wanted to make clear that that was the way the laws were. Everyone was under duress. Now, the TRC does say that there were some that came voluntarily and there’s some that the parents sent voluntarily. The TRC was quite even-handed about that and said there were lighter moments and some people had a good experience. But the overall system was harmful.

ND: We have friends who deny the severity of the trauma. One of the things we hear is, “Well, some people made friends or found their mate.” Yes, and people met their mates in concentration camps and that was a happy thing. But it doesn’t mean the concentration camp was not malevolent.

The other thing we often hear is, “Well, British boarding schools were no fun, either.” Well, they weren’t cultural genocide. Discipline was harsh, and I don’t think that really excuses being harsh in another context, either. To me that’s not justification. That doesn’t make any sense.

In our book, we try to be fair, because a lot of the families—two homes we visited [where parents of St. Michael’s students lived] were not safe places for children. The parents were broken. How do you end that? I still have questions about the solutions, but I think we have to see the truth of it to start finding solutions.

DR: We wanted to find the truth for ourselves. That’s why we visited those two families, and it was disturbing. But the solution was not taking these kids and putting them in this government-run warehouse. The TRC says that in 1970, 60% of the kids were probably in the school for social welfare reasons. Now what the TRC says [is] “OK, that’s a fact, but then give them the services that they would need.” A residential school was not the right alternative for them.

The period we describe was a transitional period in the school. We still had the legacy of when the Anglican Church was there, and some of the former employees and the traditions and the values that had been there. But then you had the government having taken them all over in ’69 and there was a new regime.

If I feel a sense of betrayal, it’s not with the Anglicans. It wasn’t an Anglican institution in 1970. It was the Canadian flag that was flying in the administrator’s office, and the federal government was running the school. They assumed these schools; they had to do something. What disturbed me is—and I’m speaking more as an auditor here—there was no sense of policy about what to do with the schools. They inherited them, they’d had 100 years to think about what they were going to do when this time came.

The other thing that was deeply disturbing was the lack of procedures. When the first deputy minister took over in ’69 he was absolutely appalled that there were no procedures, no criteria for which kids could be in a residential school.  That part was pretty bleak. I just wrote a letter to my MP saying, “You need to alert the prime minister [Justin Trudeau] that this book is coming out, and it may get some coverage. We talk about the policies of your late father, and your late father was the guy responsible for this school and the White Paper.”

In words, the Canadian government now recognizes the intergenerational trauma caused by colonial policies such as the residential schools. Yet there are still boil-water advisories on reserves, the government is building pipelines across Indigenous land…

ND: …a disproportionate number of Indigenous children in [foster] care…

There are the 94 Calls to Action from the TRC, but the federal government doesn’t seem to be acting on many of those.

Elders and honorary guests at the totem-raising ceremony, Alert Bay, B.C., 1970. Photo: Dan Rubenstein

DR: I want to share what I learned from Chief Joseph, who’s been a wonderful teacher. When we started out [writing the book], I corresponded with Ry [Moran, founding director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation]. I wrote to him just in the last couple weeks or so and he said, “I remember meeting you and I’m glad you tabled your report with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.” But what I’ve learned from Chief Joseph is: “It’s not going to be the official government policies, it’s not going to be the apologies, it’s not going to be the monuments—it’s going to be thousands of friendships like yours and mine that change this country.”

I try to stay attuned with Reconciliation Canada and find out what concerns he has about what’s happening, to be cognizant of those and be respectful of those and support those. So I think he’s right, that there are going to be so many conversations.

It seems that’s part of the reason you wrote this book. You put together a petition to the government about poor conditions at St. Michael’s during the time you were actually working there. That didn’t appear to have much of an effect in terms of the government listening to your concerns.

ND: To this day, we don’t know if [government officials] came in response to the petition or whether it was just a routine visit. I always thought, until recently, that they were the ones who told Mr. Roberts about our being troublemakers. But it may have been the other staff who went to Mr. Roberts and said, “They really embarrassed the rest of us and you when they listed the concerns.” I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. If Dan hadn’t been fired, we were going to leave anyway. It’s a bit of a badge of honour, frankly.

When Dan started contacting people for information or endorsements and said, “My wife and I have written a book about our experience in residential school back in 1970,” I said, “You have to tell the people you’re corresponding with where we’re coming from. You have to say we were horrified then and we’re horrified to this day”—not that we were writing a denial.

DR: Or an apology. Initially, Indigenous people were rightly concerned about that, because it’s so hurtful. I thought quite a bit about reconciliation and the interrelationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. That’s very much a mutual thing, and that’s a conversation. But then there’s another aspect, which is all the non-Indigenous people reconciling with our collective history.

That’s what I think many non-Indigenous people are going through today, as they watch The National and read about these reports. They’re trying to say, “How can a good country do this, and how can you reconcile with it?” I have to say, personally, that after 51 years and after some thought, I can’t reconcile with our history. I just cannot do it. I can reconcile with Indigenous people, but I can’t reconcile with our history.

As you mentioned, you were at St. Michael’s during a transitional time. On the one hand, there’s the story of children drawing orcas in traditional Indigenous styles which enraged a staff member, “Edgar” [not his real name]. But also at the time you were there, they had totems outside and the potlatch had recently been made legal again.

ND: But that was under the federal government. Within the school, that would not have happened. I think Mr. Roberts let the children go [to the totem raising] because there was probably no way to not have them be present, and he wanted to show them off. He wanted them to be there with faces washed and hair combed and their Sunday clothes on. They were tokens.

DR: Just on the subject of Mr. Roberts, some books portray the headmasters of these schools in a harsh light and almost in a wooden light. We wanted to be fair to this individual. He was a multifaceted fellow.   We very much did not want to portray him as we found him to be.

ND: He was a harsh disciplinarian, but he wasn’t cruel. He didn’t lose it in the same sense that Edgar did.

DR: There were other child-care workers that brought a humanity to the school.

I think it was Archbishop Mark MacDonald who put his finger on it. We quote from him in the book. [To paraphrase:] It’s hard for people to understand systems of evil, and within those systems of evil, there are some good people, there are some good things happening. But they’re still within a system of evil. [Archbishop MacDonald] is such a deep thinker and a man of few words, but boy, when he comes out with them, you listen.

Archbishop MacDonald has said that people often view racism as an individual issue, when in reality it’s a systemic issue. Your book is a reminder that the people who worked in the residential schools weren’t cartoon villains; they were human beings with all their complexities. You describe one part where Edgar sees a puppy and his face softens.

DR: Chief Joseph keeps saying, we have to understand the truth, all the hard truths. We try to include those, and that’s like visiting the families, and some of the things that the kids did to each other. That was reality.

But I want to come back to the point that you made about the system and the systematic nature of [racism and colonialism]. Up until I read the 4,000 pages of TRC reports, I knew what we experienced. But I didn’t know two things: I didn’t know whether we were an isolated case, or whether we were part of a systematic program; and I didn’t know how and why this happened.

Then through the TRC, I realized that oh my God, no, this wasn’t an isolated case. This was a system and I was just shocked by the congruence between what we had observed and described and what I found in the TRC. The only notable exception was that we didn’t observe the sexual abuse.

You quoted Chief Joseph as suggesting that change will ultimately come through conversations. It is quite interesting that just as you are releasing this book, more Canadians than ever are learning the truth about the residential schools. What do you hope that people get out of reading this book?

ND: I’d hope that they’ll believe the stories that the survivors tell. The survivors are the ones who speak the truth, and we’re just giving witness to their accounts. And Indigenous leaders [have] said, “Unfortunately, there may be people who can hear your story and believe it who may not believe Indigenous people.”

Also, I think some of the survivors’ accounts, which I read—the abuse and the despair is so raw that at times, I have found it very painful to read. I think our book, while it describes very serious and disturbing facts, it doesn’t have that personal despair.

DR: It’s a little bit hopeful. It’s not a hopeless story. What makes it hopeful is the conversation that happens with Chief Joseph and others. That’s to me what adds a future to it.

We’re having this moment where we’re collectively beginning to think about the truth. Let’s sustain this moment and keep exploring the truth and then use a shared understanding of the truth to form a new relationship between our Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. That’s what I hope—that it’s a sustained conversation.

ND: I know a lot of churches in Ottawa and across the nation had study groups and social action groups to look at residential schools when the TRC tabled its report.  This year some congregations focused on clean water, including water on northern territories. But it’s almost like we’ve moved on—ticked that box and now we’re moving on to the next social issue. It isn’t solved. We need to keep it ongoing.

DR: For the survivors and all their families and the various generations, they’re just living with this every day. They wish that they could just move on. As Chief Joseph says to us, for some of them, it just never leaves them, and that destroys them. To me, it’s being respectful that for however many generations that the pain and suffering goes on, we have to be empathetic in that conversation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Until it leaves their hearts and souls, it’ll never leave our conversations, and I accept that. That’s just fine. I heartily embrace it.

St Michael’s Residential School: Lament and Legacy is published by Ronsdale Press and available in bookstores across Canada and online.  The authors will donate royalties to support groups for survivors, including the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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