I visited Sampson on the Siska Indian Band Reserve five kilometres south of Lytton. It’s here on a reserve that has an estimated 90 per cent unemployment rate that the 42-year-old artist coaxes beautiful images from soapstone and works as a band councillor. Sampson tells stories through his carving. He also tells a gruesome tale of being abused at St. George’s as a child, then wandering western Canada as a younger man, despairing that the nightmares of his residential-school experiences would ever cease, before eventually considering suicide.
"I looked down the barrel of my own shotgun," says Sampson, recalling the depths to which he sank as a 28-year-old hard drinker and drug abuser. "The gun was loaded, with the hammer back and the barrel underneath my chin. All that was needed was two or three more ounces of pressure on the trigger and it was all over." Sampson’s only explanation for not killing himself is that he wanted to give his art one more try. "My sense of humour has allowed me to survive – I would rather laugh than cry – but it’s my art that has really saved me." A husband and father, Sampson supports his family in part by selling his carvings, some of which command thousands of dollars, while other pieces grace museums and galleries.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have an artistic muse whose call drowns out the humiliation of having been assaulted and made to feel worthless, ashamed and even guilty. The worst victims in Lytton, says Sampson, were those grown men who were suddenly subpoenaed as witnesses in the Mowatt case. "When they got handed a piece of paper they knew their secret was out. They thought, ‘Everybody’s gonna know that I let this guy do it to me for candy,’" Sampson says. "Handing out those papers was one of the biggest mistakes the government ever made. Eight guys killed themselves that summer. There was Anthony, John, Michael, Nelson, Pete, Carl … they were some of the toughest guys in town," he continues. Some of the deaths were classed as "accidental," but Sampson doesn’t agree. "The other residential school victims know what killed them."
Victims of abuse are not restricted to those who were attacked; family members, friends and sometimes even entire communities are suffering as a result of what went on at residential schools.
Spousal abuse is one extremely common repercussion. "There is enormous abuse of women and girls," says Mary Wells, a Toronto-based social worker and expert on sexual abuse. Regardless of what the figure is, one fact is known, Wells says. "Basic parenting skills were lost as a result of residential schools, which left behind an enormous residue of anger and self-hatred."